“Rage against the dying of language”

“‘Dahwdezeldiin’ koht’aene kenaege’,
ukesdezt’aet.
Yaane’ koht’aene yaen’,
nekenaege’ nadahdelna.
Koht’aene kenaege’ k’os nadestaan.’

“(I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.
Only the elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.
There are not many words anyhow.
They are scattered like clouds.)

“John Elvis Smelcer, writing in Ahtna language, Alaska.

“Today 7,000 languages are spoken. Fully half are expected to die out before the year 2100, continuing a centuries-long trend. Half of all people in the world speak 25 main languages. Every year these large linguistic groups expand at the expense of the smaller languages.

Natural disaster, legal suppression and forced migration all play their part in this process of linguistic extinction. But sometimes native speakers have advocated abandoning their language. In the late 18th century, some educated Scots suggested that speaking primarily Scots dialect deprived intelligent ambitious people from communicating with English-speaking audiences. Speaking English would allow Scots greater opportunities. Indeed, it was after English became favoured over Scots that Scottish individuals came to be disproportionately represented among Britain’s leading thinkers, scientists, engineers, writers and entrepreneurs.

“The fact that over 800 languages are still spoken in Papua New Guinea – the least colonised, least explored and most ethnically diverse region in the world today – is hardly a coincidence. There is a sadly inexorable process of absorption when an indigenous tribal culture comes into contact with a larger, more technologically advanced and more militarily powerful group. It seems that improved medical care, better literacy, efficient sanitation and centrally codified laws necessarily entail the lessening of ties to a population’s traditional heritage….”

Read the full review on Spiked website here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/06/01/rage-against-the-dying-of-language/

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (Folio Society)

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This new edition of the collected poems of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) brings together Larkin’s poems published in his lifetime and his own photographs for the first time in book format. The book is handsome and pieces work very well.

This edition has introductions from editor Anthony Thwaite and biographer Andrew Motion. Motion discusses the connections between Larkin and photography. Larkin was influenced by photographs and made them the subject of some poems. The device allowed Larkin to use more temporal distance and emotional detachment whilst permitting detailed visual description. Yet Larkin did not always use emotional detachment, as Larkin knew and exploited the personal responses he had to viewing photographs. Photographs were ways of preserving memories and interacting with these images generated new responses – melancholic, wry, sad, cynical, sentimental.

From his teenage years on, Larkin was a proficient and enthusiastic amateur photographer. His hobby of cycling and church visiting went in tandem with his photograph taking. He also photographed friends and scenes around him. These have been the subject of exhibition and publication, although these have treated the photographs as adjuncts to Larkin the poet. Whether or not Larkin’s photography stands as an independent body remains to be determined. Photographs in this book include those of Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan (long-term romantic interests), his mother, himself and scenes of Hull and local countryside. Some of the selected images are those Larkin marked for cropping.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

Larkin very rarely left Great Britain and his writing is characterised by its intense affection-repulsion complex regarding the British, specifically the English and Englishness. “Show Sunday” describes the course of a day at a country fair; “The Whitsun Weddings” is an account of travelling by train and observing newlywed couples boarding the train. “Going, Going” laments the commercialisation and industrialisation of England and the degradation of the country he considered irrevocably lost to him. He blames companies, social policies and people generally. “[…] greeds / and garbage are too thick-strewn / to be swept up now […]” Larkin’s misanthropy is never very far away. He sees the English working class as saviour and destroyer of English culture, a cultural ecosystem that is fragile and degrading yet still capable of coarse vitality. It reminds us that environmental concern is not the preserve of the political left or right but temperamental in outlook.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

The selection and arrangement of verse by Thwaite is almost ideal. Thwaite admits being in error for the editing of the first Collected Poems of Larkin, performed just after Larkin’s death. Rather than abiding by Larkin’s carefully judged ordering of poems in their original collections, Thwaite broke up the poems and ordered them chronologically. This contradicted Larkin’s wishes. He stated often that he carefully arranged his selections in order to heighten drama and direct the mood of readers. This volume has the poems sequenced in the order of original publication in books, with a selection of published and uncollected verse at the end. Thwaite has correctly decided to exclude Larkin’s juvenilia, published while he was at Oxford University. He has also excluded all unpublished pieces, which is not entirely satisfactory. A few fine pieces, which Larkin deemed too raw to publish in his lifetime, are omitted. The means the volume lacks a couple of powerful poems (“Ape Experiment Room”, “Love Again”) and the unfinished “The Dance”, which is a loss.

I spotted one error. The couplet “When the Russian tanks roll westward” omits the prefatory quotation quoted in Larkin’s letter of 22 August 1969 to C.B. Cox. It is a small thing but as easy to get right as to get wrong. Thwaite knows the letter as he included it in his edition of Larkin’s letters.

The Folio Society is known for its attention to production detail and distinctive designs. A leaf-green cloth binding and an abstract geometric design (reminiscent of the 1950s) are attractive and appropriate for Larkin’s verse. The layout is unobtrusive and the number and choice of illustrations serve the texts rather than drawing attention to the designers. This is not just a bookshelf ornament but an edition that will be constantly re-read by the Larkin enthusiast. There is no reason why this edition will not become the go-to volume for readers. This collection is by far the best collection of Larkin’s verse ever published. It is comprehensive, respectful of Larkin’s wishes, beautiful printed and bound and including some of Larkin’s images. It omits weak and distracting material and is not encumbered by notes. This is not a book for scholars and researchers but a reader’s book, a book for lovers of Larkin’s writing.

 

Philip Larkin, (introductions) Andrew Motion, Anthony Thwaite, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020, three-quarter bound in blocked cloth with a paper front board, set in Berling, printed with a design by Richard Peacock, 280pp, colour title page, 12 integrated black & white photographs by Philip Larkin, 91/2˝ x 63/4˝, $49.95/£34.95. The book is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

H.G. Wells:Nightmares of a Better World

GK Chesterton’s most famous analogy is that of a walker finding an ancient fence in a landscape. Chesterton suggested that while one might not understand the fence’s purpose, one should still respect it, because it had at one time served a function and it might still perform that function. Tearing down the fence out of impatience or impetuosity was reckless, Chesterton suggested, because through simple ignorance one might be destroying a potentially useful construction. Such was the situation in which modern man found himself.

“HG Wells (1866-1946) – the prolific fiction and non-fiction writer, best known for his early science fiction – never encountered a fence that he did not do his best to pull down. Family, marriage, religion, nationhood, custom and class – all were subject to Wells’ ire and mockery. He felt it his duty to remake the world according to science and rationality. The sight of old fences was a provocation to him.

“Many today underestimate the enormous influence of Wells. Not so Sarah Cole, who seeks to retrieve something of Wells’ importance in Inventing Tomorrow: HG Wells and the Twentieth Century. As she points out, Wells’ work has sold millions of copies, and has been translated into multiple languages…”

 

Read my full review on Spiked website here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/02/13/hg-wells-nightmares-of-a-better-world/

Michel Houellebecq: Serotonin

“In his fiction, Michel Houellebcq has chronicled the deracinated state of modern France, as he sees it. Made selfish by the generation of ’68, detached from morality by easy access to pornography, alienated from its history, numbed by mood medication, destabilised by mass migration and rendered powerless by the rise of transnational authorities, France (and Europe generally) is slipping into social, cultural and moral disintegration. It is, as he sees it, inevitable, imminent and irreversible. Houellebecq is the ultimate ‘blackpilled’ author. He offers readers no intimation of the rescue or survival of Western civilisation.

“In his new novelSerotonin, we encounter another snapshot of France’s plummet into oblivion. Not that there aren’t pleasures and diversions to be had as the tragedy of Europe is cast as a grotesque comedy. As usual, Houellebecq’s protagonist is his alter ego, in this instance a character called Florent-Claude Labrouste.

“Labrouste is aged 46, a heavy drinker and smoker, cynical, sour, tired and anti-social. His ‘flabby and painful decline’ is analogous to the collapse of his society….”

 

Read the full review online on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/11/11/the-exhilarating-nihilism-of-michel-houellebecq/

Re-reading John Wyndham, II: The Enemy Within

In the first two novels published by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris as John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953)), the author examines the conflict between sophisticated predatory species. He thought such conflicts were inevitable and would be pursued with absolute ruthlessness, leading to extermination of the weaker group by the stronger one. This was a lesson of evolutionary science applied to human history, specifically in the form of Social Darwinism. (That discussion is here.) They form a pair of thematically-linked novels; the following two novels form another pair addressing related issues. Although it seems this was not a conscious plan, the pairing seems apparent. The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) both explore the responses of human societies to the danger of infiltration by distinct sub-groups which threaten the unity and even survival of those societies or species.

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids is set in a future after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed our current civilisation (whom they call the “Old People”), made much of the world uninhabitable and caused substantial genetic mutations in living things due to radiation. We follow David Strorm, who is a member of a fundamentalist Christian society located in Eastern Canada, which has strict definitions of physical normality and which exiles people and destroys animals and plants which deviate from the society’s standards. Technology is reduced to pre-industrial levels, travel is limited and the land is sparsely populated. Knowledge of history and science is greatly reduced. The society venerates the pre-holocaust civilisation yet its natural wariness of innovation – each scientific discovery potentially undermines Christian teaching – means the society is only slowly and piecemeal recovering the technology and knowledge of the Old People.  As a child, David befriends Sophie, a girl who lives locally but does not form part of his community because her parents keep her existence secret. She has a minor deformity which would lead to her exile (or death) in the Fringes (an area beyond the boundaries of cultivated land) if she were examined by an official of the main community. Eventually Sophie is discovered and her and her family are banished. David comes to recognise the potential of banishment for abnormality. When David realises he was born physically normal but with the very rare power of telepathic communication, he understands that he could be classed as a deviation.

David, his cousin Rosalind and a small group of other local children are telepaths who bond as a result of their sense of communal closeness. He and his fellow telepaths must deal with the constant fear of exposure and expulsion. They develop a code of silence to protect themselves. As the children age they realise that there are instances of people evading normality standards applied to domestic animals, crops and even people and that standards within their community are debated and applied with varying degrees of strictness. David’s Uncle Axel discovers David’s telepathic deviation and chooses to conceal the boy’s condition; he advises and supports the telepaths. He has travelled widely as a sailor and has heretical views on the purity standards, believing that they are subjective and too rigid.

David and the telepaths discover David’s younger sister Petra is a telepath of greater power than the others in the group. A series of accidents and slips lead to the community discovering the existence of the telepaths and their persecution of members of the group that they can identify. David, Rosalind and Petra attempt to escape to the Fringes and are pursued by a posse; others in the telepath group are captured and tortured for information by the community, which is alarmed at the presence of this secret group of deviations. The strength of Petra’s projections alerts a technologically advanced society in New Zealand, where most inhabitants are telepaths and telepathy is considered the norm. The New Zealanders send an aircraft to rescue the fleeing telepaths. The aircraft arrives during the climactic battle between the Fringes band of outcasts and the community posse; David, Rosalind and Petra are rescued by the New Zealanders and are taken to their city.

The novel is written as an adventure story particularly suited to young adults. It features a rich cast of characters and describes David’s community in varying degrees of detail – especially detailed on the matter of the identification and treatment of deviations – all of which combines to present a vivid world with many memorable images and exciting action. Beyond the world of the story, Wyndham’s intention is to examine ideas of purity, nature v. science and pragmatism v. dogmatism. Wyndham looks at how a community forms its ethical and economic standards by combining the demands of viability in an environment prone to accelerated heritable variation while cleaving to a long-established religious code.

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos is a story set in a small fictional English village of Midwich. The village becomes subject to an inexplicable force field caused by an extra-terrestrial intelligence. All people inside the affected zone fall unconscious, as does anyone entering the zone. Before the authorities can decide on a response to this situation, the force field disappears, as does what was apparently an alien spacecraft that had landed in the centre of the village. It is subsequently discovered that all women of child-bearing age are pregnant.

The authorities monitor the situation. Our narrator is Richard Gayford, a resident of the village who was outside of the village at the time of the event. Military intelligence ask Gayford (who served in the army during the Second World War) to provide updates on subsequent developments in the village. We do not get strong impressions of most of the villagers. The exception is Roger Zellaby, a scientific authority and writer, who provides an informed commentary and is something of an investigator of the developments in the village. Zellaby and his family are the only villagers who have distinct characters.

Sixty-one babies are born and seem to be human-alien hybrids: appearing largely human but with silver-gold hair and golden irises. “The Children” develop fast and are discovered to have powers of telepathic communication and learn as a group in the manner of a hive entity. The Children are emotionally detached from the host community and use powers of telepathic control to coerce their mothers to support and protect them. They also prevent the mothers from taking the Children out of the village. Some of the babies are abandoned by their mothers and those are brought up by foster families. While the Children are infants the narrator leaves the country for work reasons. We also leave the narrative at this point, to resume seven years later, with the Gayfords returning to Midwich.

Despite the passing of only seven years, the Children have developed at an abnormally fast rate and are physically equivalent to human children of twice the age. They share their knowledge telepathically, therefore their schooling is done by teaching a single girl and single boy, who pass on their knowledge to the hive mind. We discover Children are using their mental powers of coercion and collective intelligence to control the behaviour of villagers in order to protect themselves. The villagers are frightened of the Children and resent them but are unable to confront them. The Children are acting as parasites, using a mixture of collective action, psychic powers and the hosts’ residual (but ebbing) maternal sentiment to provide for them.

Gayford learns from his military contacts that other such groups have been recorded in different places in the world. There are suspicions that the Midwich Children may be in communication with (or aware of) the experiences of other groups and may become super-intelligent. Zellaby summons the Children for a film display, during which he explodes a bomb which kills him and the Children. He sacrifices his life to destroy the Children, whom many villagers and military/governmental authorities consider an increasing threat to society. We learn that in the USSR, a colony of Children has been destroyed with a nuclear explosion and that the Children in Midwich may have soon acted more brutally to preserve themselves.

Although Richard and his wife Janet are the readers’ viewpoint on events, most of the writing is omniscient and the first-person perspective is a dramatic device for artificially limiting the information provided to us. Gayford is inactive as a protagonist; he and Janet mainly act as insiders who can observe events and acquire official intelligence by liaising with authorities. Out of Wyndham’s first four published novels, The Midwich Cuckoos is the one that is closest to a pure novel of ideas. Character, environment, mood and prose description are at a minimum; plot and concepts dominate, though we do get vivid glimpses of how the villagers respond to events. Midwich is perhaps the least satisfactory novel of the four for those reading for enjoyment. The denouement is unsatisfactorily convenient and is also a plot hole. If the Children learn through only one girl and one boy experiencing events, why do all of the Children gather for a film showing? Surely only two Children would have needed to attend the film showing, which one presumes the Children would have treated as an educational experience, as they do not seem to be much swayed by sensory pleasure.

Discussion

Both novels succeed on their own terms and are replete with insights into human nature. They are novels of ideas but sustain tension and narrative drive, though Midwich largely lacks the striking images and dramatic scenes that make Wyndham’s other novels so memorable. The only event that we experience close-at-hand through the narrator’s eyes is the foiled revenge shooting by a villager. Everything else is reported second hand or alluded to.

Midwich misses the distinctive characters (other than Roger Zellaby) that people Wyndham’s mature novels; the police officer and the village doctor are only ciphers. Wyndham’s specific ideas and approach in Midwich meant that elaboration of character or complex interplay between characters would have slowed the pace and distracted the reader. The dramatis personae fall into three groups: the Children, the villagers and the outside authorities. Distinctions within these groups are minimal; the names of individuals hardly register with readers.

Chrysalids has many memorable characters – even the minor ones leave strong impressions. The imagery is powerful and Wyndham’s writing flourishes. There is action, drama, romance, adventure and humour. The most horrifying passage is the story of Uncle Axel, where he recounts the devastated world sailors encountered. The weird imagery gives us a nightmare vision of a post-nuclear-holocaust world, complete with blasted lands, radiation sickness and glowing horizons. This is one of our only views of the outside world, which the Christian enclave in Canada has turned its back upon. Wyndham thoroughly presents the social and psychological realities of fundamentalist religion as a refuge from the horrors of devastation and as a template for a society in search of stability in a world ravaged by genetic fluctuation. For young readers, Chrysalids serves as a primer for how it is to live in a deeply conservative society and encourages empathy for freethinkers and minorities. In terms of skill and power, Chrysalids is Wyndham’s greatest accomplishment. The deeply emotional scenes of young David mourning the loss of his friend Sophie (whom he thinks he has betrayed) and the confrontation between David’s mother and aunt about the birth of a deformed baby are tours de force that brilliantly impart the moral implications and emotional impact of the novel’s drama. Chrysalids is Wyndham’s most sustained imaginative feat.

Chrysalids presents us with a degree of ambiguity regarding the two competing societies. Wyndham shows us the Canadian society as capable of instilling solidarity and bravery and of being an effective means of supporting people, including eccentrics. (Consider the characters of Uncle Axel and the passing mention of a local man who runs a steam engine as a novelty). His New Zealand society of technologically advanced telepaths is welcoming to the telepaths but dismissive and hostile towards the non-telepaths, whom they regard as an inferior sub-species due to fall into extinction as the Old People had. The representative of the New Zealand telepaths is portrayed as cold, lacking empathy, morally complacent and arrogant. As readers, we wonder how we would cope in a society composed of individuals who read emotions and thoughts so clearly. How would we be able to retain any privacy?

The novels interweave drama, action and adventure in stories that raise serious intellectual, political and moral ideas. Indeed, there is no way of separating these. Midwich is considerably less successful as a reading experience than Chrysalids because we lack the characters to care about and we do not relate strongly to the narrator. The absence of emotional involvement makes Midwich something of a thought experiment or exercise in applied morality rather than a compelling story. There is no adventure to speak of, more a series of logically extrapolated steps. The protagonist does not take part in the action merely observes and engages in discussion. In Triffids we see the multiple routes and alternative scenarios played out in a novel that has great organic and narrative consistency, making Midwich’s limitations appear even more unfavourable. As a novel of ideas, Midwich does not need to be rich or engaging but it would have benefited had Wyndham found some way of developing the story in a way that was closer to Triffids or Chrysalids. However, the limitations of Midwich are perhaps inevitable as Triffids and Chrysalids are adventures, character-driven dramas and immersions in alternative worlds, whereas Midwich is an investigation into morality in a very limited scenario, admitting little room for character investigation or world-building.

The Enemy Within

The theme which links the two novels most strongly is that of societies dealing with sub-groups that present a threat to their standards and even their existence. In Chrysalids and Midwich, Wyndham presents us with two stories that deal with inter-species rivalry that he had already addressed in The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, this time in a new form: inter-species rivalry within the human race. The telepaths in Chrysalids and the Children in Midwich are both human in form, with familial relatives, names, schooling and places in their societies, yet they are also different from the society around them. Telepathy and brood parasitism are phenomenon that separate humanity in these stories into two groups: majority and a newly emergent minority. In Chysalids we view the minority group from the inside and grow to care about and support the minority; in Midwich we view the minority group from outside and grow to fear them and recognise the danger they pose to the majority (and, implicitly, us as we conceive of ourselves). Wyndham’s pessimistic view that inter-species rivalry between apex predators in a world of limited resources inevitably leads to warfare resulting in the extermination of the loser here takes a chilling turn: the enemy is within. In a situation where no compromise is possible between different strands of humanity, our conflicts present us with existential annihilation of opponents who are almost identical to ourselves and may even be members of our own families.

The pair of novels raises awful questions which force us to address the most essential moral questions. How do we differentiate between competing formulations of humanity and society? What makes us human? How far would we be prepared to go to defend our civilisation and society? Would we kill members of our society or our own family to preserve our society? Encountering a superior society or sub-species of humanity which is incompatible with ours, what can and should we do?

The themes of religious persecution, inter-species competition and cultural conflict are pressing matters. The revival of Socialism among the young in the West, the morality of human genetic engineering, the possibility of viable artificial intelligence and the rise of Islamist terrorism in Europe all present us again with the Wyndham’s questions of how do we define our societies, how do we decide to include or exclude individuals, how do we deal with fundamental ideas which are incompatible with our societies, how do we respond to dissident groups and what does it mean to be human. How fair is it for us to regard supporters of totalitarian absolutist ideologies as members of competing groups which threaten our societies? How far can we go to defend our civilisations without becoming totalitarian ourselves? Too much resistance and we become monstrously intolerant; too little resistance and we are swept away by murderous opponents convinced of their righteousness.

Wyndham’s view that conflict is inevitable, pursued ruthlessly and resultant in extermination of the losing group is as far from the “cosy catastrophe” as can be imagined.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism

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PUBLICATION DAY

Publisher’s notice:

“Why has identity become so central to judging art today? Why are some groups reluctant to defend free speech within culture? Has state support made artists poorer not richer? How does the movement for social justice influence cultural production? Why is post-modernism dominant in the art world? Why are consumers of comic books so bitterly divided?

“In Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism Alexander Adams examines a series of pressing issues in today’s culture: censorship, Islamism, Feminism, identity politics, historical reparations and public arts policy. Through a series of linked essays, Culture War exposes connections between seemingly unrelated events and trends in high and popular cultures. From fine art to superhero comics, from political cartoons to museum policy, certain persistent ideas underpin the most contentious issues today. Adams draws on history, philosophy, politics and cultural criticism to explain the reasoning of creators, consumers and critics and to expose some uncomfortable truths.”

This book is available from bookstores, all online book retailers and the site of the publisher, Imprint Academic: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

 

Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture

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Writer, teacher, artist, publisher, musician and agitator for the counter culture, Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a large figure in the British pop culture landscape during the 1960s and 1970s. He knew most of the leading figures in the underground scene of the era and acted as a link in the form of organiser, publisher, promoter and communicator. As someone with a high profile, Nuttall was in the ideal position to promote the counter culture – though what he put forward was his own version of the counter culture. Nuttall had his own preoccupations and blind spots and the underground culture he promulgated was very much in his own image. Bomb Culture – first published in 1968 – became the handbook for British readers in search of an explanation of the ideas driving the radical Sixties led by the post-Hiroshima generation. Widely reviewed and popular, Bomb Culture was seen at the time as representative of the zeitgeist. The new edition contains a foreword by Iain Sinclair and an introduction by Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones. Biographical notes allow younger readers to orientate themselves with less familiar names from 1968. There are also some added photographs.

Nuttall covers the well-established link between the origins of jazz as brothel music from New Orleans and the power of jazz music as a potent expression of political liberation and sexual defiance. Nuttall mentions the liberation movements of the period but is clearly less engaged by these movements. Sexual liberation is viewed in terms of accessibility to sexual gratification rather than to the widening of the social horizons for women. Consciousness liberation took the form of consumption of psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs. Rock music (especially acid rock) is considered as an extension of the psychoactive effects of drugs. Nuttall is knowledgeable about pop music and writes with confidence about the counter culture credentials of rock and roll. Bomb Culture’s perspective is of particular interest because it was written from 1967 to 1968 and was published in 1968, placing its creation right at the centre of activity it describes.

While Nuttall’s perspective was British – laced with references to the Second World War and post-war austerity – his view of the scene was refracted through the lens of American culture – jazz, film, poetry, and underground activist journalism. Nuttall sees the cultural upheaval in Britain as a response to the failure of the CND and Aldermaston Marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He condemns much British Socialist writing as a compromise, seeking to ingratiate writers with the existing structure of the Labour Party as the main leftist opposition to the establishment. His claims are scattershot and his pragmatic counter-position is not forthcoming. For Nuttall the more underground, the freer from compromise production becomes. The International Times and his own fanzine (or “little magazine”, according to your definition) My Own Mag are freer. The manifest failure of the mass youth-led protests against the Cold War bomb culture led to the wider, more pervasive social movement of the counter culture. While British protesters took their lead from anti-Vietnam War protests and American pop culture, Nuttall sees a direct line from the anti-Cold War culture of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Nuttall took a more militant – even violent – position than the hippy outlook headed by Allen Ginsberg and the San Francisco scene. He is decidedly opposed to the pacifism of the hippies. He sees the violence of protestors in London’s Grosvenor Square against the American Embassy at the height of the Vietnam War as an enervating corrective to the violence being perpetrated against the Vietnamese. Likewise, there is adulation for student bomb makers and narcotic manufacturers. Yet how much of this is not simply the petulant anger of malcontents directed against the status quo? Is not the violent response the extension of violence the responders seeks to curtail? For Nuttall, bomb culture has a double meaning – the hegemony of the military-industrial complex that the nuclear bomb created and the bomb culture of youthful resistance to that system. Nuttall sees violence as an explicable and inevitable response to potential violence of a military system. He discusses the aimless violence of the teenage thrill kill and the gang fights of the Mods and Rockers. (The Teddy boys appropriated the upper-class fashion revival by the Edwardian age that Savile Row tailors, who had planned to market it to the middle class. Instead of the style becoming a profitable product for tailors to reach the middle classes, the working class adopted it as a badge of decadent defiance.)

Another line is the pseudo-Nietzschean amoralism of the Moors murderers as an example of libertinism. The defiance of sexual and social mores logically leads to the defiance of the ethical principles of the sanctity of life. In one startling observation, Nuttall talked of the crowd at the trial witnessing the process less in indignation than in envy.

Nuttall puts forward the psychoanalytic theory of the day, cribbed from popular publications.

Schizophrenia was ill-defined. At best it meant, means, someone who was isolated and therefore not adjusted to the patterns of society.

This conformed to the social-repressive view of R.D. Laing and others, who saw schizophrenia and serious conditions not as a problem of an individual being unable to map reality on to the mental landscape of the subject but of society stigmatising the non-conformist individual. In this view society and family (and the medical profession which sought to apply the principles of those institutions) were systems of repression. Any system that restrains (no matter how it also nurtures, supports and protects) is an artificial development which seeks to divert the potentially disruptive force of individualism. The psychoanalytic profession – rather than seeking to actualise the potential of people – was attempting to neuter people in the service of the pharmaceutical industry, educational system and social structures that were themselves beholden to insane priorities and values. In short, the insane were responding to the insanity of their alienated social reality rather than to any internal deficiency. In this respect Nuttall puts the counterculture case in its clearest form, associating Laing’s ideas with Ginsberg’s Howl – a poem noting the madness of great minds faced by the painful reality of society.

Nuttall diverts into Surrealism and Dadaism as attempts at liberation of art. His art history is unconventional – more Norman Mailer than Ernst Gombrich. Yet, even when he is elaborating ideas that would not find a place in any conventional study, he remains thought provoking.

The destination, as far as art is concerned, is the journey itself. Art keeps the thing moving. The only true disaster is the end of the journey, the end of man and his development.

Nuttall knew many of the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs. They lived in London at the same time and Nuttall published Burroughs’s writings. The British Beats are described in a series of amusing anecdotes.

Nuttall does not weave his observations into an integrated thesis. His observations form a torrent of history, pop culture criticism, fashion and music. (Television and radio hardly comes up and American movies are referenced in passing and in terms of iconic actors rather than any discussion of particular films.) Political theory, philosophy and revolutionary activism concepts are almost entirely omitted. The book includes many lengthy quotes – poems, newspaper extracts and popular science papers. Nuttall has limitations as a creative writer and a populariser of other people’s ideas. He was a reckless writer: casual with facts, lazy in style and clumsy with logic. Yet he was by no means a cynical blagger. He had an original and wayward mind; his Bomb Culture remains not only a personal view of a tumultuous period but also an enjoyable record of the era seen from the inside.

Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, Strange Attractor Press (MIT distr.), 2019, paperback, 306pp., £14.99, ISBN 978 190 7222702

 

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

FBI surveillance of writers

“The remit of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) includes monitoring figures who potentially threaten national security. And the FBI has long included famous writers on that list. To them, writers pose a double menace: not only do they pose a potential threat themselves, they might also inspire large groups of people to undermine the status quo, which the FBI is charged with protecting. The perceived threat posed by novelists and essayists is laid bare in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, a new book comprising facsimiles of archived files on famous American authors.

“During the Cold War, when suspicion of writers and intellectuals was at its peak, the FBI was under the control of the domineering, aggressive and thin-skinned J Edgar Hoover. During his long career as FBI director, Hoover took an active personal interest in pursuing political and personal opponents. Writers Under Surveillance reveals all this in official memoranda, letters and reports, with redactions, mainly to conceal identities of informants and other intelligence agencies. The editors have selected the more complete documents….”

Read the full review on Spiked Online here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/12/17/writers-under-surveillance/

Bukowski: On Drinking

img468

drinking

for me

it was or

is

a manner of

dying

with boots on

and gun

smoking and a

symphony music

background. […]

For Bukowski drinking was heroic. It was humiliating, destructive and alienating. It was self-poisoning and an attempt to capture a fragment of the vastness of human potential in an infinite universe. It killed time; it killed sexual potency; it killed friendships; it killed friends. Drink killed Jane Cooney Baker, the great first love of Bukowski’s life. Drinking was ridiculous and a source of boundless pleasure. It freed him of his natural shyness and sensitivity; it intensified everything. It made him fat. The beer bottle became Bukowski’s personal attribute, the way Camus’s Gauloise and Burroughs’s fedora were theirs.

All of the central parts of Bukowski’s life were prominent in his writing: love (and sex), reading, writing and drinking. (Other parts which appear less often are the life of the writer, gambling, childhood experiences and his troubled relationship with his father.) In that respect, Bukowski was an autobiographical writer, using the experiences of daily life – and recalling (and transforming) anecdotes – in his writing. He did not shy away from the truth of his addiction. When asked if he was an alcoholic, he replied “Hell, yes”. “Drinking makes things happen.”

Bukowski’s early years were spent moving between major American cities. Later he returned to his native Los Angeles. Those days were filled with bar hopping, manual labour, black-market ad hoc work, drink driving, hanging out with winos and whores, participating in drinking contests and sleeping off hangovers in the drunk tank. In one column, Bukowski riffs on Chinaski (his alter ego) in the drunk tank demanding Alcoholic Liberation – freedom from cop oppression in a time of radical politics. Bukowski tells tales of dramatic fights but also confessed “That stuff gets old, gets stale – you get your eyes all cut, and your lips all puffed up, a tooth loose… There’s no glory in it. Usually, you’re too drunk to fight well, you’re starving, you know…”

Drinking almost killed the writer. In 1954 he suffered a grave internal haemorrhage. Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (excerpted here) includes a description of his emergency hospitalisation which is stark and gruesome – though not humourless; Bukowski always has a wry take on matters, the more important the topic the more trenchant and dry the humour. He characterises the staff of the charity ward in LA as a mixture of cruelly indifferent and competently professional.

He resumed drinking but (either through luck or moderation) he never became as sick again. Over the years he switched between American and German beers, Riesling wine and whiskey.

By the time Bukowski wrote about drinking he was already deeply steeped in the cults of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Li Po. He knew the stories of heavy-drinking Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and other creative pioneers. He bellied up to the bar and squared up to his big-drinking dead colleagues, matching their ghostly legendary drinks with his own bottles of Schlitz or Miller. As a writer and a drinking man, he engaged in banter, sparring and intimate confidences with dead creators with whom he felt kinship. He did it through competitive writing, drinking and emulation. Yet, as an honest man and an honest writer, he knew the painful reality of a drinker’s life and included in his writings the humiliations and transgressions brave and selfish. He knew that drinking numbs loneliness. Although many of his stories involved barroom encounters and drunken couplings, Bukowski most often drank alone while writing and listening to symphony music on the radio, especially when he became a full-time writer in 1970. “Heavy drinking is a substitute for companionship and it’s a substitute for suicide,” he admitted. “Drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn.”

Drinking helped Bukowski cope with public readings. He began on the reading circuit in the 1970s, invited to universities by poet-professors who were friends-cum-rivals. To deal with stage fright (“I always vomit before a reading,”) and to take the boredom out of post-reading faculty parties Bukowski drank. As his reputation grew (mainly after the publication of his first novel, Post Office, in 1971 and the appearance in underground newspapers of his bawdy column), fans expected to see him drinking or drunk at readings. The proud and sensitive Bukowski realised that some people came to see a spectacle and despised this aspect (and his willingness to perform that role) but his response to the shame and anger that provoked only made him drink harder. Later on, he drank to take the edge off interviews.

The editorial approach to On Drinking conforms to the other books in the recent series from Ecco, edited by Bukowski expert Abel Debritto. It comprises chronologically arranged selection of poems, stories, columns and extracts from letters, novels and interviews. Although some pieces are familiar from previous books, a number have only appeared in periodicals and a few are hitherto unpublished. Bukowski himself approved of a mixture of verse and prose in books, including a collection called Run with the Hunted (1993) which is the best introduction to Bukowski’s writing. Illustrations are line drawings by the writer, photographs and facsimiles of manuscripts. Debritto has – where possible – used the original periodical text or the manuscript for the text of On Drinking. This avoids the corrupted texts published by Bukowski’s former editor, John Martin. (For discussion of the posthumous editing of Bukowski, see my article here.) Paradoxically, after years of having drinking posthumously neutered in publications, this shot of drunken Bukowski feels positively healthy.

Certain stories recur in variations over the years in stories, poems and newspaper columns. The book includes one of my favourite stories, “The Blinds”, in which Chinaski volunteers to wash filthy venetian blinds in a dive bar. After hours of work, all the regulars join in to finish the job. Chinaski takes his $5 pay and buys everyone a drink. The bartender pours the drinks then tells Chinaski he owes $3.15.

In a poem entitled “shit time” Bukowski turns a shared defecation at a beachside latrine into an event of melancholy camaraderie between drunks. Afterwards, the tightness of hangover adds contrast when he confronts the grand and indifferent view:

I looked at the ocean and the

ocean looked good, full of blues and

greens and sharks.

I walked back out of there

and down the street

determined to find my automobile.

 

Some of these pieces are barroom yarns, full of improbable and seemingly exaggerated incidents. “I came up from the floor with the punch. It was a perfect shot. He staggered back all the way across the room […]” Yeah. Maybe, maybe not. Many tales are very funny. (Any poem which ends with “pulling up my pants / I tried to explain.” beats every limerick ever written.) It is hard to tell what is meant to be the humorous telling of actual story and what is a comic vignette cooked up from nothing. Ultimately, it does not matter. The point of the story is the story. Anyone dissecting Bukowski looking for truth is bound to come away vexed. Anyone who reads Bukowski for anything else will come away satisfied.

 

Charles Bukowski, Abel Debritto (ed.), On Drinking, Ecco, February 2019, hardback, 272pp, mono illus., £20

© 2018 Alexander Adams. Edited 5 December 2018 to correct two dates.

See my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature

RH International Beat Literature_2nd Proof-2

As the last unpublished writings of the original Beat Generation (Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac, plus others) reach print, the memoirs of their most distant associates become public and text-critical editions of classic texts are issued, the seams of iconic writers become exhausted. Notwithstanding the academic study of ever more obscure aspects of those writers and application of new theoretical systems of interpretation, the scholarly searchlight inevitably moves to unfamiliar territory. In terms of the Beats, the unfamiliar is foreign writers who were liberated by the Beat example of free verse, Buddhist mysticism, sexual freedom, drug use and radical politics.

The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature is a survey of the non-American Beat writers, written by multiple specialists, divided by country. Many of the specialists are natives of these countries and understand their subjects from the inside. These texts have been marshalled by Professor A. Robert Lee, an authority of the subject of Beat literature and author and editor of previous landmark studies.

The core first-generation Beats travelled relatively widely and some lived abroad for periods. All lived long enough to become famous and lauded outside of their homeland. In old age, Burroughs and Ginsberg toured – reading their writings, signing books, attending events, teaching classes and performing various public duties which brought them into direct contact with fans and allies. Yet Beatism is not a socially transmittable disease. As Lee sets out in the book’s introduction, the Beat movement spread directly through books, newspapers, chapbooks and fanzines, quite independent of the proximate presence of the writers. Indirectly, it spread through films, documentaries, the lyrics of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Jim Morrison and – most loosely – the pop-culture caricature of the Beatnik.

The definition of “Beat” in this handbook is somewhat elastic. Lee specifies no exact parameters for the authors. Is Beat a discrete period or is it open ended? Is Beat a movement (with a circumscribed set of stylistic tools, thematic concerns and political tenets) or is Beat an affiliation, tendency, influence or (in the most cynical light) simply mercenary appropriation of iconic cultural production of a past era? There is no manifesto, no defining compilation or event, no strict criteria for inclusion, no school, no necessity for apprenticeship and no arbiter’s blessing to confer Beatitude upon supplicants. Or rather, there are myriad manifestoes, compilations, events, criteria, schools, apprenticeships and arbiters – none authoritative.

The editor has allowed essayists to use their own judgment as to what “Beat creator” means in their studies, be that creators who claimed affiliation or lineage from the American Beats, those who created like them or those who adapted Beat principles to their native culture. In practice, it means all three groups. Katharine Streip covers the influence of the Beats on film maker David Cronenberg (director of Naked Lunch), musician-writer Arish Ahmad Khan and multi-media artist John Oswald. Much of Frida Forsgren’s essay deals with the sculptor Marius Heyerdahl, as one of the leading Beat creative figures in Norway.  We encounter snippets of unexpected information: women Beat creators in Italy were all involved primarily with music rather than writing; two of the leading German Beats were struck and killed by cars; the father of Lars Ulrich (Metallica drummer) is Torben Ulrich, professional Danish tennis player and Beat writer.

In some cases the reception of the Beats was impaired by cultural resistance. Alberto Escobar de la Garma notes, “Publishing houses in [Mexico] have been reluctant to make the Beats available in part because of historic antipathy towards the USA (to include its language) and in part because they so expressly flaunt Mexican conventions of conservative cultural manners and behaviour.” Conversely, there was sometimes antipathy from the American Beats towards creators in other countries. Luke Walker describes how Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg all felt that the British poets who appeared at the Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation in 1965 to be mediocre and derivative. They considered Great Britain a drab and socially constrained place, as did Burroughs, who lived there for a long period. When Corso read his poem “Bomb” it was denounced by the British audience as pro-war. Fiona Paton’s summary of the Scottish response to the Beats is called “Cosmopolitan Scum” and discusses Scottish writers Alexander Trocchi, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Their response was more assertive, rebarbative – in short, more Scottish – than those of their English colleagues.

The essayists give a sense of the creators’ achievements and their significance (or insignificance) within their national scenes. Many of the writers were peripheral and published sporadically. Very little of this work has been published in translation, thus this Handbook provides valuable guidance regarding inaccessible work to international audiences. Authors acknowledge that often it was the example of the Beats and their literary liberation that freed foreign writers without those inspired writers becoming Beat themselves. This seems particularly true in the cases of Poland, Russia and China where access to imported subversive Western writings was tightly restricted and translations were almost non-existent. Pieces on Morocco and Turkey foreground the very different social, political and religious climates which shaped responses to Beat creativity. Essays on Japan and China take us even farther afield.

While writers sometimes closely analyse a poem and passage of prose, the essays are jargon-free, light on theory and highly readable. Quotations are necessarily restricted in length but even so one encounters some striking excerpts. Consider this by Leopoldo María Panero, quoted by Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo:

El palacio de la locura está

lleno de animals

verdes con

motas anaranjadas como ácidos y

cubierto de polvo: entra ven.

 

The palace of madness is

full of green

animals with

orange dots like acid

covered in dust: come inside.

 

The extensive bibliographies will send readers in search of the original texts. The footnotes and index will prove useful to researchers.

This book is an essential starting point for Beat fans’ parlour game of “debate the inclusion/omission”. No gathering of Beat academics or readers would be complete without fiery dissent on the status and relevance of writers included in the Beat canon and passionate advocacy in favour of omitted personal favourites. This book will be the starting point for such discussions for decades to come and a touchstone for Beat scholarship for a generation.

Let us hope that in time a cheaper paperback version is published, allowing the rich and enlightening scholarship in The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature to reach an even wider audience.

 

Contributors: Thomas Antonic (Austria), Franca Bellarsi (Belgium), Nicholas Birns (Australia), Thomas Epstein (Russia), Alberto Escobar de la Garma (Mexico), Frida Forsgren (Norway), Alexander Greiffenstern (Germany), Benjamin J. Heal (China), A. Robert Lee (Japan), El Habib Louai (Morocco), Polina Mackay (Greece), Erik Mortenson (Turkey), Lars Movin (Denmark), Lisa Avdic Öst (Sweden), Peggy Pacini (France), Fiona Paton (Scotland), Andrzej Pietrasz (Poland), Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo (Spain), Tomasz Sawczuk (Poland), Maria Anita Stefanelli (Italy), Katharine Streip (Canada), Jaap van der Bent (Netherlands and Flanders), Harri Veivo (Finland), Luke Walker (Great Britain).

A. Robert Lee (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature, Routledge, 2018, hardback, 350pp, £175, ISBN 978 0 415 78545 7 (also available as an eBook)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art