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/

Unsolved!: Tackling the world’s greatest ciphers

In Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers, Craig P Bauer examines a great array of ciphers, taking us from Egyptian sarcophagi to unexplained internet puzzles, via landmark mysteries such as the Zodiac Killer and Somerton Man.

“Ciphers have existed for as long as writing itself. As soon as man began writing, he needed a means to keep his messages secret. Bauer describes examples from Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Viking Scandinavia. There are cases which will be beyond the ability of virtually all readers even to attempt. And there are instances where ciphers turn out not to be ciphers. On Greek vases, for instance, there seemed to be nonsense inscriptions beside legible words. Greek scholars thought that maybe an illiterate artist was writing nonsense or filling in space, yet when an expert in ancient languages was given these transcriptions, he discovered the Greek nonsense was actually a transliteration of local languages such as Scythian, Circassian and Abkhazian…”
 

To read my complete review on Spiked, visit here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/10/16/unsolved-tackling-the-worlds-greatest-ciphers/

The war on America’s past continues

In the wake of recent attempts – some successful – to have Confederate statues removed from the US south, what is the future of colonialist statues in the US west? In Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, Cynthia Culver Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, senses a reluctance to apply to pioneer monuments the ideological zeal that was turned on Confederate memorials. ‘We resist applying the insights of settler colonial studies to American pioneer narratives because to do so would call into question foundational myths of Jeffersonian agrarianism and American exceptionalism, and lay bare white conquest of native lands and peoples.’ She outlines the cases against statues of colonialists, and particularly against female settlers, who took part in the drive to colonise the American west in the 19th century.

“Statues depicting women have been criticised by academics and campaigners for being idealising, inaccurate, generalising and stereotypical. There is a sense that campaigners direct such ire at statues of women settlers not just because they embody sexism and colonialism but because they show women as complicit in the act of dispossessing native peoples. There is a residual resentment that – in intersectional terms – a political minority took part in a project to oppress another minority….”

Read my article on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/29/the-war-on-americas-past-continues/

The Fight to Publish Ginsberg’s “Howl”

“In The People v Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, Ronald Collins and David Skover take us to the 1950s, and a California on the verge of social change. At the heart of their uplifting story is the business acumen and literary idealism of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

“Ferlinghetti, now aged 100 and still proprietor of City Lights Bookstore and publishing house, is a seminal figure in San Francisco. He is considered its poet laureate and a great contributor to its cultural life, as a publisher, artist, activist and political renegade. His idiosyncratic blend of environmentalism, anarchism, socialism and artistic freedom has provided generations with inspiration; his poetry, prose and polemic has impressed writers and given them the courage to follow their convictions; his publications have introduced millions of people worldwide to advanced writers.

“San Francisco was the West Coast centre for the Beat Generation, a counterbalance to its other centre in New York. On the evening of 7 October 1955, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg gathered at a gallery in San Francisco to read poetry at an event called ‘6 Poets at 6 Gallery’ (the sixth poet was either compere Kenneth Rexroth or the spirit of the late John Hoffman, whose work was read by Lamantia). In the audience were Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac….”

Read the full review on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/05/09/the-fight-to-publish-allen-ginsbergs-howl/

Chekhov in the penal colony

“In 1889, doctor and writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) baffled acquaintances by announcing he was going to travel across the Russian Empire to visit a forlorn settlement on the fringes of civilisation. Chekhov was talking about Sakhalin, the largest of Russia’s islands on its north-east coast, situated between the Kamchatka Peninsula in the north and the Japanese archipelago in the south. It was a place infamous for its isolation, poverty and backwardness.

“At this time, the Russian government was shoring up its claim to Pacific territories by actively engaging in the process of colonisation. The idea was to convert exiles, prisoners and ex-prisoners into a stable Russian population, resident in a region that had formerly been inhabited only by nomadic indigenous tribes (Ainu, Orok, Gilyak and Nivkh), who had little comprehension of the distant St Petersburg monarchy. Russia would use its unwilling colonists, overseen by soldiers and administrators, to form an undeniable demographic basis to her claim over Sakhalin Island….”

 

Read the full review online on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/02/07/anton-chekhov-penal-colony-sakhalin-island/

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/

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

“Ayn Rand (1905-82) is now more famous as a philosopher and ardent proponent of laissez-faire capitalism than as a writer of fiction. As such she is known for advocating rationalism and pure self-interest as bases for ethical and political action and as a bulwark against collectivist ideologies and government influence. According to this approach, which she called objectivism, the most virtuous man is one who makes money; the most depraved is one without purpose. Wealth, therefore, is a sign of success and a motivator for ambitious capable men. (Rand’s attitude to feminism was ambivalent – personally ambitious, she was opposed to the intrusion of feminine virtues into traditional masculine public spaces of politics, commerce and science.) Although objectivism has furnished American libertarianism with (disputed) intellectual seriousness, a worldview that considers all taxation as theft has had little appeal in Europe. Objectivism has largely been seen by philosophers as a political position rather than a coherent system of ethics and logic.

“Rand’s belief in the great-man theory of history (positing that social and technological progress is made through the achievements of exceptional individuals) translated in artistic terms into a strand of heroic individualism. That is nowhere better exemplified than in her giant novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. An elegant new edition, published by the Folio Society, captures the grand scale and epic themes in its illustrations and pictorial hardcover designs….”

Read the full review online here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/22/atlas-shrugged-ayn-rand-novel-of-ideas/

Sylvia Plath: The Poetry & the Pain

“When we first encounter Sylvia Plath (1932-63) in The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963, she and Ted Hughes are in Cambridge, living as newlywed young poets. She has set aside youthful pursuits and is determined to make a good wife and mother, while seeking recognition as a writer of stories and poems.

“In the summer of 1957, after graduating from Cambridge University, Plath and Hughes had moved to Massachusetts where Plath was appointed as an English teacher. Hughes had his first book accepted for publication by Faber & Faber, and Plath was publishing stories and poems regularly. There is business correspondence in this volume, which shows Plath navigating her many literary markets: women’s magazines, poetry quarterlies and American glossies, with occasional recording sessions at the BBC studios.

The starry-eyed Plath described her husband as ‘the most wonderful man who ever lived’ – a veritable hunting-fishing, tarot-reading, verse-writing, Chaucer-declaiming six-foot-two superman. Their relationship was always volatile; passionate outbursts, resentment and bitterness on both sides tempered the love, attraction and admiration they felt for one another. Although Plath’s esteem for Hughes as a man and husband changed, her admiration for him as a writer was never less than adulatory. Her labours typing and retyping his manuscripts in a pre-photocopier era must have reduced her own personal output. In 1957, Plath began working at Smith College…”

Read the full review online on Spiked here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/13/the-poetry-and-the-pain/

Read my review of volume 1 here: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2018/08/26/sylvia-plath-alive-in-letters/