Selected Poems by John Dryden edited by Donald Thomas (1993)

John Dryden was the most successful poet, playwright, critic, translator and man of letters of his time, that time being roughly the late-1660s through to his death in 1700.

Early life

Dryden was born into a Puritan family in Northamptonshire in 1631. He was sent to the prestigious Westminster private school in 1645, the year Charles I’s army was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. In 1649 Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, just a few hundred yards from Dryden’s classroom. He went up to Cambridge in 1650 and four years later returned to London to work as clerk to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain. When Lord Protector Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote a set of Heroic Stanzas about him, but when Charles II was restored to the throne eighteen months later, Dryden wrote a poem celebrating this event too – Astraea Redux.

To modern eyes this abrupt switching of allegiances might look like hypocrisy, but the editor of this selection of Dryden’s poetry makes two points:

  1. Dryden was merely following the mood of the entire nation which switched, with surprising speed and conviction, in favour of the restoration of Charles II.
  2. Stepping back from the politics, what these two early examples of his work show is Dryden’s natural predilection to be a poet of politics and political power.

Marriage and public poetry

In the mid-1660s Dryden made a fashionable marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard but he was not making money. He decided to make a conscious career decision to commit himself to ‘the poetry of public life and political argument’, to writing poems on public occasions and poems about political life. The first great example was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders 1666, 1,200 lines of verse divided into 304 quatrains.

Three points.

1. The obvious one is that the poem deals with major public events – in the first half some of the sea battles which were part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667), in the second half the Great Fire of London. It isn’t love poetry or elegiacs or pastoral poetry.

2. Second, Dryden rewrote history to cast Charles as the hero of the age. The poem emphasises Charles’s wisdom and strategic prowess during the war, and his heroism during the fire, and how his prayer to God for help was answered. Dryden was a conservative: he believed in hierarchy and the monarch and law and order. All his poetry supports the existing order against the constant threat of factions and politicking which, he feared, would lead to anarchy and civil war. Annus Mirabilis earned Dryden his reward. In 1668 he was made Poet Laureate with an annual salary of £200 and a barrel of sack, and two years later was appointed Historiographer Royal (although he continued to be for many years, relatively hard up). Here’s Dryden sucking up to Charles:

This saw our King; and long within his breast
His pensive counsels ballanc’d too and fro;
He griev’d the Land he freed should be oppress’d,
And he less for it than Usurpers do.

His gen’rous mind the fair Ideas drew
Of Fame and Honor, which in dangers lay;
Where wealth, like Fruit on precipices, grew,
Not to be gather’d but by Birds of prey…

He, first, survey’d the Charge with careful eyes,
Which none but mighty Monarchs could maintain…

His pensive counsels, his grieving for his country (abused by the Dutch), his generous mind, ready to pluck fame and honour from their dangerous precipice, his ‘careful’ eyes (careful in the modern sense but also full of care and responsibility), trademark of a mighty monarch… and so on. Top brown-nosing, Dryden deserved his £200 a year.

3. Thirdly, Annus Mirabilis wasn’t an original work – it was a polemical riposte or reply to an earlier work by someone else. It was part of a literary dialogue. In 1661 a seditious pamphlet titled Mirabilis Annus: The Year of Prodigies had predicted God’s vengeance on a nation which tolerated a sinful king and a wicked government, and was followed by other pamphlets using the same title. Dryden’s poem is a deliberate and polemical response. It isn’t a Wordsworthian inspiration. It is arguing a case about the nature of Charles’s rule and society in the 1660s.

This is what becoming a ‘poet of political argument’ meant – that his works more often than not actively engaged in public debates and controversies, often as direct replies to previous publications by other writers with contrary views.

Drama

But public poetry wasn’t the only string to Dryden’s bow. In 1663 he published his first play, The Wild Gallant, and for the next 20 years produced a stream of comedies (Marriage-a-la-Mode) and heroic tragedies (All For Love, The Conquest of Granada). Some of these were original works but, rather as with the political poems, it’s notable how many weren’t. All For Love is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and The State of Innocence is a dramatised version of Paradise Lost. These are pretty obvious large-scale copyings, but Dryden was also to be criticised throughout his career for plagiarising lines and entire passages from other poets.

This volume includes some of the many prologues and epilogues he wrote to his plays, as well as poems addressed to specific actors and fellow playwrights such as George Etherege and William Congreve.

Satire – Absalom and Achitophel

Writing plays under the Restoration required a thick skin since new works were savaged by scores of wits and self-appointed critics. The plays themselves often contained scabrous satire about the values of the times and sometimes lampooned specific individuals. To write and publish almost anything involved exposing yourself to extremes of ridicule and abuse.

So that by the time the Popish Plot (1678) had evolved into the Exclusion Crisis (in which leading Whig politicians three times tried to pass an Act of Parliament excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother, the future James II, from the succession) Dryden had developed a thick skin and a razor-sharp pen. And he used it, as the king’s Poet Laureate, to savage and ridicule the king’s Whig enemies. The result was his masterpiece, Absalom and Achitophel.

In the Bible (2 Samuel xiv-xviii) handsome young Absalom is encouraged by the sinister old politician Achitophel to rebel against his father, King David. In Dryden’s work scheming old Achitophel is a portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who emerged as leader of the radical Whigs and led the three attempts to exclude James II from the succession. Absalom stands for King Charles’s illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouthshire, charming but gullible, who was egged on by the canny Shaftesbury to position himself as the rightful, Protestant heir to the throne. Various other key political figures appear under Biblical names and the and poem leads up to a grand speech by King David from the throne which echoes Charles’s final speech to his recalcitrant Parliament before he dissolved it for good in 1681.

Horace versus Juvenal

When it came to satire, Thomas makes the point that Dryden, like many others, drew a distinction between the satires of Horace – which were designed to laugh men out of their follies – and those of Juvenal, which expressed what he called his saeva indignatio, his fierce contempt for the vices of his time.

Horace is often amiable and funny; Juvenal is rarely funny, his satire is full of wit and attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a Juvenalian satire. It is grounded in the grim and bitter reality of the political struggles of the Exclusion Crisis and aims to give insightful, psychologically perceptive and devastating criticisms of its key characters. It is not intended to be funny. But Dryden was just as capable of a completely different style of satire, the laughable and ludicrous.

The mock heroic – Mac Flecknoe

As 17th century literary critics discovered and popularised classical ideas about poetry, so the notion spread that the highest achievement a poet could aspire to was to write a great Epic Poem, in the lineage of Homer and Virgil. Dryden was no exception:

A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest Work which the Soul of Man is capable to perform.

He nurtured ambitions to write some kind of national epic tracing the history of Britain and dedicated to his hero Charles II as Virgil had dedicated the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. But it was not to be. His long-meditated epic was never written. Instead Dryden ended up helping to develop the anti-epic, written in the so-called mock heroic style. This consisted in applying all the trappings of the epic poem – lofty diction, elaborate similes, mythological trappings, men mighty as gods – to subjects which were low and pathetic, in order to create a comic disjuntion, to create burlesque and travesty.

Dryden’s early poem, Annus Mirabilis, had already used many of the exaggerated trappings of heroic poetry, notably the extended epic simile and the direct involvement of heavenly powers (or gods or angels).

Heavenly powers

To see this Fleet upon the Ocean move,
Angels drew wide the Curtains of the Skies:
And Heav’n, as if there wanted Lights above,
For Tapers made two glaring Comets rise.

Extended epic simile

So Lybian Huntsmen on some Sandy plain,
From shady coverts rouz’d, the Lion chace:
The Kingly beast roars out with loud disdain,
And slowly moves, unknowing to give place.

But if some one approach to dare his Force,
He swings his Tail, and swiftly turns him round:
With one Paw seizes on his trembling Horse,
And with the other tears him to the ground.

So far, so epic but, as Thomas explains, the mock epic, like the epic itself, needs to address one central theme – and Annus Mirabilis is more of a series of episodes or incidents strung together, impressively so, but it is a scattered work.

It’s this idea of uniting everything in one central theme which is what makes MacFlecknoe Dryden’s masterpiece of the mock-heroic. Basically, it is a hilarious 217-line demolition of one of Dryden’s rivals in the theatre, the poet Thomas Shadwell, renowned for being dull and unimaginative, who is transmuted via Dryden’s mock-heroic style into a monstrous burlesque figure.

The aim of the mock-heroic is to attribute to a trivial person or subject such ludicrously over-inflated actions and qualities as to make them ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes him a royal progress and coronation, garlanded with biblical and imperial comparisons. But his ‘throne’ is set up among the brothels of Barbican and instead of the royal orb he holds a Mighty Mug of Ale in his hand, and every other detail of the poem is carefully undermined and burlesqued.

The name Mac Flecknoe derives from the comic notion that Shadwell is the son (‘mac’ in Gaelic) of Richard Flecknoe, an even more obscure poet, who appears in the poem declaiming a grand abdication speech, before comically disappearing down through a trapdoor, leaving Shadwell the undisputed ruler of the land of Nonsense. It is all blown up to enormous proportions in order to be mocked and ridiculed.

Dryden was extremely proud of Mac Flecknoe because it was, at that point, the most complete and finished example of its kind in English. Relatively brief though it is, it was to form a template or inspiration for the mock epics of a later generation, most notably Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712) and then his enormous satire on the literary world, The Dunciad (1728).

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

Religio Laici or a Layman’s Faith (1682) consists of 456 lines of rhymed couplets arguing against the fashionable Deism of the time and defending the Church of England against Roman Catholicism. It is characteristic of Dryden, as we’ve seen, that many of his works are responses to previous publications and Religio Laici is a good example. An English translation had recently appeared of a theological book by a Frenchman, Father Richard Simon, A Critical History of the Old Testament which laid out the many ways in which the text of the Old Testament is compromised and imperfect. In the Catholic Father’s view, Protestantism relied too heavily on the (highly imperfect) text of the Bible; it was wiser for Christians to base their faith on the unbroken traditions of the (Catholic) church as an institution.

Dryden’s poem directly addresses Father Simon’s ideas and points out that, if the Biblical text can err, so can tradition. Both need to be supplemented or informed by God’s revelation. In this, Dryden was defending the Anglican media via between the extreme reliance on the Bible of the Puritans and deference to a tradition cluttered with saints and absurd legends which characterised Catholicism.

Several things strike me about Religio Laici. For a start it is preceded by an enormous preface which is longer (4,317 words) then the poem itself (3,573 words). And this brings out just how disputatious a poet Dryden was. Even after he has cast his elaborate series of arguments into verse, he cannot stop, but has to repeat or anticipate them in a long prose preface.

Having just struggled through the poem twice, with the help of notes, I think I’ve understood most of its meaning. But when I studied English at university, it was a standard strategy to read any text on at least two levels – on one level for the overt sense or meaning; but at the same time, alert for key words, themes or ideas which recur, and work on the reader at a less logical level, by virtue of their repetition.

So the third or fourth time I read the word ‘safe’, I began to realise that although Religio Laici consists of a series of theological points, at a deeper level it works on a polarity between the twin extremes of safety and danger. To put it more clearly, Religio Laici doesn’t come from an era when a person could speculate about religion and God and the Bible in calm and comfort. On the contrary, Puritan views had, in living memory, contributed to a catastrophic civil war which had led to the execution of the king, the overthrow of traditional institutions and a military-religious dictatorship; and more recently, scare rumours about a Catholic plot to murder the king and seize control of the state had led to a mood of hysterical witch-hunting. Speculation about religious belief was fraught with danger.

Dryden’s use of the word ‘safe’ points to the fundamental message of the poem which is that all speculations on this subject should remain private, personal and moderate, in order to preserve the peace of the realm. He espouses moderation in belief and behaviour because his generation are acutely aware what lack of moderation leads to.

And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern.

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

However, just five years later Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, A Poem in Three Parts (1687) a much longer and more complex poem. At 2,600 lines it is much the longest of Dryden’s original poems (i.e. excluding the long translations he made at the end of his life) and it comes as quite a surprise because he now rejects the theological position of the earlier poem and wholeheartedly embraces Roman Catholicism.

Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1687, a couple of years into the reign of the openly Roman Catholic king James II in 1685, much to the disgust and mockery of his many enemies. The Hind and the Panther is divided into three distinct parts and derives its title from part one, which presents an extended allegory or animal fable in which the different religious denominations in the England of the day appear as animals, namely Roman Catholic as ‘A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged’, the Church of England as a panther, the Independents as a bear, the Presbyterians as a wolf, the Quakers as a hare, the Socinians as a fox, the Freethinkers as an ape, and the Anabaptists as a boar.

Critics from Dryden’s day to our own praise the skilful use of verse, vocabulary and imagery, but lament the fact that the animal fable was a poor way to convey complex theological arguments and positions, which would have been much more effective if plainly stated. Dr Johnson commented that it was a good poem despite its subject matter.

Translator

Unfortunately for Dryden, his new patron, the Roman Catholic King James II, only lasted three years on the throne before being booted out by the so-called Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by William III who was not just a Protestant but a Calvinist, a humourless man ruthlessly focused on the essentials of international power politics, and completely indifferent to art, culture, plays or poems. All officials in William’s new court were required to take oaths of allegiance including clauses pledging allegiance to the Church of England. As a newly devout Catholic Dryden couldn’t do this and so he was sacked as Poet Laureate and, in one of the supreme ironies of literary history, replaced by the man he had expended such labour ridiculing in Mac Flecknoe, Thomas Shadwell.

Deprived of all public offices Dryden now had to live by his pen and – after the public poems of the 1660s and 70s, his many plays, the satires of the Exclusion Crisis and the poetry of religious debate, in his final decade Dryden turned to literary translation.

In 1693 he published translations of the satires of Juvenal and Persius which he prefaced with a Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In 1697 his translation of the works of Virgil, including a complete translation of the Aeneid was published by subscription and brought him the notable sum of £1,400. And in 1700 he published Fables Ancient and Modern which included translations into contemporary English of tales Chaucer, Ovid and Boccaccio.

Heroic couplets

In Thomas’s account, the 1610s and 20s produced poets who liked far-fetched comparisons and irregular verse forms, such as John Donne (d.1631) or George Herbert (d.1633). Later generations dubbed them the ‘metaphysical poets’ (the expression was first used by Dr Johnson in 1780 but in fact Dryden himself had already referred, in an essay, to Donne’s ‘metaphysicals’). The Caroline poets of Charles I’s court similarly wrote lyrics and other forms in sometimes complex metres and forms, although with markedly less convoluted similes and metaphors.

But the future lay with neither of these groups but with the much more open, smooth and regular form of the rhyming couplet. The medium of two rhyming iambic pentameters had long ago been used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
(Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 19 to 26)

and couplets were a familiar device in Elizabethan theatre to bring a speech in unrhymed verse up to a kind of boom-boom conclusion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, scene 3)

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended distances was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606-87) and Sir John Denham (1615-69). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smooth rhyming couplets:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’er-flowing, full.

Relaxing, isn’t it? Dryden’s achievement was to take the rhyming couplet, use it for extended poems, and hugely expand its potential, turning it into a versatile medium for panegyric, satire, political argument, theological debate or straightforward narrative. In the right hands these couplets have all sorts of potential. Individual lines can be used to make sharp distinctions or antitheses:

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

Or in this description of the Duke of Buckingham, who would do anything for amusement.

Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.

The couplet lends itself to express maxims or pearls of wisdom, the end-rhyme of the second line giving it a kind of proverbial or didactic power:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,
When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!

But the obvious risk with the rhyming couplet is that each set of paired lines becomes a unit in itself, the temptation being to provide a boom-boom payoff at the end of the every second line, so that each couplet ends up standing alone, and reading them becomes like having hiccups – every ten seconds another clever rhyme, so that an extended poem comes to feel like a sequence of same-shaped bricks, and that this becomes wearing and tedious over the long haul.

But Thomas demonstrates how Dryden expanded the form’s potential by breaking through this barrier, to create units of meaning across multiple lines, letting the logic of his thought overflow the potential boundaries of the couplet to create what are, in effect, fluid verse paragraphs. These are particularly suitable to argufying and putting a point of view:

What shall we think! Can people give away
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenceless to the sword
Of each unbounded arbitrary lord:
And laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If kings unquestion’d can those laws destroy.

They’re still rhyming couplets but the thought, the argument flows through them, so that it no longer feels like a series of stops and starts. Moreover, the way the logic of the argument flows over the cat’s eyes or bumps of each couplet’s end-rhyme creates a complex mental pleasure – the reader processes the cleverness of the rhyme but doesn’t stop at it because the flow of the argument carries you forward. There’s a kind of counterpointing, or two rhythms going on at the same time, which is not unlike musical counterpoint.


Poetry

History

Restoration art

Restoration comedies

Introduction to The Plays of William Wycherley by W.C. Ward (1893)

Old literary criticism is often valuable because it sees works of literature in the round, as a whole. Its judgements are often mature, made by people who have seen a lot of life and often had other full-time careers, as lawyers, politician and so on. So their opinions are aware of and take into account a range of audiences and their essays are written in a language designed to be accessible to all literate readers.

All this contrasts with the highly professionalised nature of contemporary literary criticism, generally written by people who have little or no experience of life beyond the academy; written in fierce competition with other academics and so often focusing on narrow and highly specific aspects of works or genres where the author desires to carve out a niche; and written in a jargon which has become steadily more arcane and removed from everyday English over the past forty years or so.

This kind of modern literary criticism is contained in expensive books destined to be bought only by university libraries, or in remote articles in any one of hundreds of subscription-only specialist journals. It is not, in other words, designed for the average reader. Nowadays, literary criticism is an elite discourse.

Older criticism can also be humane and funny, and can afford to be scathingly critical of its authors, in a way modern po-faced and ‘professional’ criticism often daren’t.

The 1893 edition of The Plays of William Wycherley which Project Gutenberg chose for their online library includes an introduction to Wycherley’s plays by the edition’s editor, W.C. Ward, followed by an extended biographical essay by Thomas Babington Macauley which dates from even earlier, from the 1850s.

(If this appears very old fashioned a) it is, and b) several of the Wikipedia articles about Wycherley appear to be cut and pastes of the relevant articles from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Introduction by WC Ward

Comedies of Manners Ward describes the Restoration comedies as Comedies of Manners, contrasting them with Shakespeare’s plays which he calls Comedies of Life.

Aristocratic audiences Restoration comedies only illustrate one aspect of life, and that the most superficial – the courtly badinage of aristocrats having affairs. They were initially designed for a tiny, upper-class clientele, and kept that sense of targeting a select audience which ‘gets’ its attitude and in-jokes.

Displays of wit The plays were designed to display Wit and Ingenuity – all other human activities, all other human emotions and psychology, are simply omitted in pursuit of these goals. Their dialogue is not intended to reveal the characters’ psychology or development. It exists solely to display the author’s Wit and to further the ‘Plot’, which also exists solely to demonstrate the author’s ingenuity.

Robot characters The characters are not people, they are ‘simulacra… puppet semblances of humanity’. They only copy human behaviour insofar as is required to further the clockwork plots.

This narrow mechanical aspect of the characterisation is, in Ward’s view, paradoxically a redeeming factor when we come to consider the plays’ indecency and immorality.

Licentiousness always superficial The very fact that the characters are barely human, are really flashy automata, means that their licentiousness and cynicism has no real depth. It doesn’t affect us in the way the same speeches put into the mouths of real characters would affect us, because we know they are the baseless vapourings of toys.

Designed to amuse Ward also defends the plays against the frequent charge of licentiousness by pointing out that they are designed solely to amuse and make us laugh – they don’t even have the deeper ambition of Ben Jonson’s comedies, ‘to laugh us out of vice’.

Antidote to lust And, Ward says, the kind of superficial laughter they prompt on every page is in fact an antidote to lustful thoughts. The plays do not inflame the audience with genuinely licentious and immoral thoughts because the characters are so one-dimensional and the plots are so extravagantly ludicrous that real sexual thoughts never enter our heads.

Virtue triumphs Other critics charge that Restoration comedies only being Virtue on stage to be mocked and ridiculed, which is a bad thing. Ward admits that most of the characters lose no opportunity to mock honesty, hard work, sobriety, the law, business, chasteness and loyalty and fidelity and love. All true. But at the same time, love does eventually triumph (after a superficial fashion) the qualities of loyalty and virtue do, in the end, triumph.

Women of virtue And each play contains at least one female character, and sometimes a man, who is significantly less cynical than the other characters and becomes almost a defender of virtue. For example, Alithea in The Country Wife and Fidelia in The Plain Dealer are unironic emblems of Goodness and Virtue – and they and their values do, eventually, win the day.

Marriage mocked Other critics lament the way the sanctity of Marriage is routinely mocked, at length, continuously, throughout all the plays. Ward puts the defence that when you look closely, the specific examples of marriage being mocked are the marriages of ludicrous characters such as Pinchwife or Vernish. (This defence, in my opinion, is nowhere near adequate; all the characters mock marriage as a school for adulterers and cuckolds far more powerfully and continuously than Ward acknowledges.)

Wycherley’s poetry Ward goes on from Wycherley’s plays to discuss Wycherley’s poetry, which was published in two volumes late in his life and about which he is entertainingly rude. The poems are, in Ward’s opinion (and everyone else’s – he quotes Wycherley’s contemporaries) utterly worthless, beneath criticism. ‘Wycherley had no spark of poetry in his whole composition’.

It’s good to have this confirmed, as I thought the short poems which appear scattered through Wycherley’s plays were utterly lifeless.

Wycherley’s character As to his character:

It is not to be doubted that Wycherley participated in the fashionable follies and vices of the age in which he lived. His early intrigue with the Duchess of Cleveland was notorious.

The success of his plays drew him into aristocratic court circles which really did value the behaviour he describes.

Alexander Pope Late in life, Wycherley became a kind of mentor to the very young Alexander Pope, when the later was only 16 or 17 years old, and their correspondence, and also memoirs written about the great John Dryden, show that Wycherley was loved as a good friend by many of his contemporaries.

Essay by Thomas Babington Macauley

According to Joseph E. Riehl’s book about Charles Lamb and his critics, Macauley wrote his criticism of the Restoration dramatists at least in part as an attack or counter to Charles Lamb’s strong defence of them. Macauley argued that Restoration comedy is degrading to human relationships, and that it promoted ‘evil, perverted or shameful conduct’. I sympathise.

In the 22-page essay on the Gutenberg website, Macauley describes Wycherley’s life and character in some detail, with comments on the plays. Key points are:

Early life Wycherley was born in 1640. Young Wycherley was sent to France as a teenager, where he converted to Catholicism. After the Restoration of 1660, he went to Oxford, left without a degree, studied law at the Inns of Court just long enough to be able to make comic butts of lawyers and their hangers-on, as in The Plain Dealer.

Religious conversion Shrewdly, Wycherley converted back from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Macauley has a droll sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase:

The somewhat equivocal glory of turning, for a short time, a good-for-nothing Papist into a very good-for-nothing Protestant is ascribed to Bishop Barlow.

The Restoration court He gives a vivid sense of the promiscuity of Charles’s court:

The Duchess of Cleveland cast her eyes upon [Wycherley] and was pleased with his appearance. This abandoned woman, not content with her complaisant husband and her royal keeper, lavished her fondness on a crowd of paramours of all ranks, from dukes to rope-dancers.

The Dutch Wars He comments scornfully on the Dutch Wars:

The second Dutch war, the most disgraceful war in the whole history of England, was now raging. It was not in that age considered as by any means necessary that a naval officer should receive a professional education. Young men of rank, who were hardly able to keep their feet in a breeze, served on board the King’s ships, sometimes with commissions and sometimes as volunteers.

The Royal Navy There’s debate about whether Wycherley – like many other completely unqualified ‘gentleman’ – volunteered for the navy, but it would be nice to think so and that it gave verisimilitude to his depiction of Captain Manly and the sailors in The Plain Dealer.

The Country Wife he describes as:

one of the most profligate and heartless of human compositions… the elaborate production of a mind, not indeed rich, original or imaginative, but ingenious, observant, quick to seize hints, and patient of the toil of polishing.

Marriage and prison Wycherley was such a royal favourite that Charles appointed him tutor to his illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. However, Wycherley ruined his reputation with the king and swiftly lost the post of tutor by unwisely marrying the Countess of Drogheda, ‘a gay young widow’ in 1679. She was jealous and kept a close eye on him till she died young in 1685. He hoped he would leave her a fortune, but she left him a long and ruinous legal case. Possibly as a result of this, Wycherley was thrown into the Fleet prison where he languished for seven long years. The story goes that the newly crowned King James II (ascended the throne 1685) happened to see a performance of The Plain Dealer, asked about the author, was shocked to discover he was in gaol, paid his debts and settled an annuity on him.

Released, he was nonetheless impoverished, unable to sustain his old lifestyle, and unable to write another play. In 1704, after 27 years of silence, a volume of poetry appeared – ‘a bulky volume of obscene doggerel’.

Alexander Pope It was in the same year he formed the friendship with the young sickly hunchback Alexander Pope, who he mentored, took about town, and who in turn offered to rewrite and ‘improve’ the older man’s verse. Quite quickly Pope realised how dire Wycherley’s poetry was and that nothing could save it. Quite a few of their letters survive which shed light on both men.

Literary reputation Rests entirely on his last two plays, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. His characters are often little more than mouthpieces for the contrived wit of the time.

It was alleged he was a slow and painstaking author, but Pope claims he wrote The Plain Dealer in three weeks! Having just read both his hit plays, I am inclined to believe the slow and painstaking version. They both feel slow and laboured.

In truth, his mind, unless we are greatly mistaken, was naturally a very meagre soil, and was forced only by great labour and outlay to bear fruit which, after all, was not of the highest flavour.

Widow Blackacre Macauley is correct to say:

The widow Blackacre [is] beyond comparison Wycherley’s best comic character

In full flood she struck me as being almost a female Falstaff. But these few words of praise don’t stop Macauley taking every opportunity to damn Wycherley:

The only thing original about Wycherley, the only thing which he could furnish from his own mind in inexhaustible abundance, was profligacy.

Degrading French originals By which he means his low, mean, degraded subject matter. Macauley accuses him of taking the fine and graceful character of Agnes in the French play L’Ecole des Femmes and turning her into the degraded imbecile Mrs Pinchwife in The Country Wife.

Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe, because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome even to approach.

Similarly, Macauley accuses him of taking the light and chaste character of Viola in Twelfth Night and turning her into the much narrower and lewder Fidelia, an attempt at loyalty and fidelity who in fact acts as a pimp for her master; and of taking the misanthropic but essentially noble character Alceste in Moliere’s Le Misanthrope and turning him into the much cruder and more vengeful Manly.

So depraved was his moral taste, that, while he firmly believed that he was producing a picture of virtue too exalted for the commerce of this world, he was really delineating the greatest rascal that is to be found even in his own writings.

Wow. Not the kind of unashamed contempt a modern literary critic would allow themselves. These two pretty old essays bring Wycherely’s life and times and character and works to life far more vividly than anything else I’ve read about him. And hence the value of older literary criticism. It tends to paint a fuller picture of the man, the times and the works. And not be afraid to give pungent judgements.


Related links

Reviews of Wycherley’s plays

Other Restoration comedies

The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Guernica by J.F. Hendry

According to Wikipedia:

James Findlay Hendry (12 September 1912 – 17 December 1986) was a Scottish poet known also as an editor and writer. He was born in Glasgow, and read Modern Languages at the University of Glasgow. During World War II he served in the Royal Artillery and the Intelligence Corps. After the war he worked as a translator for international organisations, including the UN and the ILO. He later took a chair at Laurentian University. He died in Toronto. He edited with Henry Treece the poetry anthology The New Apocalypse (1939) which gave its name to the New Apocalyptics poetic group. His long poem Marimarusa was published in 1978.

In Valentine Cunningham’s big and compendious anthology, The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, Hendry is represented by a poem which is so striking and so unlike anything else in the book, that it deserves to be preserved and publicised. It’s a vivid description of Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica.

Here’s the painting:

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

And here’s the poem:

Frozen in the fright of light chilled skull and spine
Drip bone-shriek-splinters sharper than the Bren:
Starve franco stroke and starve the hooves of bulls.
I am the arm thrust candle through the wall.

Up cities crack firelaughter, the furious
Minutes and bark a ruin at man in
His sealoneliness; hair rearing finrays.
I am the spinning coil distilled eyes’ iron.

Neigh horse terror through steel teeth and a thicket
Of bricks! Beam an eyebomb, cellar, and stride
Nerve, peeled pupils’ enamel, rhomboid head!
I am the tiled blind hand plunged bulb in socket.

Splint for the shriven shin, I foster mantrump out
Of festered history; sprout pointed fingers
Where an afterbirth is dung-and-rubble-teat.
I am the eyeball blown world! Axis of anger!

Picasso: For Guernica by J.F. Hendry

It’s a valiant attempt to catch in language the wrecked visual onslaught of the painting.

But it also, quite plainly, announces a rejection of the entire world of the thirties poets with their public personas, their concern for clarity and reason and left-wing politics and up-the-workers and pointing fingers at the wretched bourgeoisie.

Instead Hendry is celebrating the exuberant power of the unfettered and private imagination in a tumble of extreme imagery and made-up words, and so marks the end of the Thirties era and the very different feel of the poetry of the 1940s.


Related links

 

 

Reflections on the monotony of poetry

Reading Poetry In the Thirties and then The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, an unexpected theme emerges which is:

The boring repetitiveness of so much of the poetry; the extraordinarily narrow range of language and the incredibly restricted vocabulary it uses.

When I was at school they told me English had the biggest vocabulary of any European language. You wouldn’t have thought so from reading these poems.

So many of the poems seem like the result of moving an extremely limited number of verbal counters into slightly varying combinations.

The monotonous repetition of a handful of ‘poetic’ buzzwords eventually drains them of all meaning and makes many of the poems feel very samey.

Here’s an A-list of the key, numbingly repeated, buzzwords, at least some of which appear in every poem in these collections:

blood, breast, death, dream, eye, heart, love, pain, red, star, sun, tears, time

What would happen to poetry if these words were simply banned? Or if poets were fined for using them? Almost all the poems in both anthologies would disappear in a puff of banality.

It’s odd, it’s a bit mad even, that poets like to swank about fighting cliché and dead language when in fact reading poetry often feels like being force-fed whole boxfulls of dusty old clichés.

A B-list of overused ‘poetic’ words would include:

bone, breath, clock, dark, dream, earth, fate, flesh, future, grave, life, light, memory, moon, night, road, sorrow, space, year, world

Well over a hundred thousand words to choose from and the poets bang on with the same 20, round and round like a donkey tied to a well.

So many of the poets think they’ve done their job if they’ve strung together ‘blood’, ‘death’ and ‘time’ in a vaguely novel arrangement but in a way, as I read the hundredth poem about ‘blood’ flowing from the ‘red’ ‘rose’ of the dying ‘earth’ etc, I began to think they were undoing something, draining these words of power, and draining their own indignation and compassion by failing to find new words, new vocabulary to express it.

Spender manages, all by himself, to drain the word ‘world’ of any meaning, overtones or symbolism by his obsessive use of it in almost every poem he wrote (and his autobiography is titled World Within World).

The pleasure of older poetry This is why it’s more enjoyable to read old poetry, the more enjoyable the further back in time you go, because you are increasingly likely to be pleasantly surprised by odd and unexpected vocabulary or by different meanings attached to words which have been bled dry in our time.

The success of W.H. Auden Looking at the poetry of the thirties from this angle – on the question of lexical variety – also sheds a different light on Auden’s success. Put simply, Auden had a larger vocabulary than anyone else. In his poetry you can hear Auden continually reaching for unexpected and novel words and combinations. Sometimes they feel contrived, but at least he’s making an effort to refresh poetry from new sources.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

‘Nip’ and ‘solder’ and ‘tableland’, God what a relief not to be reading about ‘blood’ and ‘hearts’ and ‘love’ and ‘time’ and ‘tears’ and ‘graves’. To be fair Auden uses these latter poetic keywords as much as anyone else – but he goes beyond what you could call Baseline Poetic Vocabulary, to deliberately refresh and expand its possibilities.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle…

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing…

‘Octaves of radiation’, nobody could accuse that of being poetic cliché.

I’m not saying both books don’t contain good poems, lots of them, the Val Cunningham anthology is a marvel of diligent research in the archives turning up all kinds of obscure treasures and is a huge cornucopia of delights. BUT the downside of such profusion is the reader can’t help noting the obsessive repetition of the same images and phrases again and again and eventually longs for real variety of diction and phrasing.


Examples

At five the man fell under the trees
The watch flew off stopped at a moon
Of time staring from the dead wrist (Stephen Spender)

World world O world
Youth without promise in our long days
A sun reflected in the muddy stream
An eye duller than last night’s dream (Edgar Foxall)

Death stalked the olive trees picking his men
His leaden finger beckoned again and again (John Lepper)

Backed to the brown walls of the square
The lightless lorry headlamps stare
With glinting reflectors through the night
At our gliding star of light (Stephen Spender)

And on the hillside
That is the colour of peasant bread
Is the rectangular
White village of the dead (Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Why do you not take comfort then, my heart? (Ewart Milne)

It is night like a red rag
drawn across the eyes

the flesh is bitterly pinned
to desperate vigilance

the blood is stuttering with fear  (Laurie Lee)

Time stops when the bullet strikes
Or moves to a new rhyme;
No longer measured by the eyes
Leap, pulse-beat, thought-flow  (Tom Wintringham)

Our enemies can praise death and adore death
For us endurance, the sun; and now in the night…  (Tom Wintringham)

My life confronts my life with eyes, the world
The world with microscopes; and the self-image
Lifted in light against the lens
Stares back with my dumb wall of eyes (Stephen Spender)

Light, light with that lunar death our fate;
Make more dazzling with your agony’s gold
The death that lays us all in the sand.
Gaze with that gutted eye on our endeavour
To be the human brute, not the brute human;
And if I feel your gaze upon me, ever,
I’ll wear the robe of blood that love illumines. (George Barker)

Swells the seed, and now tight sound-buds
Vibrate upholding their paean flowers
To the sun. There are bees in sky-bells droning
Flares of crimson at the heart unfold. (C. Day-Lewis)

Who would think the Spanish war
Flared like new tenure of a star,
The way our rhymes and writings are?
That Hilliard spilled his boxer’s blood
Through Albecete’s snow and mud
And smiled to comrade death, Salud?  (Blanaid Salkeld)

The horror of the nightmare is that it evades
Your steady look, steals past the corner of the eye,
Lurks in the sides of pictures. Death
Is fearful for the fifth part of a second,
A fear that shakes the heart: and that fear lost
As soon, yet leaves and sickness and a chill,
Heavy hands and the weight of another day.

Here in Madrid, facing death
my narrow heart keeps hidden
a love which grieves me but which I cannot
even reveal to this night   (Stephen Spender)

Enemies hidden in ambush
Hidden among the branches;
Weeping comes to the eyes,
Harvests go up in flames,
And hysterical Death
Over the puddles of blood
Howls and dances in rage,
Leaps and fastens on flesh.  (Pla y Bektrana translated by Rolfe Humphries)

You are stalwart, strong;
Young generations of sturdy miners
Have forged you – iron is in your blood.  (Charlotte Haldane)

Dark falls the afternoon,
Dark amid rain and mud…  (José Moreno Villa translated by Stanley Richardson)

I’m singing in every country
Where I tread through the streets of Time…  (Clive Branson)

When from the deep sky
And digging in the harsh earth,
When by words hard as bullets
Thoughts simple as death…  (Tom Wintringham)

In the night, the cause I fight for
Draws a mist of horror up, damps me with blood..  (Miles Tomalin)

There, in the frond, the instant lurks
With its metal fang planned for my heart
When the finger tugs and the clock strikes.  (Stephen Spender)

Searchlights now wipe the windscreen of the sky,
Which once was clear,
When from the garden we saw planes go by
Not dulled by fear.  (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why are there only three emotions, love or hate or fear? The whole world of subtle feelings and emotion in between these extremes – shyness, demurral, shrugging, hesitation, indignation, humour – is absent.

Out of the singing and the dancing came
Civil dissension, bitter deeds, and cruel;
Out of the poet and the murdered fool
The blood leapt rigid in a rage of shame.  (J.C. Hall)

Why is it either primal day or night?

We’d left our training base
And by the time night fell
Stood facing the universe
Singing the ‘Internationale’  (Clive Branson)

Why is every other thought about death? I appreciate they’re poems about war, but other things happen in war apart from just death.

Too many people are in love with Death (Tom Wintringham)

The map of Spain
bleeds under my fingers, cracked with rivers
of unceasing tears, and scraped with desolation
and valleyed with these moaning winds of death.  (Jack Lindsay)

But even now reproaching stars can sound
from death‘s horizon into which they dive…  (Kathleen Raine)

Fear will alight on each like a dunce’s cap
Or an unguessed disease unless death drops
Quicker than the sirens or the traffic stops  (Bernard Gutteridge)

It’s not that it’s inappropriate to write of death during a war, it’s that the word is just bandied around too easily and too glibly, it’s the monotony of this one boring word which becomes so grinding.

Now we can walk into the picture easily
To be the unknown hero and the death…  (Bernard Gutteridge)

Ask of the eagle that yelped overhead
where in the blaze of death the Spanish workers blocked
the Guadarrama passes with their dead.  (Jack Lindsay)

And any more poets who rhyme ‘death’ with ‘breath’ deserve to be shot.

Why are the only parts of the human body the heart, the eye and blood?

Men, worlds, nations,
pay heed, listen to my cry pouring out blood,
gather together the pulses of my breaking heart
into your spacious hearts,
because I clutch the soul when I sing.  (Miguel Hernandez translated by Stephen Spender)

Scorched and splintered lie its stones,
Blood is dust with flesh and hair…  (Miles Tomalin)

There are over 650 named muscles in the human body, over 200 bones, and scores of other fluids besides blood and tears. But only blood and heart and eye are ever mentioned, and not just occasionally, but over and over again, three body parts endlessly re-arranged by a madman.

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view. (John Cornford)

Why are the only things above us the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars? The clouds come in a hundred forms, the weather is complex and changeable, constellations and stars twinkle.

The sun warmed the valley but no birds sang
The sky was rent with shrapnel and metallic clang.

Ten years of sun and shadow. Ten years of the premonition of love and the omen of death… (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why is the only flower any of them have heard of ‘the rose’?

Can’t you smell the rose held in their teeth
Tighter than death?  (Clive Branson)

The centre of my heart like a red tree
Puts forth a hand and indicates the common red rose  (George Barker)

Why are there only two colours, red or black? It’s extraordinary, when we know that the human eyes can distinguish between about ten million shades of colour, that all the colours the poets in this collection refer to are red and black.

Out of the newsprint blows this wind of honour,
pause reading amid the traffic blast. Seal down,
red as the heart, the oath that we must swear
if we are still to live on such an earth  (Jack Lindsay)

Why is the only animal the dog? OK, the ox also appears a few times. There might be a few chickens. Are they all the animal species which exist in Spain or which poets can imagine?

The world is full, full of millions of things, hundreds of thousands of plants and animals and fungi, the entire range of modern machinery and technology, thousands of colours or moods of weather or human feelings, the thousands of words for the millions of intricate specificities of life.

It’s amazing how much of all that is left out of these poems, excluded by their narrow notions of poetic correctness, by their over-concern with a handful of ideas and images, with their incredible poverty of vocabulary and imagination.


Related links

The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse edited by Valentine Cunningham (1980)

Val Cunningham was a tutor of mine at Oxford. He had a trainspotter’s enthusiasm for the poetry and prose of the 1930s and an encyclopedic knowledge of the journals, magazines, pamphlets, plays and poems and books written during and about the era, as well as an endless fascination with the letters and diaries and other texts which relate to them.

This enthusiasm comes over powerfully in this anthology which is huge and detailed and cluttered with editorial apparatus, including a preface, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, and three indexes, of authors, titles and first lines.

The ‘notes’ are, disappointingly, mostly lists of textual variants i.e. highlighting where words or phrases of a poem were different in different magazine or book versions, for example that in line 4 of Herbert Read’s Bombing casualties in Spain, ‘spatter’d’ was later changed to ‘spattered’. Fair enough, for scholarly completeness.

But God, it would have been so much better if he’d given useful factual notes about the myriads of place names and events which are mentioned in the poems and which, unannotated, have sunk into oblivion – a massive opportunity missed. For example, when Radio Burgos is mentioned in one poem (p.292) we have to guess from the context or look up on the internet to find that it was the leading propaganda station of the Nationalists. There are hundreds of occasions when decent notes would have helped the reader’s understanding and enjoyment significantly.

Preface

Cunningham claims his anthology is the first one ever to bring together all the worthwhile poems about the Spanish Civil War by British and Irish poets along with ‘supporting prose’ i.e. (some) letters, diary entries, essays and reviews. It is also a first in including quite a few translations, specially from the Spanish genre of the romancero, as well as dozens of new poems he’s dug up out of the dusty archives of, for example, the International Brigades of British communists who went and volunteered to fight in Spain.

As well as bringing to the fore ‘unfairly ignored’ poets such as Charles Donnelly, Ewart Milne, Clive Branson, Tom Wintringham and Miles Tomalin, Cunningham also wants to share his surprise at just how much Stephen Spender wrote about the conflict, in his ‘serious and sensitive, often anguished, always would-be honest’ way (p.17). Spender is represented by some 27 poems and translations, far more than anyone else (Auden 2, MacNeice 1).

Cunningham is not backward in mentioning the number of ‘personal correspondences’ he’s had with survivors of the era, who have ‘personally’ explained various events or works, or ‘kindly given permission’ for previously unpublished works to be included.

For example, he includes a passage from the Mass Declamation (i.e. a work written to be declaimed by a theatrical troupe) On Guard! sent to him by the work’s author Jack Lindsay. He mentions a letter to him which the poet Ewart Milne explains how the mood of the volunteers changed as promising writers started getting themselves killed.

The word ‘me’ occurs more often than you’d expect in a literary introduction.

Introduction

This is a weighty piece of writing, at 67 densely-written pages but, despite being packed full of facts and names and quotes and references to scores of books of memoirs and diaries and letters, it’s hard to make out any real ideas.

I think the first part addresses the ‘myth’ that the Spanish Civil War was a ‘poets’ war’ but you have to ask who would ever believe that in the first place. Only English students or fans of the poetry, presumably. Most other people surely think the Spanish Civil War was fought between the Spanish for reasons to do with Spanish history, culture and politics and that 99% of the casualties were Spanish.

Cunningham gives no explanation of the background or trigger for the war, no political analysis, nothing about Spanish history. Instead the introduction cuts straight to the response among the English, London-based literati and dives into a dense undergrowth of memoirs and memories and the literary and political arguments of the time.

We hear about the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the Communist Party of Great Britain. We read about its general secretary Harry Pollitt’s (apocryphal) advice to various leading writers, notably Stephen Spender, to go to straight to the front and get themselves killed – ‘the movement needs a Byron!’

In a roundabout way (i.e. they’re not the main focus) we learn some facts: that some 2,762 Britons volunteered and fought, of whom about 80% were working class (who on earth worked that out?), and 543 were killed. One of the really big features of the anthology is the number of poems by ‘amateurs’ who actually fought in the war and whose works are buried in fading copies of the Daily Worker or, in this case, the short-lived magazine Poetry and the People.

They had no country but the hope of a new country.
They answered the secret radio in their hearts.
From the factories, fields and workshops of all nations,
From the millions shackled by greed, made less than human…

(from International Brigade by R. Gardner)

The first English volunteer to be killed was the Communist Party member, the painter Felicia Browne. Some of the earliest volunteers were in Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad, which was intended as a protest against the 1936 Olympic Games being held in Nazi Germany.

John Cornford, later lionised for his commitment, actually fought in both his spells in Spain, for the POUM, the Anarchist militia who the Communists later suppressed during the violent May Days in Barcelona. Cunningham highlights the contortions the Communist party’s official organ, the Daily Worker had to go through in order to explain this embarrassing fact (he was young and naive, the POUM had not yet revealed itself in its Trotskyite, splittist nature etc).

Cunningham quotes from the article Spender wrote when he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain with great fanfare in February 1937 and examines in detail its textual provenance and tries to nail down exactly how long Spender was a member for (I hadn’t realised it was notoriously ‘brief’ period, a few months at most). Next to this Cunningham puts the passage from The God That Failed, published ten years later (1949), where Spender admits that both the urge to fight in Spain and to ‘unite’ with the workers were driven by personal doubts and anxieties. He was driven on:

by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.

Cunningham has an entertaining passage on the questionnaire part-drafted by Auden and sent to 150 or so of the most eminent artists, writers & intellectuals in free i.e. non-fascist Europe, asking them which side they were on, because it was ‘impossible’ not to take sides now that fascism was knocking at the door. I’ve always admired Evelyn Waugh’s response, which was to say that suggesting there were only two sides, and that people had to choose, was ‘mischievous’. There are always more than two sides, and nobody has to choose anything: that is the essence of the ‘free’ society they claimed to be fighting for.

Cunningham doesn’t really address the issue raised by Waugh’s reply which is – what if both sides were wicked?

1. The Republican / socialist side started committing atrocities as soon as hostilities broke out, burning churches and murdering nuns and priests. Waugh is correct to say that forcing everyone to choose between murderous fascists and murderous socialists is a mischievous choice.

2. Cunningham openly sympathises with what he calls the liberal-left (p.54) but it wasn’t liberal, was it? Spender, Cornford and many less well-known figures were communists, members of a party devoted to the violent overthrow of the existing democracy in Britain, the mass arrest of all political opponents, the seizure of all private property, the state control of all means of production and distribution and the establishment of forced labour camps for anyone who stepped out of line.

The Communist Party of Great Britain rigorously followed whatever line Stalin told them to, and we can be in doubt that this is the policy Stalin would have applied to Britain as he applied it to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania after the Second World War.

This wasn’t just theory. He quotes Franz Borkenau sauntering round revolutionary Barcelona just a month after the war started, August 1936, cheerfully pointing out that the factories have been taken over by the workers, the hotels and shops ‘expropriated’ and the churches gutted. The devastation of the churches is reinforced by a longer prose account by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the gutting of the churches famously upset Auden. Still, Borkenau goes on, young Spanish women, liberated from the patriarchy, were wearing ‘trousers’!

This is the kind of sexy politically correct detail which distracts from a harder look at the facts. What percentage of the population of Spain were devout Catholics? Well, you just alienated all of them by burning their churches (and imprisoning or beating their priests). What percentage was factory owners and their families and the cadre of suppliers and service industry professions like accountants and auditors and safety inspectors? Well, you’ve just thrown all of them into the opposing camp, too. And what percentage of the population are the owners of the hotels and shops? Well, do you think depriving them of their livelihoods is going to win them over?

This is the structural problem of the Left everywhere: it claims to speak for the masses and the majority, but its dreams of nationalisation and state ownership, expropriation, confiscation and collectivisation appeal, in practice, only to a small number of intellectuals and political activists (who are often motivated mainly by personal issues and liberal guilt, exemplified here by Stephen Spender). Meanwhile, all its policies taken together alienate the majority of any population.

3. Cunningham sympathises with the authors who made a saint and martyr of Federico García Lorca and used his appalling murder to show how fascists treat intellectuals and that is why all intellectuals must rally round the Republican. It was a disgusting murder and the fascists who did it were pigs, but Stalin. Stalin’s Russia. Stalin’s Russia’s way with liberals and intellectuals. Arrest, torture, execution, labour camps.

4. The argument goes that you can’t blame all these left-liberals because they didn’t yet really understand this about Stalin yet, that it was precisely as a result of the bitter disillusioning of the Spanish Civil War that anti-Soviet views became more commonplace afterwards, a process in which Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia holds a leading place – even though leading publishers like Gollancz turned it down because of its criticism of the Communists, and before the war it was poorly reviewed and sold badly.

Only a lot later did a really settled anti-Stalin mood take hold of the British intelligentsia, maybe not till after the war, maybe not till the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 turned a generation of intellectuals away from Communism.

5. The most fundamental objection to the English poetry of the Spanish Civil War is that they were tourists. They went, they dipped their toes in the reality of war and revolution, and then they ran back to Surrey. Orwell wrote a scathing review of Auden’s poem, Spain, which nails its lack of human sympathy and its attitudinising, and drew the general conclusion:

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot. (quoted page 71)

Cunningham has several pages describing how desperate all these posh, upper-middle-class public schoolboys were to be down with the workers, and how this is always an easier delusion to achieve when you are in a foreign country and your accent and use of language don’t give you away, like they immediately did back in class-ridden Blighty.

From small beginnings mighty ends,
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught at public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and England wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles… (Edgell Rickword)

Spain, for many of these writers, was a holiday away from the prison of their wretched class-consciousness. That is why the frank handshake with the Italian anarchist at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia is such a massive moment for Orwell; it symbolised total unquestioning acceptance by a real working man of a kind he could never dream of or find in the country where they spoke his own language and instantly spotted him for the Old Etonian he could never cease to be. It was so important for him that he not only memorialises it in Catalonia but wrote a poem about it (p.309). If you’re in one mood it is a moving testament to revolutionary solidarity. But seen from a different angle, it is an unintentionally funny testament to just how desperately Orwell wanted to be accepted by ‘the working class’ and what huge, enormous, religious, almost sexual relief it brought him for this to happen, finally, after years of trying:

The Italian soldier shook my hand
Beside the guard-room table;
The strong hand and the subtle hand
Whose palms are only able

To meet within the sounds of guns,
But oh! what peace I knew then
In gazing on his battered face
Purer than any woman’s!

Cunningham’s introduction is long but leaves many basic questions unanswered. There is no sketch of the timeline of the war (even one page would have helped).

It may be useful to remind readers that General Franco led a military coup against the democratically elected socialist government, expecting to seize key locations and power within days, but that ‘the people’ and a broad coalition of left-wing parties rallied against the soldiers, seized key cities and what was intended to be a quick coup degenerated into a long, agonising civil war between the military, who became known as the Nationalists (aided by troops and arms from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), and the democratic government and all its supporters, who became known as the Republicans.

The Republican government was not supported by either France or Britain, who chose a policy of neutrality but banned arms sales or exports to it, much to the disgust of workers, students and writers everywhere, who volunteered and travelled to Spain to fight in what were quickly organised and titled International Brigades.

Although it took nearly three years of bitter fighting, the support given to Franco by the fascists, and the lack of support for the Republicans – as well as serious, fratricidal conflicts among the Republicans – eventually led to the complete triumph of the fascist forces by March 1939.

None of this is explained by Cunningham. Instead his introduction goes from a long consideration of the heroic outpouring of sympathy and the rush of poets and communists to enlist right at the start, to its abrupt end and everyone coming home disillusioned three years later, with not much explanation of what happened in between.

Above all there’s surprisingly little literary criticism. Cunningham has nothing at all to say about the poetry as poetry, about the range of genres and forms, the tones of voice and registers, the different types of imagery. There is a huge amount to be said about all this and he says nothing.

Instead the introduction is a rambling exploration of the changing attitudes of poets and writers, with extended consideration given to the attitudes towards the war, the struggle, the working class and so on as demonstrated in the writings of – especially – Auden, Spender and Orwell.

Thus he has a couple of pages about the long poem, titled simply Spain, which Auden wrote for a pamphlet which was sold to raise funds for the Republicans but focuses entirely on how the poem captures Auden’s attitude to the war, not on its merits as a poem.

Cunningham considers Spain a failure because it never engages with the subject matter but keeps it at a detached, academic distance. He goes on to say how even Auden’s close friends were disappointed by this chilly lack of emotion, and his enemies leapt on it as typical of upper-class dilettantism.

I.e there is a lot about the poet’s supposed attitude and the attitudes of his friends and enemies to his attitudes… but of the unique stanza form Auden invented for it, or the use of rhetorical devices or imagery, or Auden’s deliberately varied vocabulary, there is nothing.

I took away three parting thoughts:

1. Orwell and truth George Orwell’s experience in Spain – of the Stalinists lying and deceiving everyone, and then of English left-wing magazines and publishers willingly conniving in these lies – crystallised the concern absolute truth-telling which not only underpinned the huge amount of literary journalism he poured out in the remaining ten years of his life but, more importantly, led to the central concept of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

2. Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War spelled the end of English Socialist Realism. This idea is rather abruptly introduced, and it is a shame Cunningham doesn’t define anywhere what English Socialist Realism actually is – did anyone anywhere use that term at the time? He doesn’t say. He includes quite a few really long poems which are clearly to be read out loud or declaimed and so lack the subtlety of poems to be read – but nowhere relates their form or style to the tradition of agitprop poetry which developed after the Bolshevik revolution and spread across Europe in the 20s. Shame.

Anyway, you get the general idea. The entire generation of 30s poets thought poetry should be public, accessible and written in a political cause, the burningly important left-wing cause. Put simply, after Spain (General Franco declared the war over on 1 April 1939) the poets gave up. They retreated from the hundreds of manifestos and books and poems and declarations and essays about poetry’s social purpose and sank back into accepting poetry as the bourgeois activity of a pampered, educated class, and not even many of them.

3. War is war All these naive young writers had read the anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but thought that war in a good cause would be somehow different, different from the bad imperialist First World War.

Turned out it wasn’t, and Cunningham quotes letters from English volunteers, including even the firebrand John Cornford, pointing out that war is war – ugly, unromantic, a lot of boredom then intense periods of stress and terror, unbelievable devastation and pain, and death, lots of death. In his letters home, quoted at length, Cornford itemises the deaths of individual members of his unit, each one an irreplaceable loss. International Brigader Tom Wintringham also names specific comrades lost, and there’s a moving poem by Jack Lindsay, Requiem Mass, with a paragraph each devoted to thirteen fallen comrades from the International Brigade, including Cornford (pp.179-183).

This was another disillusionment the war brought, and it helps to explain why the conflict-virgin poets were able to write so many impassioned poems about the Spanish Civil War but, having had all their illusions burned down to ashes, failed to lift a finger when the real war, the Second World War, commenced in September of the same year. As the Australian writer and communist Jack Lindsay put it:

Having felt for Spain, what further can we feel?

By that time their leader, Auden, had left the country, the movement was over, by then everyone had to accept the sad truth embodied in Day-Lewis’s glum lines, from the tellingly short and tellingly titled Where Are The War Poets? (1941):

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

To the whole of the rest of the country it was obvious what the Second World War was about –  we were fighting a war of survival against an evil enemy. You had to have gone to a very expensive private school and been a member of a peculiar and insular intellectual elite, to see the war against Hitler as somehow a defeat and a failure even before it began. One by one the thirties poets abandoned all their former positions and beliefs and, in later years, were quick to disown them and, where possible, rewrote or even banned their poems from this period.


The poems

Cunningham makes a very wide selection, including 201 poems and a dozen or more prose pieces from no fewer than 85 authors! He divides them into 14 categories:

  1. The map of pain
  2. Junker angels in the sky
  3. He is dead and gone
  4. The crime was in Granada
  5. Prisoner
  6. Ballads of heroes
  7. Romanceros
  8. The internationals
  9. Heroic notes
  10. Insensible at such a time
  11. That fighting was a long way off
  12. Photogenic war
  13. Talking bronco
  14. But some remember Spain

Two sections stand out.

Prisoner consists entirely of 17 poems by Clive Branson (most of them previously unpublished) who, as the title suggests, was fighting for an International Brigade when he was captured by the Nationalists in March 1938 and held as a prisoner of war at the Nationalist camp of San Pedro de Cardeña. He had the freedom to paint and sketch the camp and many of its inmates, apparently at the request of the authorities (this is specifically mentioned in one of the poems) and some of this work survives in the Marx Memorial Library in London. His poems are so-so.

A delicate breeze sufficient to stir
Light dust, a little leaf, by an insect’s wing

Dance music on the wireless; between prisoner
And a girl dressed like a rose, a smile.

A leaf, a frog, a shadow, a piece of paper
A trickle of water, reading, writing

These things on a stillness deeper than all
Took a whole afternoon to drift with the canal.

(A Sunday Afternoon by Clive Branson, 1938)

A romancero is a type of Spanish folk ballad, whose lineage stretches back to the early Middle Ages. The form was revived during the war as a popular and accessible genre appropriate to the Republican cause. Section 7 of this anthology consists of 21 romanceros in translations by contemporary British poets.

Day of metal, day of masses,
Day of cannon, day of churchbells,
Day of shrines and day of bullets,
Strewn with fresh blood and with blossoms –
Such the day the fascists looked for
On that morrow of that nightfall
When they took Madrid.

Day of metal and of masses –
All the fascist drums foretold it,
All the parrot voices hailed it.
Not tomorrow? Well, the next day,
Wednesday, perhaps, or Thursday
(All are one to Radio Burgos).

Then the morning’s light would lighten
Under the triumphal archway
Franco stepping from the chariot;
Then the Moors would swing their sabres
And the Spanish heads go rolling;
Then the Archbishop of Burgos
Would bestow an ample blessing
On the Arabs and the Bedouins,
On the Nazis and the Ethiops,
On the frizzled and the smooth-haired
Saviours of Spain…

(from El dia que no vendra byJosé Herrera Petere translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Prose It was a very good decision to include some key prose texts. Thus we have short prose works about their time in Spain by:

  • Auden in Valencia (pp.100-102)
  • Orwell in Barcelona
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner in Barcelona, particularly penetrating about the gutted churches and the commandeered villas of the rich (pp.136-141)
  • ten pages or more of the letters John Cornford wrote to his girlfriend Margot Heinemann (pp.118-128)
  • Heinemann’s own recollections of him
  • a couple of pages in which Louise MacNeice describes his flying visit just before Barcelona fell to the Nationalists
  • Spender’s review of a volume memorialising Cornford which came out during the war (pp.263-266)
  • a moving testimonial to his colleagues in the International Brigade by Tom Wintringham (pp.307-309), and a separate piece vividly describing what it is like to be bombed (pp.315-322)
  • Spender very sensitively explaining why heroising the war (they died like heroes) is a way of hiding the reality of dying alone, in great pain and terror (pp.334-338)
  • a terrifyingly intense short story by Ewart Milne describing the narrator looking after a wounded young man on a long rattling train journey, till the man gets up saying he needs to go for a pee, and simple steps out the train door, falling off cliffs to his death (pp.342-349)
  • another long passage from Ewart Milne (pp.355-364)
  • Spender, travelling as part of the International Writers Congress, being shown how carefully the Republican government was safekeeping its art treasures (pp.415-417)
  • Spender’s review of Picasso’s painting Guernica shrewdly points out that conveys the experience not of being there when the bombs exploded, but of reading about the bombs exploding; it captures the nightmare of reading about terrible experiences (pp.418-420)
  • Spender’s review of Roy Campbell’s book of poetry, Flowering Rifle (pp.440-443)
  • Roy Campbell’s bombastic ranting reply to Spender’s review (pp.443-446)

A lot of this prose is much more evocative than the often rather samey poetry. It has more range and flexibility. Here’s Tom Wintringham who saw plenty of fighting:

The loaded bombers crawling across the skies reach the senses in a faint trembling of not-yet-noise, like the trembling of a baited deep-sea line. (p.317)

It is extremely useful to have all these sources in one handy paperback volume. Very.

Women Worth pointing out, too, that even back in 1978 (when his preface is dated) Cunningham was making an effort to include more women’s voices. Thus we have poems and prose from Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kathleen Raine, Charlotte Haldane, Aileen Palmer, Valentine Ackland, Blánaid Salkeld, Elizabeth Cluer, Nancy Cunard of all people, and Cornford’s girlfriend, Margot Heinemann who, in Cunningham’s selection, emerges as a pretty impressive poet in her own right.

Here she is lamenting the death of her man and trying to address the nagging thought, spoken by friends, or in her own head, asking why why why the best and most passionate seem to be the ones who die. Up to ‘so loved’ it is the (inner) accuser and the tormentor in her head speaking. From ‘Yes’ she refutes its argument. Sidney Carton was the wastrel layabout who redeems his life by exchanging himself for the much-loved hero of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities. Carton goes willingly to the guillotine so the young hero can go free and be reunited with his true love. In this poem Heinemann dramatises that wish: if only ranks of losers and layabouts died in war instead of the pure and true, instead of her man.

In our long nights the honest tormentor speaks
And in our casual conversations:
‘He was so live and young – need he have died,
Who had the wisest head, who worked so hard,
Led by his own sheer strength; whom I so loved?’
Yes, you’d like an army all of Sidney Cartons,
The best world made conveniently by wasters, second rates,
Someone that we could spare,
And not the way it has to be made,
By the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.

(from Grieve in a New Way for New Losses by Margot Heinemann)

‘Whom I loved so’ – when you really grasp the import of that phrase, you realise how terrible her loss must have been, and how bravely she’s trying to face it in this poem.

Browsing One of the points of an anthology is you can dip and browse and notice something different each time. Ignoring the famous poets (Spender, Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice) there’s a lot of pleasure to be had exploring the far less well-known poets Cunningham has made a point of including.

Commitment For many of these lesser or amateur poets the pleasure is mixed in the sense that, it might not be great poetry, but you can sense the passion and the commitment, and that has a psychological interest of its own. This poem combines unashamed use of traditional stanzas and rhythm with a kind of honest statement of commitment, which I found moving.

Brave sons of liberty, fallen in battle,
Fallen that we, their successors, might live,
Bravely they faced the machine-gunner’s rattle,
Giving so bravely all they’d to give.

Hurriedly, carelessly, rudely, we buried them,
Buried them quickly, beneath the brown soil.
Hurriedly, quickly, we gave them our blessing,
Then we returned to our heart-breaking toil.

Theirs is no splendour, the fallen in action;
Theirs was no pomp, neither glory nor show,
They were the cream of the Communist fraction,
We were the reapers but they went to sow.

Shall we forget them who never forgot us,
Defending the workers, while fighting in Spain?
Shall we stay passive while fascism threatens us?
Shall their great effort be made all in vain?

Never forget them, the lesson they taught us,
Think of their travail, their suffering, pain.
Raise the red standard and help us, support us,
Lest we see in England what happened in Spain.

(For the Fallen by W.B. Keal, published in The Daily Worker, October 1937)

Conclusion

So:

  1. The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse is an unprecedentedly thorough collection of poetry and prose relating to the Spanish Civil War.
  2. Despite the lack of logic and key information in the introduction, the book as a whole is packed with new information, insights and angles on the subject.
  3. In among this huge collection there are gems and pleasure a-plenty.

It is a book to browse amid, and look up things, and refer back to, and read bits again and generally live with, participating, even at a distance, in the passion, the comradeship, the idealism and the disillusion of that now-distant time…

British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Members of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, 1936


Related links

The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch – A Summary

On the back of the book, on Wikipedia and in various other locations, large claims are made for The Sleepwalkers, the trilogy of ‘modernist’ novels by Austrian writer Hermann Broch. They are all along the lines of it being ‘a portrait of a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’.

Having read all three novels quite carefully, the aim of this little essay is to question some of these claims and to put the trilogy into a broader historical perspective. If this seems a questionable thing to do, then bear in mind that the novels themselves – especially the third one – include long passages which take a very highbrow, Hegelian view of history, and which analyse the development of Western culture since the Renaissance right down to the present day.

In other words, rather than applying an alien and academic approach to what are essentially fictions, it’s more accurate to say that I am continuing Broch’s own obsession with the present plight of Western Civilisation and his own lengthy analyses of where Western Man has gone wrong – and applying this approach to his own books.

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers is a panoramic overview of German society and history

The Sleepwalkers is emphatically not ‘a panoramic overview of German society and the collapse of its values’. It is three portraits of tiny groups of characters, each one centring on individuals who are psychologically unbalanced.

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers portray ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’

1. The books are spread over thirty years, from 1888 to 1918. That’s not ‘a world’, that’s three distinct eras. Imagine saying three novels set in the England of 1988, 2003 and 2018, as describing ‘a world’ – they might be set in the same country but the social setup, the politics and feel of each of those moments would be very different. Same here.

2. None of the books really describe ‘a world‘ – it felt to me like the opposite: each novel describes tiny, unrepresentative groups of characters.

The Romantic is about army officer Joachim von Paselow, his Bohemian mistress Ruzena, his posh fiancée Elisabeth and his suave ex-army friend, Eduard von Bertrand. That’s not a portrait of ‘a world’. That’s a drawing room drama. It barely has enough characters in it to make a sitcom.

Similarly, The Anarchist concerns a relatively small number of characters, namely the book-keeper August Esch, the woman he bullies into marrying him (Mother Hentjen), the brother and sister he boards with in Mannheim, the local tobacconist and a trade union activist who gets locked up, and with three or four theatrical types he goes into business with. About the wider world beyond these ten or so characters we hear very little. Hardly the portrait of ‘a world’. It’s a microcosm.

The closing pages of the third novel in the trilogy, The Realist, are the only place where you have a sense of the wider world and History impinging on the characters, as they describe the anarchy which breaks out at the very end of the Great War, but these final passages leave a misleading impression: the nearly 300 pages which preceded them, once again, focus on a handful of characters: Huguenau the canny deserter, Esch from the second book who we now meet running a small newspaper, Joachim von Pasenow from the first book, who is now an elderly major in charge of the town, and a handful of civic dignitaries and workers. Again this is the opposite of ‘a world’, it is more like a small village.

3. Another sense in which the novels don’t describe a world is the way the lead figures in all three books are psychologically extreme characters. To be a little more analytical, they are highly unrepresentative figures.

– Joachim von Pasenow becomes subject to increasingly prolonged bouts of delusion and almost delirium. He has little or no grasp on the ‘real’ world, as his friend Eduard von Bertrand is quick to point out.

– August Esch is a dim-witted bully, whose malfunctioning mind is overtaken by absurdly grandiose, religio-philosophical psychodramas.

– Huguenau is calm and collected and detached from reality, an early forebear of the hundreds of psychopaths described in thousands of modern thrillers. This feeling is crystallised when he murders Esch in cold blood, stabbing him from behind with an army bayonet in a darkened street.

The third novel is longer and more complex than the others, but follows the same broad arc whereby the central character becomes drowned in their author’s increasingly lengthy pseudo-philosophical and religious ramblings.

So: three fruitcakes, three psychological cases and their close friends and associates do not constitute a world and are not really ‘a portrait’ of anything (if they really build up to anything, it’s a very negative summary of ‘the German character’, see below).

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers is a bold analysis of the collapse of Western values

Even if it were anything like a panoramic overview etc (which it isn’t), portraying the collapse in values in modern Germany (1888-1918) could hardly be called original.

In fact, it would be deeply unoriginal, since this topic of decline and fall was the obsessive subject of most German politics and culture in the decade after the Great War.

The territory had already been well staked out by Oswald Spengler’s classic of gloomy pessimism, The Decline of the West. Spengler’s book depicted the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts (i.e. Symbolism, Expressionism and everything else which Spengler disliked).

The Decline was published in 1922 and was an immediate bestseller, setting the tone for cultural debate throughout the Weimar period.

A 1928 Time review of the second volume of Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler’s ideas enjoyed during the 1920s: ‘When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so’. (Wikipedia)

Quite. Lamenting the decline and fall of ‘Western values’ was an intellectual parlour game played by every intellectual, writer, critic, commentator, aspiring politician and pub bore in the Western world.

Therefore, claiming that Broch’s massive novel about ‘the collapse of social values’ was in any way innovative or ground-breaking is ridiculous, seeing as it was published ten years after Spengler’s book had set the tone and defined the age.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot holds up because (among many other things) it is an excoriating portrait of mental collapse amid what genuinely seemed – in the immediate aftermath of the Great War – to be a continent in flames. But it got in early (like the Spengler it was published in 1922) and established a marker for a new technique and tone to describe the world. The Sleepwalkers, on the contrary, was published ten years later, and was more like a tardy latecomer to the debate.

Using Walter Laqueur to critique The Sleepwalkers

1. The Sleepwalkers’ cultural pessimism, far from being innovative, was entirely in line with its time and place

A few years ago I read half a dozen books about the Weimar Republic to coincide with some art exhibitions on the subject. By far the most convincing was Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur, who had the advantage of growing up during the period (born 1921, he fled Germany in 1938).

Laqueur’s history of Weimar is interesting because, unlike most left-wing academics who tend to concentrate on the communist writers and composers and the gender-bending nightclubs etc, Laqueur gives full weight to the conservative cultural forces of the time.

Above all he makes it all the more clear that so many of the liberal or left-wing, Socialist or communist artists, writers, playwrights etc who infested the Weimar Republic, did everything they could to undermine it and nothing to support it and thus materially contributed to its overthrow by Hitler and the Nazis.

I was continually reminded of Laqueur and his diagnosis as I read the final volume in the trilogy, The Realist. This is divided into short alternating chapters describing – or in the voice of – eight or so key characters.

One of these is (rather inevitably) an academic – not a professor of medicine or physics or engineering or anything useful, but (again, rather inevitably) a philosopher, and it is he who is the author of a series of sections entitled ‘The Disintegration of Values’.

These ‘Disintegration of Values’ sections go on at some length about the horrors of ‘this age’ and the laziness and cowardice of ‘our age’. The author is something of an aesthete and seems to be an expert in architecture. His sections repeatedly make the point, at immense, circumlocutionary length, that the unornamented style of modern post-war architecture bespeaks a deliberate banishment of ‘style’ and ‘beauty’ which is, ultimately, the emptiness of death.

‘Style’ and ‘Beauty’ we are told, reached their heights in the Middle Ages when all Europeans believed in one ideology, Catholicism as promoted by the universal Catholic Church, and everyone shared the same values and so art was accessible to all. But the Renaissance broke this happy balance between public and private, promoting the value of ‘the individual’, and then the Protestant Revolution smashed it wide open, leading to civil war in Europe but, more importantly, to the triumph of the each individual finding their own path to God.

This quest for individualism has led to 400 years of decline, in social life, art and architecture, until we reach the sorry depths described in Broch’s novels, which, he now explains to us, are meant to be detailed descriptions of how older values have been rejected in favour of the current state of soulless materialism and everyone-for-themselves consumer capitalism.

These sections are example of the worst kind of turgid, long-winded, grandstanding German philosophising. The author of these sections is not slow to drop in learnèd tags, like cogito ergo sum and refer to Neo-Kantianism or Hegelian notions of Geist – and confidently makes sweeping generalisations about all Western history interpreted as an interplay between The Rational and the Irrational etc.

But none of this really masks the fact that, deep down, the author is another drunk old bore propping up a bar somewhere telling anyone who comes near enough that the world is going to the dogs. And quite quickly this becomes really tiresome.

2. The Sleepwalkers is a good example of turgid, incomprehensible Germanic philosophising at its worst

Laqueur’s review of Weimar culture gives pen portraits of the works of numerous figures from the era who are now totally forgotten. Quite quickly you realise something almost all of them had in common was that they were:

  • long-winded and verbose
  • at the same time, extremely obscure and hard to understand
  • full of dire cosmic predictions about the collapse of civilisation and the end of the Western world

You notice this because Laqueur goes to some lengths to point it out and emphasise that long-winded, pretentious obscurity is an enduring strand of German culture.

Take the works of Moeller van den Bruck who wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). Well that describes Broch’s huge trilogy to a T. Here are some other Laqueur comments on writers of the period:

The German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision… (p.63)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

Sounds like Broch.

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Quite. That sounds exactly like the thought processes which come to dominate the characters Joachim von Pasenow and August Esch – long-winded, verbose, over-the-top, full of pretentious, world-shattering generalisations which, on a moment’s reflection, mean nothing.

3. The Sleepwalkers revels in the corruption it portrays without offering any positive vision

What I came to dislike over the ten days I was immersed in these three heavy, turgid novels, is the way Broch’s vast trilogy revels in psychological collapse. It glories in the hysteria and confusion of its characters. It smiles with glee as they hallucinate, scheme and panic.

The Sleepwalkers enjoys its descriptions of corruption. It takes 150 densely-written pages to dissect the character of the loathsome, stupid and mentally ill army officer Joachim von Paselow, and a further 150 glutinous pages to plumb the depths of the wife-beating dimwit, August Esch.

The books dabble their fingers in the damaged Germanic soul, relishing every minute of their portrayal of deeply disturbed characters, and periodically inserting lengthy descriptions of their confused pseudo-philosophical obsessions.

Like so much Weimar Art, The Sleepwalkers trilogy didn’t build, but destroyed. It didn’t make positive suggestions, but carped and cavilled at every aspect of modern society, which their author regarded as going hopelessly downhill. Just like more or less every other author of his day (compare with the lengthy laments about the ‘sickness of our age’ throughout the first half of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf.)

It has no positive suggestions to make, it offers no solutions. It despises industrialism and social democracy and politics as much as it ends up appearing to despise pretty much all human beings and their pathetic attempts to find meaning.

I know that Broch was himself arrested by the Nazis in 1938, not least because he was a Jew, and so he was no friend at all of the regime – but that doesn’t alter the fact that the tendency of these three novels is entirely destructive of what you could call the sensible, democratic middle ground.

They don’t really describe or analyse this supposed ‘collapse of values’ (I actually found it impenetrably difficult to understand just what ‘values’ were being discussed in any of the novels: for example the concept of ‘romanticism’ which is referenced half a dozen times in the novel of the same name is nowhere really explained; not clearly).

What the novels do do, is enact and promote the very decadence and corruption which they claim to be lamenting.

Their nihilism was just one more contribution to the overall artistic nihilism of Weimar, and if this didn’t exactly open the door to Hitler, it ensured that when the moment came, the artistic, cultural and intellectual community lacked the intellectual means or the will to resist him.

The hopeless German-ness of the Germans

I’ve been moving from the specificness of the individual novels, up to a higher-level look at their place in Weimar culture as a whole. Now let’s step outside German culture altogether.

Stepping right back and viewing it from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, it seems to me that the entire analysis carried out by The Sleepwalkers is wrong because it is trapped inside German culture and can’t get out.

It is a truism that people often get stuck in hopeless, repetitive and self-destructive behaviour and eventually need help from therapists or counsellors. This is because the therapist is outside the situation the patient is stuck in and consequently can see it with a clearer perspective, and can offer what often turn out to be relatively simple solutions and ways out.

In the same way, all the works of cultural criticism and gloomy pessimistic German fiction which Laqueur describes, and of which Broch’s trilogy was a notable example, are trapped inside the prison of being German.

They were all addressing a simple problem made up of the following parts:

1. They take it as axiomatic that at some point in the past, say the era of Goethe and Schiller, German culture was fine and good and healthy, that the Germans had at some stage in the past had a wonderful soul and beautiful art and matchless music.

2. But then something seems to have gone wrong. Nietzsche in the 1870s was warning that something was wrong with German culture and after him a flood of writers, philosophers and so on produced thousands of variations on the same theme, from the tortured German Expressionist artists, through Gustav Mahler and his obsession with Death, through Spengler’s pessimism and thousands of nihilistic Weimar artists and writers, through to the Granddaddy of German unhappiness, and friend of the Nazis, the high priest of incomprehensible, long-winded laments that the modern world has lost its soul and authenticity, Martin Heidegger.

3. And this ‘problem’ had gone into overdrive in the aftermath of the First World War because the Germans, from all classes, at all levels, up to and including the loftiest intellectuals, couldn’t understand why the Germans had lost the war.

Why did we lose the war? What is wrong with us? What is wrong with Germany?

Questions which prompted thousands of agonised screeds about Seele and Geist and God and the Absolute – when the answer was perfectly simple: the Germans lost the First World War because the combined industrial and agricultural resources of Germany and Austria were no match for the combined industrial and agricultural resources of Britain, France and, especially, America.

Any therapist or counsellor outside their situation could have told them that this was the brute, blunt, material reason why they lost – but, unfortunately, this was precisely the kind of pragmatic, bathetic ‘fact’ beloved of the despised ‘nation of shopkeepers’ and of vulgar Yankee carpetbaggers that lofty and high-falutin German professors of philosophy just couldn’t handle, process or accept.

It was too simple, too obvious – lacking in true Germanic dignity and Geist and God and Sacrifice and Volk and Blut.

Thus, from the lowest bar-room drunk to the cleverest writers in the land, the Germans, as a people, looked for the reasons for their defeat in a huge variety of reasons and excuses – all except for the blindingly obvious one staring them in the face.

They attributed their defeat to a lack of honour, or patriotism, or duty or sacrifice, in a ‘collapse of values’, in the viciousness of modern culture, in its sexual decadence or its mercantile corruption, in the machinations of big business or the financial conspiracies of the Jews or the betrayal of the Army by civilian politicians or betrayal of the Volk by liberals and Jews – in a hundred and one reasons and excuses all of which managed to mask and conceal from themselves the blindingly obvious reality that, as a nation, they ran out of manpower and resources.

It was this failure to properly and responsibly analyse the stark economic and material reasons for their defeat, and instead the addiction to attributing defeat to a wild collection of fanciful philosophical or religious or psychological failings, which helped to create a paranoid victim culture – which emphasised psychological or moral or spiritual failings, rather than the more mundane practical realities – which helped Hitler’s rise to power.

Seen in this broad cultural context, Broch was just one more German writer crying out that his culture was profoundly, horribly diseased. Stepping right back, he was one among a huge chorus of cultural producers in Weimar Germany who were all lamenting how rotten and corrupt their culture was.

Well, they shouldn’t have been all that surprised when a strong leader stepped forward and offered himself as the cure to everything which was wrong with German society, starting with rejuvenating its rotten debased ‘values’ and re-instilling a sense of Pride and Patriotism and Confidence.

They wanted it. They got it.

The gross failure of German political culture between 1870 and 1945

Above the intrinsic economic and industrial strength of a nation obviously sits the class of people who manage them, who manage the economy, who run the country – the politicians.

And here again, Broch wasn’t experiencing some ‘collapse of values’ – or no more so than anyone in any Western country which had thrown off its Victorian straitjacket, had swapped its ankle-length skirts for flapper fashion and was dancing the Charleston.

No, what he was experiencing – as every other German between the wars did – was the complete and utter failure of German political class to manage its nation.

In the years leading up to 1914, and then again in during the 1930s, the men who came to the top of the German political system turned out to be completely incapable of running a modern state, without itching for war.

This is made crystal clear in all the histories of the Great War which I read during its recent centenary. In 1914 the men at the top of the German political system – Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Chiefs of Staff – took a calculated gamble that they could exploit the crisis which erupted after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

This is a summary of the argument made in a recent book about Germany and Austro-Hungary in the build- up to, and during, the First World War, Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014):

  • The conspirators – Elements in the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry and military had been waiting for an opportunity to suppress little Serbia, located just on the empire’s border and endlessly fomenting nationalist unrest. When Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated on 28 June in the Serbian capital, Sarajevo, the Austrians blamed Serbia and spent most of July devising an ultimatum so extreme that they, and everyone else in Europe, knew that it could not be fulfilled. Germany, not that concerned at this point, gave Austro-Hungary unqualified support, the so-called ‘blank cheque’. Both countries changed their tune when they realised that Russia was mobilising to support the Serbs, their fellow Slavs.
  • War of existence – Why was the Austro-Hungarian hierarchy so harsh on Serbia? Watson gives a review of the many tensions tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire apart. ‘The actions of Austro-Hungarian rulers in the summer of 1914, although secretive and aggressive, were motivated less by belligerence than a profound sense of weakness, fear and despair’ (p.14).
  • The miscalculated risk – The pressures on German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg reflected a nation anxious about the growing might of Britain and France and the industrialisation of Russia, but also well aware of the risk of world war. German Chancellor Hollweg gambled that a) the Austrians would defeat Serbia quickly, within a week and b) that Russia would be so slow to mobilise that the conflict on the ground would be over in the Austrians’ favour before the whole thing got handed over to international mediation (as had a number of other recent international disputes e.g. the Balkan Wars of 1912-13). He was wrong on both counts.

As the situation deteriorated and the German High Command began to fear a possible war on two fronts, they decided to implement the Schlieffen Plan which called for the rapid invasion of France in order to knock her out of the war in a brisk six weeks, so that the Germans could then turn their attention to Russia who, they expected, would take at least six weeks to mobilise.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Germany’s political and military leaders made a huge military gamble and were wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. World class wrong. All the catastrophes of the twentieth century stem from this one catastrophic miscalculation, not only the war itself but the overthrow of the Tsarist regime by the Bolsheviks, the rise of communism in Russia, Stalin, millions murdered in famines and gulags, the catastrophic triumph of communism and the rule of Mao in China, the entire Cold War with all its deaths and distortions.

From that one miscalculated gamble.

Once they’d committed they couldn’t back down, and when the ‘lightning’ attack through Belgium that was designed to capture Paris and knock France out of the war failed, the world was condemned to four years of meat-grinding deadlock.

This was the simple truth that everyone living in Germany through and after the war appeared to be unable to realise or accept. Instead, they were told by their leaders that they were fighting a war of civilisation against Western decadence (France) and Eastern barbarism (Russia).

They were fed cultural and spiritual and moral reasons for a war which was characterised as a crusade. And so an entire generation of Germans appears not to have grasped its much simpler geopolitical reasons (Germany’s paranoid fear of its rivals France and Britain, combined with paranoid fear of attack from the East, combined with a really fatal military miscalculation).

Back to Broch

Thus Hermann Broch’s big trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers, can be read, not as any kind of analysis of ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ and so on, but as one more instance of the German intellectual class’s complete failure to grasp the realities of the geopolitics, political leadership and economics which determined the world they lived in.

Broch was just one of many, many, many over-educated intellectuals and philosophers and academics and writers and commentators who couldn’t accept the simple truth that they lost the First World War because their leaders fucked up, and so wrote thousand-page novels blaming it all on the Renaissance or the Reformation or the Romantic movement or the imbalance between Reason and The Irrational or the falling of God from Infinity into the Absolute, and so on and on and on and on.

Conclusion

To summarise: in my opinion, Broch’s entire project of attempting to explain his country’s plight in terms of a collapse of so-called values:

  1. is not an accurate description of what the books are actually about
  2. is, in any case, crushingly unoriginal and indebted to much more influential cultural forerunners such as Spengler
  3. and completely misses the point – it wasn’t the Germans’ social values which were at fault, it was the failure of their political culture to be able to manage a large modern state without resorting to the Kaiserprinzip or the Fuhrerprinzip and aggressive wars of conquest, which was at fault

What German ‘culture’ meant to its neighbours

Because if you happen not to have been born in Germany in the 1880s, if you happen to have been born in, say, France, the most obvious thing about Germany was not its lamentable collapse into ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ – the most obvious thing about Germany was the way it kept on bloody invading you – in 1870 and in 1914 and in 1940.

The most obvious thing about German culture was that it produced the febrile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military high command who started World War One, and then the febrile and mad Adolf Hitler, who started World War Two.

‘World tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ be damned – this was a nation which plunged the world into a catastrophe in 1914, and then did it again, 25 years later, so that the destruction they caused during the second one surpassed the most destructive capacity of all humanity in all preceding history put together.

That is why to this day the Germans are forbidden from having an army. Because nobody trusts them to have one. Think about that.

To this day the Germans are not to be trusted with an army because the whole world has seen what happens if you let Germany have an army. They wreak havoc, death and destruction on an unprecedented scale (read the mind-boggling descriptions of the destruction the Germans wrought all across Europe in Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe; read Primo Levi about Auschwitz.)

Because Death is a master from Germany.

Thus, stepping right back from the specifics of plot and character, The Sleepwalkers can be read as just one among many long-winded, melodramatic and pretentious refusals by German intellectuals to acknowledge the reality of German culture and history – to deny, to refuse to acknowledge what Germany had been in 1870 and 1914 and would be 1939 – a force for unbridled savagery and aggression.

Which part of the siege of Paris (1870) or the burning of Louvain:

From the first days they crossed into Belgium, violating that small country’s neutrality on the way to invade France, German forces looted and destroyed much of the countryside and villages in their path, killing significant numbers of civilians, including women and children. (August 25 1914)

Or the systematic demolition of Warsaw or the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane

The women and children were locked in the church, and the village was looted. The men were led to six barns and sheds, where machine guns were already in place… The SS men began shooting, aiming for their legs. When the victims were unable to move, the SS men covered them with fuel and set the barns on fire… The SS men next proceeded to the church and placed an incendiary device beside it. When it was ignited, women and children tried to escape through the doors and windows, only to be met with machine-gun fire… (Oradour-sur-Glane massacre)

Did German ‘intellectuals’ not get?

All of it. They refused to acknowledge any of it as their fault or responsibility. Germany’s intellectual class continued to worry about Goethe and Beethoven and the World Spirit while their sons and nephews murdered, raped and burned their way across Europe.

How to cure Germany

Only the complete destruction of their country, the mass rape of their women, the seizure of their borderlands by Poland and the permanent encampment of the Soviet Union in the eastern half of their country for 45 years, along with the expulsion of over ten million ethnic Germans from every one of their neighbours, finally, at last, completely and utterly convinced the Germans that maybe they weren’t a Master Race blessed with special insight into Culture and Spirit and Being.

Only the utter devastation of all their cities, of their infrastructure and economy managed to finally convince the German population that all their verbose, melodramatic, self-indulgent rhetoric about ‘morality’ and ‘values’ and ‘reason’ concealed a people who would shovel millions of Jews into crematoria and set out to exterminate the entire Slav population of Eastern Europe (Generalplan Ost).

In the final book of the trilogy, The Realist, Broch goes out of his way to attack modern, money-minded commercial culture. The central figure of the book, Wilhelm Huguenau, is a successful, respectable businessman who is also show to be an amoral murderer and Broch repeatedly emphasises the direct connection between money-minded entrepreneurism and heartless murder. Broch despises modern business and business methods and business men.

But this didn’t stop Broch when push came to shove i.e. when the Nazis came to power, like so many of his left-wing, socialist or communist fellow Weimar intellectuals, from fleeing to the heartland of consumer capitalism, the epicentre of modern business methods, America, where he sat out the Second World War in comfort, holding a number of academic posts, benefiting from the largesse and the protected by the enormous military machine, generated by precisely the kind of modern capitalist society he went out of his way to anathematise in his novels.

This combination of factors goes some way to explaining why Broch came to dislike and then actively despise ‘the novel’ as an ‘art form’.

Because it was not The Novel he was reviling, not the novels of, say, Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner or Evelyn Waugh – it was his own novels:

– long pretentious tracts which claim to be analysing an entire society through the lens of half a dozen freakish characters

– larded with weighty rhodomontades about Sacrifice and Truth and Reality and Mind and Spirit and a whole load of other capitalised and empty words

– misleading and windy ‘analyses’ which concealed the true nature of the German plight / condition / situation, and so proved utterly useless in preventing the rise to power of the most evil regime in world history

– none of which prevented the rise of the Nazis, their aggressive foreign policy, the outbreak of war and the complete collapse of European civilisation

When you put like that, I think you can see why Broch would come to despise his own efforts as long-winded showing off, as showy grandstanding which, in the end, changed nothing.

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume, first published in 1996.


Related links

20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

German history

The idea of performance in the later fiction of J.G. Ballard

This essay suggests that a focus on Ballard’s interest in television and the unreal effects which TV or film cameras have on anyone they’re pointed at, obscures the fact that TV and film are only part of a much wider sense, demonstrated throughout Ballard’s work, that we are all self consciously playing roles, most of the time.

1. The ubiquity of television in the fiction of J.G. Ballard

It’s common to observe that a lot of J.G. Ballard’s fiction is aware of, or focuses on, the role of television in modern life. From his novels we can deduce several central ideas:

TV desensitises The idea that television news with its relentless images of war atrocities desensitises its viewers, numbs them, and that therefore denizens of the TV Age need waking up by evermore outlandish, transgressive behaviour. This is a central premise of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in particular, where the idea is that the jaded sexual taste of the adult protagonists need exposure to a whole new range of fetishes. But the same idea runs through Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes where the central protagonists are taught the lesson that violence and crime energise communities, which otherwise tend to spend their evenings slumped in front of their tellies like zombies.

Making telly is addictive The addiction to making TV, or films, is portrayed in a succession of characters, starting with Richard Wilder, the TV documentary-maker in High Rise, who insists on taking his ciné-camera with him on his epic quest to climb the high rise tower. There’s the similarly obsessive scientist-turned-TV star Sangar in The Day of Creation who keeps talking about his documentary, and surrounds himself with camera and monitors and editing machines even as he slowly dies of malnutrition.

Academic turned TV star The dashing academic who transforms himself into a media star-science populariser-TV presenter is another repeated figure featuring at least three times:

  • Dr. Robert Vaughan, ‘former TV-scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways’, who is the lead pervert in Crash
  • Richard Sutherland, the Cambridge professor of psychology, who turns himself into a star presenter of TV documentaries in The Kindness of Women
  • Sangar in The Day of Creation

Of all the novels, television is probably most important in Rushing To Paradise (1994) where the importance of filming environmental activism and broadcasting it to a worldwide audience is central (at least in the first half of the book), where the characters sail on their environmentalist quest aboard a ship fitted with an editing suite and satellite dishes, where the death of one of the characters is broadcast live, and the lead character gives countless interviews to the world’s TV news channels about her work. Each of these recurring incidents triggering authorial comment about the power and importance of TV.

The purpose of this essay is simply to point out that it is easy to think about the concept of performance in Ballard’s fiction solely in terms of this very high-profile obsession with TV and TV news and TV footage and TV presenters, and how these characters are continually getting people to pose and perform for the camera…

But that performing for the cameras is only really a sub-set of Ballard’s much broader interest in performance as a whole – in the way modern human beings routinely conceive of themselves as acting parts, playing roles – sometimes in settings which obviously call for a degree of performance, such as the workplace, the courthouse, in the bedroom – but a lot of the rest of the time catching themselves dressing for a part, adopting a persona, playing a role, working to a script.

2. Key words

All this becomes very clear if we ignore the references to TV and television and film in his books (numerous though they are) and look instead for key words which denote theatre and theatricality, performance and roles, words such as:

  • Actor
  • Drama
  • Performance
  • Play
  • Role
  • Scene
  • Script
  • Set
  • Stage
  • Theatre

Running Wild (1988)

  • The camera fixes on him, and like a badly trained actor he steps forward to the gatehouse, a tic jumping across his sallow cheek.
  • Perhaps the planned documentary was the last straw – the children knew they’d have to play their parts for the cameras, doing all the interviews, acting out their ‘happiness’ under the eyes of their doting parents
  • Just as the older children required Marion to play her part willingly in the murder of her parents, so they need her now to believe in the rightness of their cause.
  • I had ample time to replay in my mind that terrifying scene at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.
  • ‘Let me set the stage, Sergeant.” I pulled open the shower curtain and turned on the bath taps.
  • The camera tracked to and fro, as if searching for a fallen leaf, tirelessly hunting a panorama as silent as a stage set

The Kindness of Women (1991)

  • Olga and my school friends, my mother and father on their evening visits, were like actors in the old silent films that David Hunter’s father screened for us
  • I was happy to be with them, but we were like actors playing parts presented to us at short notice.
  • More like a film actor than a Cambridge don, he was a handsome Scotsman with a shock of red hair…
  • Richard watched me with his friendly actor’s smile.
  • He had moved around the podium like an actor delivering Hamlet’s soliloquy
  • ‘When I visit Mother and Dad in Cambridge I look around the house and can’t believe I was ever a child there. It’s like a film set with these two old actors… even they can’t remember the script.’
  • Rio was filled with old actor-managers trapped within their images of themselves
  • The medium of film had turned us all into minor actors in an endlessly running daytime serial.
  • Dick had side-stepped all these, accepting that the electronic image of himself was the real one, and that his off-screen self was an ambitious but modest actor who had successfully auditioned for a far more glamorous role
  • I had never consciously manipulated them, but they had accepted their assigned roles like actors recruited to play their parts in a drama whose script they had never seen.
  • Dons with their faux-eccentric manners posed outside the chapel with the self-consciousness of minor character actors, waiting as a Spanish TV crew set up its lights.
  • Watching them, I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance
  • They seemed almost to be rehearsing themselves for a performance to come, some even more elaborately staged collision.
  • His performance seemed oddly subdued, as if he were trying to shrug off the repertory of television mannerisms he had cultivated so carefully since the Cambridge days.
  • Despite playing the role of her father, I felt surprisingly dependent on her and hoped that I could give her the happy childhood that she was helping to give to my own children
  • I was impressed by his easy command of his situation – he had found a role for himself
  • Together we gazed at this scene, the ladies fanning away the flies, their husbands murmuring to each other, like a group of investors visiting the stage set of an uncompleted war film.
  • As we put away the scattered toys and clothes I had the sense that we were scene-shifters changing a set of props.
  • Even Dorothy’s resemblances to her sister, the echo of Miriam’s broad cheekbones and small hands, strong walk and determined hips, made me feel that we were extras rehearsing a scene to be played by others.
  • They look like film extras ready to play a party scene.
  • I sometimes felt that Miriam and I were playing our parts in some happily chaotic sitcom whose script we extemporised as we went along.
  • He caught my eye in the mirror, as if aware that a dimension had entered the script for which all his years in television had never prepared him
  • Beyond the bedroom door I could hear Dick laughing as he chased Fortunata around the workroom and the women in the corridor shouting to the straying child. By comparison, the bedroom was a stage set.

Rushing to Paradise (1994)

  • Overnight Saint-Esprit had become a stage-set whose cast had disappeared in mid-drama, carrying away every copy of the prompt-script.
  • Surrounded by the pregnant women, he uneasily sank his teeth into the meat and returned their approving smiles, aware that his real part in this intense drama had yet to be assigned to him.
  • An elaborate air-and-sea ballet was taking place, an over-rehearsed performance that rarely deviated from its agreed scenario
  • Neil stood on the foredeck of the Dugong, shielded from the cold spray by the white bowl of the satellite dish, at that moment transmitting the afternoon’s first performance to the watching world.
  • ‘Take lots of film of the island,’ she told him, now directing the documentary of which she was already star and scriptwriter
  • He sensed that he and Carline were reading from an old script.
  • Neil had been unsettled by the fate of the huge birds, but he already realized that he was filming a well-rehearsed scene in the theatre of protest.
  • Trying to forget the botanist, whose little body had impressed its contours into the sodden mattress beneath Neil’s shoulders, he listened to his widow’s tantrums as she supervised the re-hanging of the banner. This mini-drama she staged at least twice a day, as if keeping alive some archaic form of Japanese theatre with its repertoire of grunts and rages.
  • Meanwhile, a single volley of shots from the Champlain would sink the inflatables and put them out of action for good. Yet so far, for whatever political and diplomatic reasons, the French had been sticking to the script. They allowed the Dugong to approach the island, and waited patiently as the inflatables performed their water-borne pas de deux. In the late afternoon the corvette Sagittaire would arrive and escort the trawler to the perimeter of the thirty-mile exclusion zone, its signal lamp signing off with a choice obscenity that sent Monique enraged to her cabin. The arrangement suited everyone, and provided the maximum of national dignity and TV coverage at the minimum of risk. But now there would be a radical change to the script, and the French had not been consulted
  • His forced good cheer depressed Neil, as did his self-appointed role as second-in-command to Dr Barbara
  • Carline was sitting in the radio-cabin, head-phones over his pale hair, enjoying his new role as air-traffic controller.
  • For the first time Neil realized that he too had played a modest role in giving the expedition members their sense of purpose.
  • Aware that he had been ruthlessly milked, but accepting his real role on Saint-Esprit, Neil walked past the silent tents towards the runway
  • Sometimes he suspected that he had completed his role for Dr Barbara, and that his successor had already been appointed. Their words no longer matched the reality of Saint-Esprit. He spoke truthfully to his mother, saying that the mosquitoes and sand-flies bothered him, that he was working hard, ate well and had not been ill, and that the bullet wound on his foot had healed completely. But he sensed that he and Carline were reading from an old script.
  • Ten minutes later, as he replayed the sound-track to a critical Dr Barbara, Neil became aware that he was not the only person to film this contrived scene.
  • Lying in his bed on the sixth floor of the Nimitz Memorial Hospital, Neil watched the familiar scene on his television set.
  • The Hawaiian had hidden for a few last moments among the waist-deep ferns, and had filmed Neil being shot down by the sergeant, a scene endlessly replayed on television across the world.
  • Standing in the shadow of the prayer-shack, the captain of the Sagittaire and two his officers waited while the camera-men from the American news agencies recorded the sombre scene
  • Watching the scene from the steps of the clinic, Neil sensed that he was witnessing a shrewd but cruel experiment.
  • Sea, sun and sky could not have been arranged more skilfully had Dr Barbara herself been in charge of the mise en scene.
  • The American’s eyes were closed in a frown, nervous of the soil that covered his cheeks, and his hands were clasped around the Swedes’ video-camera. Neil could imagine him standing by the graves, unsure whether to film the macabre scene for Dr Barbara and never realizing that he was about to become part of it.

Cocaine nights (1996)

  • The scene last night was bizarre, I wish I’d filmed it. The whole waterfront came to life. People were sexually charged, like spectators after a bloody bull-fight.’

In the ex-pat colony where the book is set there are constant references to the thriving theatre scene with its endless revivals of plays by Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Joe Orton.

  • They played their roles like members of an amateur theatrical group taking part in a bawdy Restoration farce
  • I frequently played bridge with Betty Shand and the Hennessys, reluctant though I was to leave the Residencia for Estrella de Mar and its baleful memories of the Hollinger fire, and had even been tempted to play a small part in a forthcoming production of Orton’s What the Butler Saw.

The narrator discovers that some of the posh wives like dressing up as hookers, and that other couples – including his brother’s lover – liked role-playing rapes and rough sex play. Slowly the narrator comes to realise that the entire place is a sort of set for numerous staged dramas.

  • The grooves in the sitting-room rugs indicated where the sofa, easy chairs and desk had stood before the police search. Pushing them back into place, I felt like a props man on a darkened stage, preparing the scene for the next day’s performance.

The narrator discovers a porn film in which the actors play very clichéd roles… up until one of them is genuinely raped.

  • The lesbian porno-film had been a set-up, designed to lure her to this anonymous apartment, the mise-en-scene for a real rape for which the bridesmaids, but not the heroine, had been prepared.
  • As I watched this parodic lesbian scene, I was sure that none of the women was a professional actress.

Being an actor.

  • His voice had sounded sincere but curiously distant, lines from a previous week’s play spoken by a distracted actor.
  • With his dark shades, he resembled a likeable young actor in his James Dean phase, chewing a knuckle as he pondered his next film role
  • As he spoke he watched himself in the mirror, touching his eyebrows and adjusting his hair like an actor in his dressing room.

Playing a part.

  • The empty rooms lay around us, their white walls enclosing nothing, ready for dramas of boredom and ennui
  • Together they seemed like figures in a dream-play, trying to remind me of memories I could never recover.
  • Then Frank, for some weird reason of his own, begins to play Joseph K.
  • He’s one of those psychiatrists with a knack of forming little ménages around themselves.’ ‘Ménages of vulnerable young women?’ ‘Exactly. He enjoys playing Svengali to them.’
  • ‘I’m trying to play the older brother, without any success.’
  • ‘Paula, stop playing the head girl.’
  • ‘He’s a shy, rather sad man.’ ‘With a taste for playing the guru to young women.’
  • ‘And who played the villain? Or the hero, I should say?’

Adopting roles

  • I had imagined myself in Frank’s role, and Paula playing his lover
  • ‘Charles, I don’t think I can play your mother.’
  • Already we were assuming our familiar roles first set out in childhood. He was the imaginative and wayward spirit, and I was the stolid older brother
  • He took no part in the proceedings, but listened intently to his translator, emphasizing for the magistrate’s benefit his central role in the events described.
  • As Bobby Crawford had said, behind the professional poise she presented to the world she seemed distracted and vulnerable, like an intelligent teenaged girl unable to decide who she really was, perhaps suspecting that the role of efficient and capable doctor was something of a pose.
  • Enjoying his new role as stately home tour guide, Cabrera led us around the house

3. Reflections

Focusing on these key words highlights the extent to which everyone in Ballardland is playing a role or thinking about playing a role or adopting a pose.

The TV thing is just a sub-set of a much larger vision in which all of Ballard’s characters play roles almost all the time. Within a family they play the parts of mother, father, elder or younger children. In relationships they play the role of solid chap or flustered girlfriend (or whichever roles they want to adopt). In their professional lives they dress up smart, put on their best smile and try to impress. In the bedroom people adopt all kinds of roles and fantasies, dressing up in costumes like the women in the porn film in Cocaine Nights or wearing teenage hooker gear like Jane in Super-Cannes.

As I watched her through the mirror I had the sense that we were still inside a film, and that everything taking place between us in the bedroom had been prefigured in a master script that Paula had read.

Before going out the house, his characters dress for the roles they are going to play. And at any moment events can happen in the street which suddenly cast them in roles – the Victim, the Bystander, the First Aider, and so on.

  • She was doing her best to play the whore, fleshing out her mouth and rolling her hips, and I wondered if this was all the whim of some avant-garde theatre director staging a street production of Mahagonny or Irma la Douce.
  • ‘It was a piece of night-theatre, a water-borne spectacular to perk up the restaurant trade. A party of Middle East tourists played the clowns, with a chorus line of French good-time girls. Brutal, but great fun.’
  • I assumed that the thief would be swimming towards the rocks below the watch-tower, to a rendezvous previously arranged with the car’s driver, who waited for him like a chauffeur outside a stage-door after the evening’s performance.
  • ‘It was a show, David. Whoever stole the speedboat was putting on a performance. Someone with a taste for fire . . .’ ‘

In encounters with the police, Ballard’s characters tend to smarten up and become hyper-aware of their stance and expressions and words, trying to calculate the effect they’re having, even more so when dealing with a lawyer or in a court of law, where everyone is on their mettle and playing pre-assigned roles.

  • [Inspector] Cabrera had unnerved me, as if he had read the secret script that Crawford had written and was aware of the role assigned to me
  • [Inspector] Cabrera was watching me in his thoughtful way, as if expecting that I, in turn, would admit my role in the crime
  • ‘Your retired stockbrokers and accountants are remarkably adept in the role of small-town criminals…’

At particular moments the sense of playing a role can become vertiginous, dizzying, prompting the characters to try to regain control of the scene. The presence of the police or security guards will do that to you. Make everyone fantastically self conscious:

I placed my hands on the desk, trying to steady the scene.

If there’s any conclusion it’s that Ballard’s sense that modern people are continually acting versions of themselves extends far beyond his interest in television and film. TV and film are just the most obvious and stylised peaks of a worldview in which all of us are acting roles – either ones we’ve chosen for ourselves or ones other people have allotted to us – almost all of the time.


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J.G. Ballard: poet or prophet?

I’ll give the game away right at the start by stating that I think Ballard is much more obviously and convincingly a prose poet than he is a social ‘prophet’.

The argument

Ballard is routinely and predictably described as a ‘prophet’, by reviewers, critics, fans and academics. The Atrocity Exhibition is described on the back as:

One of the most prophetic, enigmatic and original works of fiction of the late-twentieth century.

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s most concentrated book – a prophetic masterpiece. (Introduction by V. Vale & Andrea Juno)

But was he, though? There are several reasons for thinking not:

1. A prophet of what, exactly?

Ballard’s work divides pretty neatly into two types: there’s the science fiction which includes his early disaster novels and most of his short stories, many of which are wildly speculative and set in catastrophic futures – and then the later novels, from around 1970 onwards, which are increasingly rooted in the reality of the present day with its motorways, high rise buildings, advertising billboards and gated communities in the South of France., although weird futures continue to crop up in his short stories…

When people say ‘prophetic’ they’re generally talking about the latter works. And what do they mean? They mean that Ballard described in searing, super-vivid prose the feeling of being overloaded by media stimuli, the alienating experience of inhabiting bleak modern concrete urban environments, the terror which sometimes comes over you when you find yourself trapped in an eight-lane highway packed with sleek metal boxes hurtling past at inhuman speeds.

He captured and conveyed that sense of nervous breakdown in a series of mind-blowing semi-experimental novels from 1970 to 75, being The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise. Each of these deals very intensely with nervous breakdown, physical and moral collapse which derives directly from the inhumane modern built environment.

And yet… forty years later, society hasn’t broken down, has it? People now accept modern architecture and the great sweep of motorway flyovers carving through their cities. It can still be painted as a dehumanising environment by artists and film-makers. But most people, most of the time, are not having nervous breakdowns and reverting to the primeval savagery depicted in High Rise.

And many of the specific aspects of his urban fiction feel very dated now.

Take the images of Vietnam which thread through The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. Vietnam was the first TV war and in all probability the last, as every Western government saw what giving unfettered access to reporters and TV journalists did i.e. eroded domestic support. In my reviews of the career of Don McCullin I note that he several times says how disappointed he was not to be allowed to accompany the Falkland Islands task force: the government had learned its lesson; only tame journalists whose access could be controlled and monitored were allowed along.

The British have been involved in a number of conflicts since – Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq twice, Afghanistan –  but they have been completely controlled and packaged by governments and willing broadcasters. The really bad craziness which spilled into the living rooms of the average suburbanite, and was an important component in the hysterical mood of those novels, is long, long gone.

TV itself has also been utterly internalised and neutralised. In his experimental books, television is new enough to prompt paragraphs of media studies-style shock and astonishment at the bizarreness of the medium itself interrupting footage of burning villages to bring us commercials about bath cleaner.

But both ends of this spectrum have been blunted. We rarely if ever see the kind of war scenes Ballard is invoking; and everybody has learned to tune out the ads. The advent of the internet means that you can binge watch entire series of dramas or soaps without ever seeing an ad. there are a lot of aspects to this, but one is that the average punter is much more in control, instead of being bombarded with shocking images like the subjects of some extreme social experiment, which is how people appear in those novels.

Similarly, huge roadside billboards were relatively new in the 1960s but, again, old hat by now. Even the TV-style moving ads on the Tube are easy to blank out and ignore.

In other words, a lot of the elements Ballard described with such fantastically super-charged prose poetry from 1966 to 1973 are now almost over-familiar and bereft of threat. Ask my kids if they feel the saturated mediascape is giving them a nervous breakdown and (if you can get them to lift their eyes from the latest Netflix binge-watch) they’ll laugh in your face.

But his fans – and others who plough the same kind of furrow, either as media studies-type academics or contemporary writers – persist in focusing on these aspects of his work.

In his introduction to the 2014 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, the novelist Hari Kunzru doggedly repeats this idea, that Ballard’s books are mind-expanding, shock revelations which still ‘disturb’ and ‘interrogate’ and ‘undermine’ reality or modern society and all the other tired, familiar art house, would-be ‘radical’, art-curator terminology.

Kunzru slots Ballard into the same, tired old lineage, the same dusty avant-garde genealogy which reaches back to the French bourgeoisie-shockers, via Dada and the Surrealists, to the Beats in the 1950s, the Situationists in the 1960s, and so tiredly on.

But how can something be avant-garde if it’s 50 years behind the times?

I keep reading political commentators saying Labour lost the 2019 election because they were still talking the language of the 1960s, or even of the Victorian era – trapped in the delusion that there is one, homogeneous, cloth-capped, Northern working class which will always give them their vote, come what may. Wrong. The world has changed.

I can’t help feeling the same about the so-called avant-garde tradition. Nowadays talk of Dada and the Situationists feels like the treasured possession of old and out-of-date intellectuals, solemnly showing you a box of faded newspaper cuttings from the mid-1960s as if they bear any relation to the situation and experiences of the present day.

‘Look at the taboo-busting way his characters arrange prostitutes in the posture of car crash victims’, the ageing college lecturer tells us, everso proud of his yoof credentials.

The reality is that the future hasn’t shocked, disturbed, unsettled or traumatised the human spirit anywhere near as much as the solemn talk of transgressive avant-gardes would have us believe. The Archers is still running, as is Coronation Street. They still wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms. Top of the bill at this year’s Glastonbury? Paul McCartney and Diana Ross.

The future is now and people are loving it, streaming their favourite shows, chatting away to Alexa, listening to any music from anywhere at the click of a button, ordering up tasty Deliveroo meals, ordering an Uber to go home after a great night out, and generally living it up.

Compared to the wholesale way the vast majority of the population owns and revels in our technological present, Kunzru proudly telling us how excited Michael Moorcock was in 1966 when he found that the front room of Ballard’s flat was covered in a collage of pages cut out from Chemistry News seems ridiculous. Yes, granddad. We’ve seen your collection of 1960s literary magazines before, granddad. Yes, they’re very interesting, granddad. But now it’s time for your medication and your nap.

2. Two specific ways Ballard was not prophetic

Prophetic means: ‘accurately predicting what will happen in the future’. I’m now looking at the other strand in Ballard’s work, the overtly science fiction strand. Rereading these stories, mostly about dystopian futures, kept making me thing two obvious points.

1. Population boom In all of Ballard’s futures, the population has vanished. In the Ultimate City the population of the world has collapsed, in Low-Flying Aircraft humanity is dying out, in Cage of Sand whole areas of the world have been abandoned, in Chronopolis the big cities have been abandoned. Abandoned cities and terminal beaches, those are the familar zones of Ballard’s imaginarium.

But it’s simple. The world hasn’t emptied. the human population hasn’t plummeted. the exact opposite has happened. In 1970 when the Atrocity Exhibition was published the global population was 3.7 billion. Fifty years later it has doubled to 7.5 billion and counting.

Insofar as Ballard’s imaginary futures depict a world emptied of humans it is not only not prophetic, it is diametrically wrong. A truly avant-garde prose would be trying to grapple, not with what it is to live in abandoned cities occupied by a handful of dazed inhabitants – but what it’s like to live in mega-cities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai. Something more like William Gibson’s well-named ‘Sprawl’ trilogy.

2. Posh characters To the end of his writing carer Ballard described posh, middle or upper-middle-class characters, typified by the large number of educated, open-minded doctors who litter his stories. In a way the typical thing about High Rise is not that the characters end up descending to the depths of bestial depravity, but that they are all such pukka, posh English chaps and chapesses.

This is indicated throughout by his rather haphazard way with names so that lots of the characters have very run-of-the-mill and very English names (Talbot, Vaughan, Clifton and Ransom spring to mind).

I’m not criticising him for describing an almost 100% white middle class milieu, not at all. I’m just pointing out that it is the other, large element of his writing which was diametrically wrong. Society hasn’t carried on consisting of pukka white chaps and chapesses. The exact opposite has happened. Britain has been inundated with immigrants (and I don’t mean just ones with different colour skins, but nearly a million Poles, for example). Our society, and most Western societies have become chaotically multicultural and multilingual and show every sign of continuing in this direction.

I am not criticising Ballard for writing about the social class and kind of people he knew best, not at all. I’m just saying that those of his private and academic fans who try to hold him up as a prophet, a predictor of the future, have to take account of the fact that two of the central imaginative pillars of his fiction didn’t only not come true, but the diametric opposite took place.

3. An argument against deifying writers

Anyway, in my opinion the deifying or worshipping of writers is to be resisted. It is a primitive psychological tendency, it is a way of abdicating our own responsibility to think for ourselves.

Writers should be credited as writers, but not necessarily as thinkers. As thinkers, writers are often very charismatic, but almost always wrong. Morally wrong, yes, though that’s open to endless debate. But more often plain, factually wrong.

Dickens thought that universal free education would eradicate poverty. Wrong. Morris thought a Marxist revolution would liberate the working classes. Wrong. Dostoyevsky though Russia must turn its back on the decadent West to assert its Slavic identity. Wrong. Tolstoy thought we should relinquish all our belongings and live like peasants. Wrong. Gorky thought Lenin was the saviour of the poor. Wrong. Pound thought Mussolini would be a patron of the arts like a Renaissance prince. Kipling thought the British Empire was vital to raise the lesser breeds in our countless colonies. Wrong. Eliot thought Britain would be better off as a religious and ethnically homogeneous kingdom, preferably with few if any Jews. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In my opinion:

  1. Beware of taking any writer as a moral or political inspiration
  2. Judge writers by the quality of their writing, not by their beliefs or pontificating – their beliefs will soon become out of date or controversial or come to seem ludicrous: but their writing, if it genuinely contributes to the life of the language, will live

As Oscar Wilde said, there’s no such thing as moral or immoral writing, there is only good or bad writing.

Ballard the prose poet

So for me, the thing to do is leave these political and ‘moral’ squabbles behind and focus on what Ballard undoubtedly is, which is a creator of some of the most astonishing prose poetry ever written.

What links every element of his career – the disaster novels, the sci-fi stories and the urban nightmare series – is his extraordinary ability to make the English language sit up and beg, dance to his tune, perform extreme sports, coasteer and freebase.

Somewhere Ezra Pound says you ultimately judge a poet by the integrity of his lines, and there are hundreds of breath-taking lines in Ballard, lines no-one else could have written and which take you into wonderful, liberating new realms of language and imagination.

All day he had been building his bizarre antenna on the roof of the apartment block, staring into the sky as if trying to force a corridor to the sun.

Meanwhile the quasars burned dimly from the dark peaks of the universe, sections of his brain reborn in the island galaxies.

Bonfires of Jackie’s face burn among the reservoirs of Staines and Shepperton. With luck he finds a job on one of the municipal disposal teams, warms his hands at a brazier of enigmatic eyes. At night he sleeps beneath an unlit bonfire of breasts.

An airliner rose from the runway four hundred yards to our left, wired by its nervous engines to the dark air.

Catherine peered into my face, as if squinting through the window of a diving helmet.

The nodes of glass scattered on the ground glinted like pieces of discredited coinage.

Laing remembered the stale air in his apartment, tepid with the smell of his own body. By comparison, the brilliant light reflected off the chromium trim of the hundreds of cars filled the air with knives.

The previous night, as he prepared to leave, settling his sons and testing the locks on the doors, Helen had suddenly embraced him, as if wanting him to stay. The muscles of her thin face had moved through an irregular sequence of tremors, like tumblers trying to fall into place.

He resented speaking to Charlotte or to anyone else, as if words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything.

On page after page Ballard is capable of writing sentences which zing with linguistic verve but also push, exercise and stretch your imagination. Maybe he was a ‘prophet’, you can make a case for or against. but without doubt he was one of the most poetic writers of English prose who ever lived, so plain and factual in appearance, and yet so glitteringly brilliant.


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Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


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