The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (2001)

This is the large format, shiny, floppy paperback catalogue of an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001. The exhibition featured a few photos but mainly paintings by 20th century Mexican artists collected (and sometimes commissioned by) wealthy collectors Jacques and Natasha Gelman. The book contains:

  • Director’s Foreward – Brian Kennedy
  • Curator’s preface – Robert R.Littman, exhibition curator
  • Frida and Diego – Gregory O’Brien, curator
  • ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – Anthony White, curator
  • ‘A pact of alliance with the revolution’: art and politics in Modern Mexico – Barry Carr, Institute of Latin American studies
  • Jacques and Natasha – Anthony White
  • ‘My mother, myself and the universe…’ – Anthony White
  • Catalogue of the works
  • Artist biographies

Modernism

For a start, I’m surprised they call it Modernism. I thought that’s exactly what it wasn’t. I thought Modernism was cubism, futurism, suprematism, constructivism, vorticism and so on. I thought Rivera’s art was part of the international reaction against the abstraction of the 1910s, and back towards various forms of realism, neo-classical realism in France or the Neue Sachlichkeit of Germany or the narrative realism of the Mexican muralists. In fact, once you flick through the paintings and see Surrealism next to abstract expressionism, caricature next to Frida’s self-portraits, you realise maybe it’s the only label which holds it all together.

The Gelmans

Jacques Gelman was born into a rich Russian Jewish family in 1909. His family fled the Russian Revolution to Germany. Twenty years later, Gelman fled Nazi Germany on the eve of the Second World War, making his way to Mexico which was more open to European refugees than America.

Here Gelman became a successful film producer and, along with his wife Natasha, also a keen collector of contemporary Mexican art, building up an impressive collection and commissioning portraits. Upon Mrs. Gelman’s death in 1998, their collection was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Highlights were loaned to the National Gallery of Australia for this exhibition in 2001. And hence the book.

Saint Frida

Frida Kahlo dominates the title and the exhibition and this catalogue.

Even in 2001 the curators write about Frida as having achieved cult status. As the recent exhibition at the V&A showed, it wasn’t just her paintings, but her entire self-presentation, the dresses, and costumes and jewellery and hair and look, which make Kahlo so visually attractive, so iconic.

To a historical materialist like me, what would be interesting would be an analysis of Frida Kahlo’s rise and rise – asking why she has become such a superstar icon – in terms of cultural history and political change.

During their lifetime her husband, Diego Rivera, was much the more famous of the two, up there with Picasso as an internationally recognised synonym for modern art. And Rivera pioneered a uniquely public form of art – his educative murals – public and extremely politically committed.

What has changed in our culture to lead to the fact that this politically committed, socialist visionary is now almost entirely overlooked in favour of his preening, self-obsessed, young wife?

For you can’t deny that Frida’s work is entirely, obsessively, unrelentingly about herself – hundreds of self-portraits, in various costumes, in bed, in barbaric medical equipment, crying, bleeding, suffering miscarriages.

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

The decline of radical politics and its replacement by grievance and victimhood

When I was growing up in the 1970s it was axiomatic that there would soon be a socialist revolution which would sweep away American imperialist capitalism. ‘Up the workers.’ ‘Come the revolution.’ ‘The workers. United. Will never be divided.’ ‘One out, all out’ and so on. (I’m not saying I agreed with it, but that was the widespread assumption among lefties in universities, the media, film, theatre and so on).

Over the last forty years that hope has, it seems to me, evaporated, and been replaced by the notion of separate and specific ‘liberations’ to be achieved, in different ways, by distinct sections of the population. Gay liberation. Women’s liberation. Black power. And each of these sectors or groups have developed their own discourses, narratives, lists of grievances and injustices. Each of them insists on being heard.

Women need to talk about women’s issues and be heard. #believewomen. #me too. Gays need to talk about the gay experience. Lesbians need to find their voice. Transgender people need to be listened to. We need to talk about mental illness. Black voices need to be heard. Refugees must be given a voice. Muslim women must tell their stories. We need to talk about…. you name it.

The idea of a unified, mass working class movement seeking to effect a fundamental transformation of society has disappeared. It has been replaced by thousands, millions of voices, all clamouring to be heard, all desperate to tell their stories of suffering and victimhood and exclusion.

In this completely different cultural and political climate, Rivera’s big, loud, working class politics seems bullying, sexist, old-fashioned, toxically masculine, redundant, or disgusting. (The art scholars in this book don’t miss an opportunity to accuse Rivera of philandering and unfaithfulness and being hopelessly masculine, on pages 10, 14, 25, 26 and 27. The fact that she had a quite staggering range of extra-marital affairs is mentioned as only her due. She was an artist you know, and a suffering woman in a man’s world.)

By contrast Frida has become an emblem of our modern concerns, dominated by the Eternal Victimhood of Woman Under The Patriarchy – about the pity and the pain and the pathos of being a woman. (The story of the bus accident in which she was injured by a handrail is told on page 9, repeated on page 25, and then told again on page 27. Poor Frida. Beastly Diego.)

Injured as a girl (by a male bus driver, obviously), subject to endless medical operations (by male surgeons, of course), forced to wear painful corsets and prosthetics (by male specialists, the brutes), betrayed by her philandering husband (betraying, cheating, false and unfaithful Diego), ignored by the (male) art establishment during her lifetime, refusing to conform to (male) canons of female beauty – Frida ticks pretty much every box on the feminist checklist.

My point is that: the definition of what’progressive’ or ‘radical’ is has changed out of all recognition in the past forty or so years. Once it was someone who tried to unite the working classes, the poor and dispossessed, in order to seize power and transform the economic basis of society. Now it is someone who has suffered greatly because of their gender or race. Once it was the semi-pagan idea of the active hero. Now it is the more Christian idea of the suffering martyr, the victim, the permanently injured, offended or abused.

And Saint Frida – along with Saint Sylvia and Saint Emmeline and Saint Rosa – is one of the patron saints of the new religion.

The cult of Frida

I had thought and written the above simply because it is so obsessively repeated in the preface and introduction of the book and so arises naturally out of my reading, and so was a little disappointed to find that the cult of Frida turns out to be the subject of the fourth essay in the book.

People are vying for shreds of her garments by Anthony White tries to examine the cult of Frida and account for its rise and rise, over the period when traditional class-based politics has declined and special-interest-group, identity politics has arisen. He doesn’t hold back:

Kahlo has become the exemplary modern cult figure, in the tradition of Christian saints and teenage pop stars…

Her legacy has grown into a multi-million dollar industry that crosses national and cultural boundaries….

One of the recent sources of Kahlo’s recent celebrity has been a narrative of suffering which feeds into a well-established, popular fascination with personal struggles with pain…

Her work connects to a pervasive tradition in western art that depicts the tribulations of saints

The figure of Frida Kahlo appeals especially to women… Kahlo’s rising popularity in the 1970s was paralleled by the growth in feminism… (Anthony White, p.13)

Martyr to pain, menstrual cramps, erratic periods, ill-fated pregnancy, tragic miscarriages, painful abortions, unfaithful men, establishment misogyny, the whole panoply of the evil patriarchy. What woman hasn’t experienced one, many or all of these grievances? Her story features them all, whipped up into a height of pathos.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyr)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyred woman in a man’s world)

Mexican Modernism

Having discussed Frida and her many martyrdoms (physical, psychological, artistic, social) at length, Anthony White then moves on to discuss the rest of the artists featured in the show. He distinguishes three branches of Mexican Modernism, as found in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection:

  • Murals The politically motivated, accessible, mass murals by Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
  • Surrealism The Englishwoman Leonora Carrington, one-time lover of Max Ernst, is credited with spurring Mexican Surrealism after her arrival in 1942: André Breton had already visited Diego and Frida and declared Frida’s paintings masterpieces of Surrealism in 1938; another Mexican woman surrealist featured in the collection is María Izquierdo.
  • Abstraction – Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

The works

The book includes reproductions of 60 paintings and seven photos. It opens with the wonderful photos by Manuel Álvarez Bravo who was, apparently, ‘Mexico’s first principal artistic photographer and the most important figure in 20th-century Latin American photography’. Bravo took portraits of Diego and Frida (of course) but also a huge range of subjects, from modernist architecture, street life, and women in various states of undress. Tut tut. Objectifying misogynist sexist pig. Great photos, though.

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

There is just one photo by his wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo, an interesting collage of black and white photos of ballet dancers stuck into  Mexican desert, which my daughter liked.

And then paintings by:

  • Leonora Carrington
  • Rafael Cidoncha
  • Miguel Covarrubias
  • Jesús Reyes Ferreira
  • Gunther Gerzso
  • 10 by Frida
  • Agustín Lazo
  • Carlos Mérida
  • Roberto Montenegro
  • José Clemente Orozco
  • Carlos Orozco Romero
  • David Alfaro Siqueiros
  • Juan Soriano
  • Rufino Tamayo
  • Emilio Baz Viaud
  • Angel Zárraga

Apparently, the Gelman collection contained more works by Gunther Gerzso than any other painter, about 40 of them.  I can see why. They’re big, bold, colourful abstracts (although Gerzso himself said they had their source or inspiration in the dry, sun-baked landscape of Mexico). Their existence also makes the simple point that the Gelmans continued collecting long after Frida and Diego had passed away (1954 and 1957, respectively), well into the 1960s and 70s, into a completely different cultural and visual world.

This example of Gerzso reminds me a bit of the kind of abstract prints my parents and their friends bought in Habitat and Heals and had on their walls in the 1970s.

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Summary

This is an interesting book because it a) contains a handful of masterpieces by Diego and Frida but more because b) it introduces you to a dozen Mexican artists I’d never heard of before.

On the one hand, Rivera and Frida emerge as head and shoulders the best and most distinctive of the artists here, with Diego’s Calla lilly vendor and any of Frida’s amazing self-portraits leaping off the page – for example the ones with monkeys, in a red and gold dress or with braids.

But it was good to also learn about Manuel Álvarez Bravo and, as well as Gerzso. I took a shine to the crisp abstract works of Carlos Mérida, with their late-1950s, rather Festival of Britain vibe.

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)


Related links

Related reviews about Diego, Frida and Mexico

That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis (1945)

‘A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him.’ Dr Dimble

That Hideous Strength is the third and final volume in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. As is so often the case in concluding volumes, it is significantly longer than the previous members of the series (Out of The Silent Planet 58,715 words, Perelandra 85,376 words, That Hideous Strength 156,719 words, double its predecessor, nearly three times as long as the first story) and it really feels like it.

It feels like Lewis has stuffed the book as full of his thoughts about Christian belief, angels, prayer, about the nature of obedience, charity and love on the one hand – and on the other, produced a huge gallery of characters, organisations, beliefs and behaviours which he thinks plague modern life and which all stem, at bottom, from a loss of faith in God.

The plot

That Hideous Strength opens like a campus novel, with squabbles among amusingly depicted caricatures of stuffy old male dons, at a place called Bracton College, one of the supposed three colleges which comprise the fictional little university of Edgestow, somewhere in the Midlands.

We are introduced to the usual cast of senile, pompous, ambitious, sly, snide and slimy academics, but the main protagonist is Mark Studdock, a Sociologist who has just been elected to a teaching post. Lewis takes us back into Mark’s childhood and boyhood to show how he has always been an outsider who wanted to be in with the smart set, at school, at university and now, here, at Bracton.

The smart set here calls itself the ‘progressive element’ and is plotting schemes. To be precise we watch as they manoeuvre the board of dons into selling off a plot of land centring on ancient and legendary Bracton wood to a new, go-ahead organisation, the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments or the N.I.C.E.

Mark is taken up by the progressive element, but it then turns out the leaders of this as in fact working for the N.I.C.E., and he is offered a place within that secretive organisation. For hundreds of pages we watch how Mark’s frailties, his lack of confidence, his wish to be accepted and part of a clique, leads him deeper and deeper into the heart of the N.I.C.E.

Where he finds horror. At first he discovers that the scientist at its heart, one Dr Filostrato, is experimenting with reviving the heads of dead men, with a view to creating a new race of disembodied intelligences who will transcend mere mortals with their silly perishable bodies.

In the so-called Blood Transfusion Office at Belbury, where the nucleus of the N.I.C.E. had taken up its temporary abode, Mark is taken to see the floating head which Mark is taken to see, the head of a criminal recently guillotined in France, and now suspended from a bracket in a laboratory, with all kinds of tubes and cables running into it, which drools and then – horror of horrors – speaks.

This takes a while to build up to, to show to Mark, and for the full horrific implications to sink in – that the N.I.C.E. is working to abolish mankind as we currently know it.

But that turns out not to be the inner truth. In fact Wither and Frost are using Filostrato, and keeping all the other inner circle of the N.I.C.E. in ignorance of the secret plan, known only to them. This is that they are in touch with dark forces larger and older than man – what they call macrobes – and the N.I.C.E. is preparing the way for them to supercede mankind as rulers of the earth.

Throughout all the long sequences to do with the N.I.C.E. I was continually reminded of the Dr Who episodes from my youth. My Dr Who was Jon Pertwee, whose Tardis had broken leaving him stuck here on earth to help Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the forces of U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce). Each week they discovered a fiendish conspiracy to invade and take over earth. More often than not these conspiracies were launched from the shiny offices of gleaming modern corporations which ran a mining operation or massive chemical works or suchlike, which turned out to be an elaborate front for creating some matter poisonous to humans or a front for allowing aliens to invade or for kidnapping humans and turning them into zombies.

Well, that’s what the N.I.C.E. are doing. Lewis builds in an analogy with the totalitarian nations England was fighting as he wrote the book by having the N.I.C.E. run its own police department. Directors of the N.I.C.E. orchestrate incidents and then riots with the local townspeople and then, using their contacts in parliament and among the authorities, get a ‘state of emergency’ declared in Edgestow such that the N.I.C.E. police take over running the town and, as you might expect, turn out to be a very unpleasant paramilitary force. People are beaten up, many carted off to the new prison cells the N.I.C.E. is building, there is mention of at least one rape and beating to death.

All this is supervised by a big domineering leering woman, Miss Hardcastle, who is portrayed as a lascivious, Robert Crumb-like, dominating lesbian, dressed in leather, who surrounds herself with fluffy young women she can bully, and enjoys going down to the N.I.C.E. cells to torture people.

Sleepy little Edgestow turns, before our eyes, into a fascist statelet combined with the shiny new buildings of a modern new town-cum-industrial complex. Filostrato tells Mark they are aiming to abolish all organic life, trees, plants, animals: all the chemicals they produce for the air, all the food they produce can be made much more efficiently in factories. Frost, a man who has talked himself out of any emotions or feelings, tells Mark they are aiming for ‘efficiency’, they aim to become so efficient that they will supersede humanity altogether.

The good guys

Lewis makes no bones that the book is a kind of fairy story, maybe a morality tale as well. So it’s no surprise to discover that all these bad guys are mirrored by a gang of good guys. Specifically, the book opens with Mark’s wife, Jane. She is bored and lonely at home, trying to concentrate on her academic PhD i.e. when the book opens her and Mark’s marriage is failing due to mutual incomprehension, lack of trust, lack of candour, lack of love. Mark is far too busy trying to brown-nose his way into the ‘progressive element’ in his college, and then trying to wangle a job at the N.I.C.E., to listen to Jane.

As the N.I.C.E. take over Edgestow she discovers that her kindly tutor, Dr Dimple and his wife, are being kicked out of the college house they live in, as is her cleaner, the working class Ivy Maggs. She takes pity on them and discovers they are going to stay in the big old house up on St Anne’s Hill.

But the important thing about Jane is her dreams. She has terrifying dreams which turn out to be true, to be visions of things which have really taken place. She dreams of a middle aged man in prison, another comes into the cell and twists off his head. This refers to the guillotining of a criminal in France which is in the next day’s news. Her friends, the Dennistons, suggest she goes to see an ‘analyst’ about the dreams, one Grace Ironwood who also lives up on St Anne’s Hill.

What emerges or develops, over several chapters, is that Janes slowly accepts that her dreams are in fact visions of real events; and she too is forced to take refuge up in the big house on the hill. Here she discovers quite a menage, Doctor Dimble (who had been Jane’s supervisor) and his wife, a bustling older woman who everyone called ‘Mother’ Dimble, Mr and Camilla Denniston, Ivy Maggs the cleaning lady, and a sceptical Scot named MacPhee – along with a menagerie of animals which includes Baron Corvo the crow and – preposterously but fittingly for a fairy tale – a tame bear named Mr Bultitude.

But overseeing the house at St Anne’s is a figure she is at first told is named Mr Fisher-King. The second I read this I thought it was too direct a reference to the role of the Fisher King in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land, itself borrowed (according to Eliot’s notorious notes) from The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, the compendious study of mythology and religion by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

He is called this until Jane is actually presented to him at which point we realise that Mr Fisher-King is none other than Elwin Ransom, protagonist of the first two novels in the series. Wonderfully well-preserved and youthful looking, due to his stay on Venus (described in the second book) Ransom is nonetheless in pain due to the bite he received there from the evil Weston, possessed by a demon.

Each of these revelations – Mark’s step-by-step induction into the college’s progressive element, then into the conspiracy to sell the old college wood to the N.I.C.E., then into the ‘true’ purpose of the N.I.C.E. in Dr Filostrato’s version (to create a new race of superhuman heads or intelligences), then into the level above that – into Wither and Frost’s true knowledge that even the head experiment is a front for raising much darker forces, is prefaced by much suspense – is accompanied by shock on the part of the initiate – and then a world of doubts and fears and uncertainties.

Same goes for Jane. We follow her journey from unhappy ‘modern’ woman, sceptic and feminist, frustrated by her marriage and stalled career. We follow her anxious response to her dreams, and her seeking help from Grace Ironwood. Then her realisation that dark forces are taking over Edgestow – which includes her being arrested by N.I.C.E police during a riot, and tortured by the sadistic pervert Miss Hardcastle (by having a lighted cheroot stubbed out on her skin). Her flight to the house at St Anne’s. Her introduction to the household and the way she has to overcome her middle class snobbery about consorting with her ‘cleaning lady’, Mrs Maggs. Her introduction to Mr Fisher-King where her modern sceptical mind reels at everything he tells her about dark forces.

And so on. Step by step Mark goes deeper into the darkness, and Lewis paints the doubts, anxieties and inferiority complex which drives him, making him a very human figure, explaining how easy it would be for us, the reader, to do likewise.

And step by step Jane climbs out of Edgestow, ascends out of the real and actual fog the N.I.C.E have projected over the town, up into the sunlit hilltop of St Anne’s, where she is inducted into a successive circle of secrets concerning Ransom.

Merlin

Slowly the narrative focuses onto the reason the N.I.C.E bought the college wood in the first place. There was a hoary old legend that Merlin lived and died there. Now Jane is afflicted by dreams of an underground cavern and an ancient figure lying on a raised altar. Surely, Ransom and his advisers think, this must be Merlin. And the Dark Side is seeking the exact location of the burial chamber in order to waken him, and recruit him and his ancient magic to their plan.

Meanwhile, in the Mark chapters, the men who have emerged as leaders of the Dark Side – Wither and Frost – know about Jane’s dreams but not exactly what they mean. Thus they put Mark under pressure to get his wife to join him – and he realises it’s because they want to use her – and for the first time he begins to see how wicked these dried-up old husks of men are. And it dawns on him that, in a way, he has always used her, for sex, for comfort, because having a wife is respectable – but he has never really listened to her or respected her.

Anyway, the waking of Merlin is the turning point of the novel and, I couldn’t help feeling, in a way it is all downhill from here.

there is a genuinely scary (in the way a children’s story can be genuinely scary) chapter where Jane guides Denniston and Dimble to the grotto where she thinks she saw in a dream a figure who might have been Merlin, and as they circle towards a a fire burning in a glen in the pouring rain there is a real sense of suspense and terror. But nobody is there.

Instead Merlin turns up at the house on the hill, banging the door open, riding a wild horse, rearing in the weird light of the rainy evening. This image promised all kinds of mayhem and Lewis surrounds it with multiple examples of his scholarly knowledge of ancient myths, fairies, elves, woodwos and so on.

But, alas, when Merlin is dressed and shown up to the Director (i.e. Ransom’s) room, he is quickly tamed. Merlin wants to unleash the earth, the trees and other organic forces against the bad guys, but Ransom refuses, tells him no. And now Ransom reveals that he is the legitimate king or Pendragon of the nation of Logres, the heir of King Arthur, having been handed the crown by a dying man in remote Cumberland (chapter 17, section 4).

There is a great deal of background information explaining how two forces have always vied on these islands – Logres, the small league of mystical powers, against ‘Britain’, the humdrum and prosaic.

The triumph of the N.I.C.E. is the triumph of the prosaic; the scientific, technocratic, managerial worldview which is so concerned for ‘efficiency’ that it would sweep away all traditions and customs, all chivalry and courtesy, all kindness and charity, in fact all organic life itself, reducing life on earth to chemical processes supervised by a handful of super-brains.

Logres stands for the opposite, and Ransom – Fisher-King – Pendragon – is its head.

What happens then is that Ransom calls down the tutelary spirits of the planets of the solar system – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn – and each in turn a) infects the whole household with their qualities (when Mercury appears everyone becomes talkative and gay, when Mars appears everyone starts quarreling), and infuse their powers into Merlin.

The climax

The ending is disappointing for a number of reasons. I haven’t mentioned that, at the same time that Merlin burst into St Anne’s house, the N.I.C.E. police force were out looking for him and did, indeed find someone, a rough looking big man who couldn’t talk. He is brought to Wither and frost who put him in the same prison cells as Mark – who is refusing to go and get Jane for them. In  a broadly comic scene Mark tumbles to the fact that the scruffy old geezer is just a common or garden tramp but he’s not going to let the two heads of N.I.C.E. know that.

What happens then is that the cell door is unlocked and a big unwieldy curate is ushered in by Wither and Frost. Unbeknown to Mark it is the real Merlin in disguise. He hypnotises the tramp and makes him speak gibberish which he then ‘interprets’ back to Wither and Frost. The ‘curate’ claims that ‘Merlin’ is demanding a tour of the facilities, so off they go, rather reluctantly.

This demand coincides, very inconveniently, with a visit from the man who Wither and Frost had long ago persuaded to be the official figurehead of the N.I.C.E., a superannuated novelist and popular science writer ‘Horace Jules’. I think this a fairly broad caricature of H.G. Wells (who died in the same year this novel was published, 1945). He is rather cruelly depicted as a short, stocky, vulgar Cockney, who got his ideas from Thomas Huxley 50 years ago, and had never learned anything new since.

The climax of the entire novel – with its themes of God versus the devil, faith versus scientific modernism, of ancient Logres versus technocratic Britain, of charity versus ruthlessness, of the superlunary powers of the planets versus the dark forces of earth – all this comes to a grand climax in…. a college dining hall.

For it is here that the fellows of Bracton College (by the time you get to the end of the novel it’s difficult to remember that it all began on the campus of a fictional college) assemble and Jules rises to give his speech to discover… that he is talking gibberish. The audience starts tittering. Wither rises to interrupt him and take control, but he talks gibberish. the audience start laughing then talking among themselves and discover that everyone is talking gibberish.

At that point a tiger appears in the dining hall and starts attacking people. Then a snake. Then an elephant breaks down the doors into the dining hall and proceeds to stomp all over the assembled dons as a peasant woman stamps down the grapes. Miss Hardcastle shoots Jules dead before herself being torn to shreds by the tiger.

These animals – we realise – were just some of the animals which the N.I.C.E were conducting vivisection experiments on. Still it comes as a complete surprise when this happens and seems utterly random.

Some of the bad guys escape. Wither and Straik force the injured Filostrato along to the laboratory which contains the head. The head makes them bow down and worship it. then it demands another head. Wither and Straik manhandle Filotrato over to the guillotine and behead him, offering the Head this new head and chanting to him. Then at the same moment they both realise the Head will ask for another head, and attack each other. Straik flees but Wither kills him with a knife and is just contemplating his body when a bear walks into the laboratory, reared up on its two hind legs, inflamed by the smell of blood, and kills him.

Frost makes his way to the laboratory, discovers the three corpses there and – his mind suddenly taken over by some force – finds himself locking himself in, pouring petrol everywhere and burning to death.

Some of the baddies escape further, namely Lord Feverstone, a slimy politicking member of the college, who also had a seat in the House of Lords and so helped to secure the state of emergency which allowed the N.I.C.E. to take over Edgestow.

But now there is an earthquake, all the land surrounding Edgestow turns into the cone of a volcano and all the buildings, roads, cars and people trying to flee – including Featherstone – are tipped tumbling down into the inferno.

Aftermath

Ransom / the Director / Pendragon, assembles his team – Dr and Mrs Dimble, Mr and Mrs Denniston, Ivy (now reunited with her husband, who had been doing time in prison), Jane and sceptical old MacPhee.

He delivers the last of the explanations which are required i.e. a long account of how he came to be the Pendragon, having inherited it from the old man in Cumberland, and what Logres means and why it is always at odds with ‘Britain’.

And he says goodbye one by one to his ‘disciples’ touching their heads and blessing them. He is leaving. He is returning to Perelandra where he gained his wound and where it will be healed.

And the book ends where it began: with Mark and Jane Studdock. I haven’t had space to mention it, but at the point where Wither and Frost began clamouring for Mark to bring Jane to them, he had realised something was wrong. Not just with the N.I.C.E. but with him, and his whole life, and his whole attitude to life. He had been undergoing training to join the really inner circle of Wither and Frost, a training in abnormality, a training designed to burn out of him any morality, normality and decency. But when it came to spitting and treading on the helpless figure of Christ, on a big crucifix laid on the floor of the training room, he refused, he rebelled and from that moment hardened his heart against the N.I.C.E. and all its works, and began to repent.

Thus, in the confusion of the escaping animals, the massacre of dons, and then the fire which starts in the Laboratory and quickly spreads, he escapes, makes it up out of the earthquake zone and finds himself trudging towards St Anne’s, miserable, humbled, willing to apologise.

And, when ransom dismisses Jane, he sends her to the cottage in the big house’s grounds, where Venus appears to her in a vision. She also has been chastened and humbled. She has learned that the beginning of wisdom is to realise other people are as important as you, that there are powers above you, that egotism always turns in on itself, whereas charity expands the soul and obedience, paradoxically, leads to a wonderful freedom.

And so the chastened young couple enter the cottage and proceed to a new marriage bed, based on mutual respect and understanding.

Quite a story, eh?


Comment

Where to start with what is really an enormous hodge-podge of a book?

I’ll start with the disappointing elements.

1. The prophecy that doesn’t arrive At the end of the previous novel in the sequence, the great spirit presiding over Perelandra had made the following prophecy regarding the ‘final battle’:

‘We shall fall upon your moon, wherein there is a secret evil, and which is as the shield of the Dark Lord of Thulcandra – scarred with many a blow. We shall break her. Her light shall be put out. Her fragments shall fall into your world and the seas and the smoke shall arise so that the dwellers in Thulcandra will no longer see the light of Arbol. And as Maleldil Himself draws near, the evil things in your world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas. But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of your Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again.’

Nothing like this happens. The moon isn’t smashed into fragments which fall into the sea creating a fog which blots out the sky, plagues and horrors do not cover the land, the Black Oyarsa doesn’t come into it, and there is no sense at all of the world swept clean.

The opposite. Towards the end Doc Dimble – who seems to know a surprising amount about Logres and so on – explains to the others i.e. Jane, MacPhee and the ladies, that the tension between ‘Britain’ and ‘Logres’ is a permanent state of affairs on these islands, in England, in Albion. I.e there is never a final anything. Conflict between the ancient and the modern technocratic vision will be permanent.

2. The silly massacre Instead of this world-shattering prophecy, what we get is a massacre in a college dining hall. Lewis tries to jive it up by saying that in the days leading up to the climax a thick fog settles over Edgestow, a small town in the Midlands. But that’s not quite the same as the moon being shattered into pieces and falling into the oceans, is it? Fog over small town in the Midlands is not headline-grabbing news. But nothing can hide the fact that the massacre in the dining hall falls far short of what the build-up had led us to expect, in lots of ways.

a) Farce It is treated more as farce than tragedy, beginning as it does with an entirely comical caricature of H.G. Wells and his pompous lecturing of the fawning dons. The way that he, and then everyone in the hall, starts speaking gibberish is a very small piece of magic, for such a mighty magician as Merlin to perform. It seems more like a parlour trick.

b) The animals’ revenge And then the way they are massacred by wild beasts is just not properly built-up to. Sure, we’d been told a few times that part of the N.I.C.E.’s experimental work involved vivisection, but it was never a central part of the novel at all. Using it as the central instrument of revenge feels random and contrived.

3. Merlin The central part of the novel deepens the mystical significance of events by invoking all manner of medieval and pre-medieval beliefs, by taking us – very atmospherically – back to the darkest of the dark ages after the Romans left and all kinds of pagan spirits reasserted their presence, and both Dimble and Ransom hint that Merlin’s powers in fact stretch far back before that, to the earliest days of humankind.

Jane’s creams of Merlin in  his chamber, and Ransom and Dimble’s accounts of his deep ancestral magic are very evocative and a bit scary. It is, then, a profound disappointment that Merlin’s main role is to be chastened by Ransom, to be told he can’t use any of his old magic, to be told he has to act within the framework which Ransom dictates.

It is a fundamental failure of the book that the rip-roaring ancient magic which we had been led to expect does not then arrive. Instead, Merlin is persuaded to dress up as a curate, inveigle his way into the N.I.C.E. masquerading as a priest who knows arcane old languages and so may be able to speak to the old man they’ve brought in (who Mark and the reader knows to be a harmless old tramp just after a warm place to kip and some decent grub).

Instead of being big, mighty and transformative, this scene is small, paltry and silly, more reminiscent of a French farce. Merlin in disguise hypnotises the tramp into speaking gibberish which Merlin then translates to Wither and Frost as a wish to see the facilities. Once touring round them Merlin a) casts the spell which makes everyone at the dinner speak gibberish b) sets the animals free.

That’s it. Very anti-climactic.

4. The gods Now Lewis tries to juice up Merlin’s role by having the tutelary spirits, the oyarsa, of the planets of the solar system appear one by one and infuse Merlin with their powers. This is a highly symbolic and schematic scene – one where we are meant to recognise and enjoy the depiction of the attributes of each planet, which could almost be a scene from Chaucer or Spenser, and yet… in the end…. What does Merlin do with all this mighty extra-terrestrial power? Put a spell on some doddery old academics and let the animals out of their cages. Hardly needed spirits from the solar system come down to help him do that.

5. The devil I was led to believe the devil was going to appear, the ‘bent’ oyarsa or darkarchon who rules this world – and that he would be overthrown and everything wiped clean. This doesn’t happen. Ransom disappears off to Perelandra at the end, and Mark and Jane go to bed together, for the first time to make love with courtesy and respect – which is all very nice – but what happened to the Dark Archon? Is the world still in his control? Has the new era prophesied at the end of Perelandra come about?

Emphatically not.

It doesn’t gel

They don’t mesh. The prophecy and expectation built up by the first two books of an Last Battle and global cleansing – the sense that the future of all mankind is at stake – the yoking in of Merlin and Logres – and setting it all in the broadly comic setting of the senior common room of a dusty old college or in a nice English country house – it is too much to manage, to pull together, and Lewis fails to deliver on all fronts.

Of the three novels, Perelandra is much the best, because its setting on another planet allowed Lewis’s imagination absolute free rein to dazzle us with his imagination, and to create from nothing a magnificent setting which truly dramatised the themes he was dealing with (the nature of evil, the fall, the nature of faith).

Some issues

The original version of That Hideous Strength was, as I’ve pointed out, nearly three times as long as the first book in the trilogy. Lewis clearly threw everything into it, creating an unstoppable outpouring of rambunctious ideas and social criticism.

While the main narrative of the book alternates between Mark’s adventures and Jane’s adventures, hardly an incident occurs which he doesn’t use to promote his view that the modern world with its blind belief in science and technology and efficiency and materialism has led modern man to a cliff edge, is destroying age-old values of courtesy and chivalry and charity and love and, above all, belief in something outside ourselves, something bigger than our individual selves, which made the world and deserves our respect and gratitude and obedience.

The experience of reading the book is to be almost continually lectured, either by the Dark Side characters lecturing Mark about everything from how to manipulate committees, how to write propaganda, how to manage the media, how to create talking heads, how to promote efficiency to such a degree that you end up abolishing mankind altogether – or, on the Light Side, Ransom’s explanations to innocent Jane of everything we learned in the first two books about the spirits of the universe, the oyarsa which rule each planet, and Dimble’s lengthy lectures about Merlin and Logres.

Somewhere the American novelist Saul Bellow laments that, these days, everyone is an expert, everyone is ‘a reality instructor’. Well, almost all the characters in this book seem to be lecturing each other about something or other. Here is Dr Dimble lecturing the sceptical MacPhee who is used as a butt for his and Ransom’s arguments.

‘You see, MacPhee, if one is thinking simply of goodness in the abstract, one soon reaches the fatal idea of something standardised – some common kind of life to which all nations ought to progress. Of course there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue. It’s not there that the sap is. He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.’

Here is Lord Feverstone (who I only realised, half way through, is the same slimy, selfish adventurer who helped kidnap Ransom and transport him to Mars in the very first novel) who has got himself made a lord and is now a mover and shaker at Bracton college, here he is early on explaining things to naive young Mark:

‘Man has got to take charge of man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest – which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite.’

‘What sort of thing have you in mind?’

‘Quite simple and obvious things, at first – sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.’

You can see why Mark is taken aback, Sterilisation, liquidation? Oh yes old chap, drawls Feverstone, all in the name of progress, doncha know. Elsewhere Filostrato opens up the possibility that the two world wars they’d lived through are just the start of a sequence of wars which will all but wipe humanity out.

Throughout the book Lewis conflates modern management techniques in big organisations with special constables, underground cells, torture, liquidation. There are hundreds and hundreds of digs at the entire vocabulary of modern social services. there’s a section where Feverstone explains that the N.I.C.E. have persuaded the government to let them undertake the ‘rehabilitation’ of prisoners (as opposed to what Lewis clearly sees as the more honest, traditional view of punishment) but that this rehabilitation actually means a license to carry out experiments and torture.

Mr Straik is a clergyman who has gone profoundly wrong, whose theology has become so other-worldly that he has lost all touch with human life in all its imperfection. He tells Mark why he has joined the N.I.C.E.

‘The feeblest of these people here has the tragic sense of life, the ruthlessness, the total commitment, the readiness to sacrifice all merely human values, which I could not find amid all the nauseating cant of the organised religions.’

Dr Filostrato is the ‘scientist’ masterminding the bringing back to life of the head of the guillotined criminal Alcasar. During a college dinner early on, he explains to Mark that, having seen a metal tree made as a work of art in an art gallery, he realised, why stop at one? Why not replace all real trees with metal trees?

‘Why one or two? At present, I allow, we must have forest for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.’

‘Do you mean,’ put in a man called Gould, ‘that we are to have no vegetation at all?’

‘Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.’

‘I wonder what the birds will make of it?’

‘I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.’

‘It sounds,’ said Mark, ‘like abolishing pretty well all organic life.’

‘And why not? It is simple hygiene.’

It is no accident that Mark’s academic subject is Sociology. Lewis obviously loathes Sociology. It sums up everything which is wrong with the modern world, which is regarding people as numbers and units instead of rich, complex human beings. Mark’s

education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman’. He preferred to write about ‘vocational group’, ‘elements’, ‘classes’, and ‘populations’: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

Early on, one of the dons who disapproves of the N.I.C.E., Bill Hingest, makes a telling point to Mark:

‘I happen to believe that you can’t study men, you can only get to know them.;

Good idea, good thought. For his opposition to the N.I.C.E. his car is flagged down in a dark country lane and he is beaten to death by N.I.C.E. goons.

Ancient versus modern

Wither witters on in interminable and obscure sentences designed to confuse his listeners, and also ensure they never know where they stand. He is obfuscation versus Lewis’s ideal of the simple autoritative clarity with which Ransom speaks. Here is Wither:

‘Good morning, good morning, Mr. Studdock,’ he said. ‘It is with the greatest regret that I–er–in short, I would not have kept you from your breakfast unless I had felt that in your own interests you should be placed in full possession of the facts at the earliest possible moment. You will of course regard all that I am about to say as strictly confidential. The matter is a distressing or at least an embarrassing one. I feel sure that as the conversation proceeds (pray be seated, Mr. Studdock) you will realise in your present situation how very wise we have been in securing from the outset a police force–to give it that rather unfortunate name–of our own.’

Here is Ransom:

‘I am the Director,’ said Ransom, smiling. ‘Do you think I would claim the authority I do if the relation between us depended either on your choice or mine? You never chose me. I never chose you. Even the great Oyéresu whom I serve never chose me. I came into their worlds by what seemed, at first, a chance; as you came to me–as the very animals in this house first came to it. You and I have not started or devised this: it has descended on us–sucked us into itself, if you like. It is, no doubt, an organisation: but we are not the organisers. And that is why I have no authority to give any one of you permission to leave my household.’

Light versus dark. Clarity versus obscurity. Good faith versus deliberate uncertainty. Sunlight versus fog. Love versus fear. Openness and permission contrasted with a paramilitary police and torture cells. Country versus city. Rural landscape versus industry. Tradition versus novelty. People versus statistics. Muddling through versus inhuman ‘efficiency’.

Filostrato wants to  abolish all organic life from the planet. In sharp contrast Ransom is shown going out of his way to be courteous and loving to animals, to the unexpected bear Mr Bultitude, but also to a covey of mice who he rings a bell to summons to eat the crumbs left over by the humans, his pets Baron Corvo the jackdaw and Mr Pinch the cat.

Ransom’s is a supra-human vision which encompasses all life forms.

The cosmic view

‘Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.’ (Grace Ironwood)

Merlin

Lewis writes wonderfully evocatively of the Dark Ages whose literature he knew so well.

And suddenly all that Britain which had been so long familiar to him as a scholar rose up like a solid thing. He could see it all. Little dwindling cities where the light of Rome still rested – little Christian sites, Camalodunum, Kaerleon, Glastonbury – a church, a villa or two, a huddle of houses, an earthwork. And then, beginning scarcely a stone’s-throw beyond the gates, the wet, tangled, endless woods, silted with the accumulated decay of autumns that had been dropping leaves since before Britain was an island; wolves slinking, beavers building, wide shallow marshes, dim horns and drummings, eyes in the thickets, eyes of men not only Pre-Roman but Pre-British, ancient creatures, unhappy and dispossessed, who became the elves and ogres and wood-wooses of the later tradition. But worse than the forests, the clearings. Little strongholds with unheard-of kings. Little colleges and covines of Druids. Houses whose mortar had been ritually mixed with babies’ blood.

And the figure of Merlin is, at least initially, presented with a powerful sense of the old pagan beliefs.

his great mass stood as if it had been planted like a tree, and he seemed in no hurry. And the voice, too, was such as one might imagine to be the voice of a tree, large and slow and patient, drawn up through roots and clay and gravel from the depths of the Earth.

And Lewis gives Merlin some great speeches, commenting on what, to him, are the peculiarities of 20th century life.

‘I cannot, indeed, understand the way you live, and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it: a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone, with no more honour than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh, but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there is warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.’

Compared to the thrilling power of his own days.

Merlin saw in memory the wintry grass on Badon Hill, the long banner of the Virgin fluttering above the heavy British-Roman cataphracts, the yellow-haired barbarians. He heard the snap of the bows, the click-click of steel points in wooden shields, the cheers, the howling, the ringing of struck mail. He remembered also the evening, fires twinkling along the hill, frost making the gashes smart, starlight on a pool fouled with blood, eagles crowding together in the pale sky.

Wow! Such a shame that this primal force then has to be tamed and neutered by Ransom.

The choice

What the books brings out is that both Jane and Mark are brought to the point of having to make a choice. Which side are you on?

In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside himself the responsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. It would have been “the system” or “an inferiority complex” due to his parents, or the peculiarities of the age. None of these things occurred to him now. His “scientific” outlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of that public self which was now falling off him. He was aware, without even having to think of it, that it was he himself–nothing else in the whole universe–that had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.

Even realising that you have a choice, even realising that we must all take responsibility for our own lives is presented by Lewis, as almost a lost knowledge, as a basic prerequisite for being human which modern society does everything it can to obscure. Mark:

became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed.

Feminism

There is a massive amount to be written about Lewis’s depiction of the female characters. I imagine modern women students will want to throw the book in the nearest fire when they read the howlingly stereotyped characterisation of Miss Hardcastle, the leather-clad lesbian chief of police and torturer – although I enjoyed her character on an entirely cartoon level.

But central to the book is the way both Mark and Jane have to be cured of their modern scepticism and atheism and brought to see that there are people outside them a world outside them, powers outside them, that they are really very small and have to smother their egotism and learn to love others, and to love their Creator.

Jane is a moderately complex figure, in some ways the most sympathetic character in the book (Mark is depicted as an unrelentingly selfish fool in a hurry to suck up to anyone who’s in a position of power). Feminists might sympathise with the opening where Jane is depicted as frustrated by married life and excluded from an academic career, and by her later comments about sexism.

For a moment she looked on Mr. Denniston with real dislike. She saw him, and Mark, and the Fisher-King man and this preposterous Indian fakir simply as men – complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women were children or bartering them like cattle. (‘And so the king promised that if anyone killed the dragon he would give him his daughter in marriage.’) She was very angry.

But feminists presumably wouldn’t like the sections where she has to overcome these feminist views, in order to progress to the next level, the level Lewis depicts as to do with very ancient symbols of gender, of male and female coming together in rituals and ceremonies celebrating fertility and, at the end of the story, in a traditional marriage bed – cleansed and healed from their modern angry scepticism. Brought to realise that they should both be humble, forgiving and charitable.

Continually, throughout the book, the good things evoke whole systems of personal and folk memory, so that this generation is seen as repeating, echoing, and confirming the wisdom of the ages.

It woke in Jane vague memories of helping at Christmas or Easter decorations in church when she had been a small child. But it also suggested to her literary memory all sorts of things out of sixteenth-century epithalamions – age-old superstitions, jokes, and sentimentalities about bridal beds and marriage bowers, with omens at the threshold and fairies upon the hearth.

Maybe much of this can be critiqued as outrageously sexist, patriarchal and patronising, bit I, for one, can see where Lewis is coming from in invoking folk traditions, religious traditions, pagan traditions, pre-Christian traditions, and non-Western traditions, all of which see humans as aspiring to literally superhuman ideals of masculinity and femininity – ideals none of us may be able to attain, but which are guides to behaviour.

Or we can do what many people are doing in our day and age, try to rewrite our understanding of human nature and gender from scratch. But even if they’re not true, even if they are not exactly a guide for modern living, I – like Lewis – love and reverence the old literature, the old traditions and the old magic.

In Perelandra the theme and the treatment have a unity which completely transport the reader and make you accept all kinds of stately, ceremonial behaviour, at bottom based on gender norms and traditional views of fertility and procreation.

But when he tries to set the same ideas in the ‘modern’ age (well, 1940s England) they, along with much else in this mad gallimaufrey of a story, fall to really cohere or convince.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The World Set Free by H.G. Wells (1914)

The dream of The World Set Free [is] a dream of highly educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world. (The World Set Free, preface)

Wells and world government

Wells was terrifyingly prolific. He wrote more than 114 books, of which over 50 were novels.

From around 1901 onwards his books, both fictional and factual, increasingly testify to one central concern – the notion that the Scientific Age has, and will continue to, transform human society out of all recognition – and that all the old primitive traditions of nationalism, with its national governments and imperial rivalries, egged on by warmongering newspapers and ambitious politicians, rivalries which used to be settled by ‘limited wars’, simply could not afford to continue – because they will inexorably lead to the destruction of all human civilisation.

The weapons of the Scientific Age are now so destructive, and can be spread so far and wide through vast artillery and the new medium of air flight, that modern war will wreak death and devastation on a completely unprecedented scale. His thesis is that:

because of the development of scientific knowledge, separate sovereign states and separate sovereign empires are no longer possible in the world, that to attempt to keep on with the old system is to heap disaster upon disaster for mankind and perhaps to destroy our race altogether.

The only solution Wells could see from the mid-1900s until the end of his life in 1945, was the establishment of a World Government, which would a) supersede the old nationalisms of redundant nation states in order to ensure global peace, and b) then set about organising the human population, its needs and resources, its cities and transport, its food and education, in a centralised, rational and logical way.

A brief history of the world

Written in 1913, The World Set Free is a fictional variation on this, Wells’s abiding theme. It is a history of the future, a prediction of what might happen, mostly set in the 1950s.

Readers of each new Wells book must, by this stage, have wondered what kind of book it would be: Would it be one of the taut, compelling science fiction yarns which he began his career with (Time Machine, Wor of the Worlds)? Or one of the broad social comedies (Kipps, Love and Mr Lewisham) he began to write at the turn of the century? Or one of the series of entirely factual books of scientific analysis and prophecy, which began with 1901’s best-selling Anticipations?

In the event The World Set Free is, as so often with Edwardian Wells, a hybrid or mongrel of all three.

The novel opens with a long factual account of human prehistory which reads like an article from an old-fashioned encyclopedia. Wells paints a convincing picture of Homo sapiens as a species which, in its animal ignorance, for millennia walked over the rocks which contained coal and iron ore, squelched through the rivers which contained the clay which could be made into porcelain. In other words, all around us have always been the untapped resources which it took us a long, long time to recognise, and then a long, long time to develop the technology to harness for our use.

He gives an overview of the slow development of fire, agriculture, stratified societies, cities, writing – in Mesopotamia, in China, in Mesoamerica – and how, in all of these societies, there arose the ‘dreamers’, the seekers, the explorers of things, the wonderers-how… Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci.

Man had not been always thus; the instincts and desires of the little home, the little plot, was not all his nature; also he was an adventurer, an experimenter, an unresting curiosity, an insatiable desire.

If you were an average reader of 1914, who had left school at 14 or 15, all this must have been wonderfully mind-expanding stuff. Placing our present-day society, with its cafés and motor cars, in the context of the long history of the human species, was a typically thrilling perspective.

These preliminaries lead in to an up-to-the-minute description of the latest discoveries about the structure of the atom and the radioactive decay of unstable elements, and learned speculation about how these might turn out to be yet another source of secret energy which has lain around us for millennia, but which humanity is now poised to refine and use for its good.

At this point what has in effect been a long history lesson turns into something more like a ‘novel’ with the introduction of specific characters. We are introduced to the inventor ‘Holsten’ who we follow for a few pages, as he ponders on the power of the atom. Maybe he is the protagonist of the story.

But no. We have only been with his discoveries and thoughts for a few pages, before Wells scoops us up and leaps decades into the future, beyond Holsten’s discoveries, to describe how people yet to be born will develop new motors and engines to harness nuclear power and transform the world, making car travel cheaper and quicker, and really establishing airplane travel as affordable and safe (remember this was written in 1913, when there were hardly any airplanes yet).

The ‘historical’ text pauses for a moment to set the scene in a courtroom where Holsten is a witness in a copyright dispute about the new technology, which is placed here solely to allow Wells to explain at length how ‘the law’ was a relic of primitive tribal conflicts, and in no way ready for the New Age of Scientific Knowledge. How it tends to hold back the pace of invention and change.

Then we are back to the high-level view of the historian of the future, explaining how this sudden accession of cheap energy not only led to new inventions, air travel, fast land travel and the revolutionising of most industry, but also led to economic upheaval leading to depression, unemployment, suicide and social unrest.

For the governments of the day were constitutionally unprepared for any kind of technological change. Here is Wells’s jaded view of contemporary government:

The world in these days was not really governed at all, in the sense in which government came to be understood in subsequent years. Government was a treaty, not a design; it was forensic, conservative, disputatious, unseeing, unthinking, uncreative; throughout the world, except where the vestiges of absolutism still sheltered the court favourite and the trusted servant, it was in the hands of the predominant caste of lawyers, who had an enormous advantage in being the only trained caste. Their professional education and every circumstance in the manipulation of the fantastically naive electoral methods by which they clambered to power, conspired to keep them contemptuous of facts, conscientiously unimaginative, alert to claim and seize advantages and suspicious of every generosity. Government was an obstructive business of energetic fractions, progress went on outside of and in spite of public activities, and legislation was the last crippling recognition of needs so clamorous and imperative and facts so aggressively established as to invade even the dingy seclusions of the judges and threaten the very existence of the otherwise inattentive political machine.

Lawyers taking advantage of clunky electoral methods in order to seize advantage in the endless faction fighting which makes up real day-to-day politics, the last thing any of them being interested in is reluctantly conceding laws to feebly acknowledge social and technological changes which have already swept through society and everyone else can see are blindingly obvious.

Ring any bells?

Wells sets the big social and technological change he is describing in the mid-1950s. In his version of history, Holsten devises a machine for liberating the energy of the atom in 1933, there’s some delay before it can be practically applied, but once turned into practical form atomic energy introduces sweeping changes from 1953 onwards,

and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress all about the habitable globe.

The last war

Having established the long sweep of human history which leads up to the invention of nuclear power, Wells moves on to part two of his book: The Atomic War.

War comes (apparently) because of old nationalistic and geographical rivalries and Wells (with astonishing accuracy) predicts it will result from the Central European powers attacking a Slavic Alliance.

He paints the war via three vignettes: hostilities have already broken out when we are introduced to a woman secretary based at Allied War Control headquarters in Paris. She is looking up at the tall, stern, unspeaking French military leader, Dubois, with womanly admiration, when a single plane flying high over the city drops an atom bomb on it.

Wells’s bomb is made of the fictional substance Carolinum and its chief difference from normal explosives is that it keeps on exploding (Chapter 2: section 4)

What happened when the celluloid stud was opened was that the inducive oxidised and became active. Then the surface of the Carolinum began to degenerate. This degeneration passed only slowly into the substance of the bomb. A moment or so after its explosion began it was still mainly an inert sphere exploding superficially, a big, inanimate nucleus wrapped in flame and thunder. Those that were thrown from aeroplanes fell in this state, they reached the ground still mainly solid, and, melting soil and rock in their progress, bored into the earth. There, as more and more of the Carolinum became active, the bomb spread itself out into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of what became very speedily a miniature active volcano. The Carolinum, unable to disperse, freely drove into and mixed up with a boiling confusion of molten soil and superheated steam, and so remained spinning furiously and maintaining an eruption that lasted for years or months or weeks according to the size of the bomb employed and the chances of its dispersal. Once launched, the bomb was absolutely unapproachable and uncontrollable until its forces were nearly exhausted, and from the crater that burst open above it, puffs of heavy incandescent vapour and fragments of viciously punitive rock and mud, saturated with Carolinum, and each a centre of scorching and blistering energy, were flung high and far.

Thus, in a moment, the tidy War Control becomes a vast crater, flooding with water from the river Seine, full of continually radiating explosive power. The woman just has time to crawl to the body of Dubois – which has been neatly chopped in half – and scream with horror, before the Seine flood comes in and drowns her.

The second source for Wells’s account of this future war is a book of memoirs published, the narrating historian tells us, much later, in 1970 by Frederick Barnet. This old man describes his young manhood, taking advantage of the new atomic flying machines to go on a grand aerial tour of Europe.

Back in London his father loses all his fortune and commits suicide with the result that Barnet is thrown out on the streets. Wells describes Barnet’s odyssey through a London unrecognisably changed by future technology, with glass-sheeted streets used by super-fast atomic-powered ‘cars’. Over his head is a network of pedestrian footpaths and bridges which make London look a bit like Venice.

I love all descriptions of the London of the future, enriching and transforming the gritty, polluted, windy city of the grim present.

Anyway, Barnet becomes aware of the poverty on the streets and witnesses a hunger march by the unemployed. It dawns on him that no-one is in charge. No-one is really directing the helter-skelter of technological and social change we are living though, and no-one has a plan for how to manage the human victims of these changes, the huge numbers of workers in the old industries – coal-mining, railways, ironworks – who have simply been thrown on the scrap heap when they weren’t wanted any more.

They were a sample of that great mass of unskilled cheap labour which the now still cheaper mechanical powers had superseded for evermore. They were being ‘scrapped’ – as horses had been ‘scrapped.’

For Wells Socialism wasn’t about justice for the working classes as such – it is always subsumed in a much vaster historical development in which he sees the old systems of law and ownership reaching a breaking point, because they are based on technological and scientific levels of knowledge which have been made redundant.

Those traditions come from the dark ages when there was really not enough for every one, when life was a fierce struggle that might be masked but could not be escaped. Of course this famine grabbing, this fierce dispossession of others, must follow from such a disharmony between material and training. Of course the rich were vulgar and the poor grew savage and every added power that came to men made the rich richer and the poor less necessary and less free. The men I met in the casual wards and the relief offices were all smouldering for revolt, talking of justice and injustice and revenge.

And then – the war breaks out, giving Barnet a job and a purpose, along with a lot of other unemployed men and with the population as a whole, which is swept up in a great communal moment of solidarity.

He enlists in the British army and is full of young-man enthusiasm to go off and fight. Via Barnet Wells gives us some startlingly prophetic descriptions of trench warfare, all sniping and boredom, on the front with Germany. Then Barnet is entrained up to Holland and is just supervising a platoon of men when German planes drop a dozen or so atom bombs on the dam and canal network of Holland resulting in unprecedented destruction. Cue descriptions of apocalyptic waves, national destruction, and an aftermath of muddy water in all directions littered with corpses.

In the third vignette a tough-minded French aviator flies with just a co-pilot all the way to Berlin, where he drops three atom bombs which obliterate the city.

These three stories comprise Well’s description of the great atomic war of the mid-1950s, which now escalates uncontrollably. Every power makes pre-emptive strikes on every other power, with the result that by the spring of 1959:

from nearly two hundred centres, and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs, the flimsy fabric of the world’s credit had vanished, industry was completely disorganised and every city, every thickly populated area was starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the capital cities of the world were burning; millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end.

The World Council

As is often the way in this kind of world-shaping science fiction, a World Council is called. The idea is proposed by the French ambassador to Washington, Monsieur Leblanc, who chooses a remote village in the Italian Alps, Brissago. To the council are invited representatives of the surviving nations.

Wells now introduces a new act in the novel and markedly changes the tone. It becomes comic because we now zero in on the efforts of one ‘King Egbert’, King of a Ruritanian little country in the Balkans who wants to abdicate his royal prerogatives in the name of the new collective government – much to the comic chagrin of his brainy adviser, Firmin.

There is a scene right out of the Prisoner of Zenda, when the King of the Balkans tries to bomb the assembly of leaders and seize control of The World. But the plane he sends with atom bombs is shot down by a well-organised anti-air defence. Young Egbert and officials of the new world state are then sent to the Balkans to interview the King. The latter suavely pretends to know nothing about the attempt to blow up the council, but – in the middle of the night – sets off with his evil adviser to the secret hiding place of the remaining atom bombs. But Egbert and the security men from the council have followed him and there is a dramatic shoot-out in the aircraft hanger in which the King and his men are shot down. With that, organised resistance to the new World Government disappears.

If you had had any lingering thoughts that this was a serious novel, this scene demolishes them. the whole book is a series of linked sketches or scenes, more like a theatrical ‘revue’ than a continuous narrative.

Barnet’s Britain

In another sequence we return to Frederick Barnet who is, by now, in charge of troops guarding the perimeter of radioactive Paris. After descriptions of the refugees fleeing the devastated city, Barnet is shipped back to England to discover a land without money, government or food. A land where food supplies are protected by armed guard and vigilante groups, strangers are hassled or shot, where thieves are hanged at the perimeters of armed settlements: the same post-apocalyptic scenes he depicted so well in The War In The Air.

This is a powerful sequence which could have come out of a much more recent thriller about post-apocalyptic Britain, completely different in tone from the semi-comic King of the Balkans sequence.

But mostly Wells flies at a high level, a historian’s level, describing in very general terms how the new world government comes about i.e. more or less by accident; how it doesn’t waste time writing a constitution but sets up committees to address pressing problems such as the stabilisation of currency, the restoration of trade, the building of houses for displaced populations, and so on.

Now, in the postwar future, all of these things are planned and organised at a high level and in a rational way. Cheap atomic energy allows cities to be built anywhere. Cheap atomic energy drives agricultural equipment and provides cheap fertiliser so, in this new world, food can be grown almost anywhere and quickly and cheaply distributed.

Wasn’t there resistance to this new order? Some. But most people had been shocked by the collapse of civilisation into acceptance of the new rules.

For a time the whole world had been shocked into frankness; nearly all the clever people who had hitherto sustained the ancient belligerent separations had now been brought to realise the need for simplicity of attitude and openness of mind; and in this atmosphere of moral renascence, there was little attempt to get negotiable advantages out of resistance to the new order

So a new World Government isn’t imposed from the outside; it grows organically out of the needs of a world brought to the edge of destruction and is the result of intelligent people everywhere realising that they can’t go back to the old ways – to capitalism, unbridled competition, to the chaos and anarchy of industrial over-production. From now on everything is planned rationally and logically.

And, the narrator boasts, once liberated from the restraint of physical or long-hour labour, it turns out that most people want to be artists and to beautify life.

The world broke out into making, and at first mainly into aesthetic making. This phase of history, which has been not inaptly termed the ‘Efflorescence,’ is still, to a large extent, with us. The majority of our population consists of artists, and the bulk of activity in the world lies no longer with necessities but with their elaboration, decoration, and refinement.

The entire population of the world turns into Radio 4 listeners.

Wells then gives us a chapter about the need for, and implementation in his Brave New World, of universal education.

He then gives us an interesting short chapter suggesting that the central theme of the novel since its inception has been the conflict between the restrictions of society and the impulse to overthrow and escape them, an impulse which quickened and gained force among the protagonists of late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century fiction.

The Last Days of Marcus Karenin

And just when you’d have thought Wells had written all he had to say on the subject, there is a last, long chapter devoted to ‘The Last Days of Marcus Karenin’.

Who was Marcus Karenin? The bad-tempered hunchback who helped introduce universal education to the New Order. He goes to a sanatorium in the Himalayas for an operation he knows will kill him. In his last days various young people are brought on stage so he can tell them about the stupidity of the pre-atomic age and they can ooh and ah at its greed and violence and narrow-mindedness.

It is exactly the same tone of the narrator in In The Days of The Comet, another novel where the world is transformed out of all recognition and where the future narrator addresses the young, post-change generation living in the New World, who can barely believe how spendthrift of resources, selfish, competitive and destructive the old system was.

While this sort of talk creates an emotional thrill – the thrill of looking back on our present civilisation from an imagined future – it is liable to the same criticism as all the other future histories: that it takes a cataclysm to get from here to there. That the world has to be all but destroyed to bring about the Millennium.

To gas-and-water socialists like the Fabians, Well’s books were, ultimately, thrill-providing fantasies – all very exciting for thrill-seekers but absolutely useless as any kind of practical guide on to how to improve the lot of the poor, the uneducated, the unhoused and so on in the here and now.

Among the group brought in to chat to the dying seer, Karenin, is a poet who tries to persuade the old man that a great awakening of love is taking place, of sexual love.

But Karenin corrects him and says sex is fine in its place, but we will all live longer lives now and outlive the sex drive of the young. Long life will free our minds of the dominance of sex and give us the peace to think about infinitely higher things.

The book ends (rather surprisingly) with some pages of feminism, in which Well’s mouthpiece says that the very notion of gender is stone age, out of date. Both sexes must rise above it and become pure, ungendered human intelligences.

‘Karenin?’ asked Rachel, ‘do you mean that women are to become men?’
‘Men and women have to become human beings…’ [said Karenin]
‘To think of yourselves as women is to think of yourselves in relation to men. You can’t escape that consequence. You have to learn to think of yourselves – for our sakes and your own sakes – in relation to the sun and stars. You have to cease to be our adventure, Rachel, and come with us upon our adventures.’

Which is fine, which is interesting, but this final scene hasn’t really been earned by the book, doesn’t really evolve organically out of the narrative. Instead it is another scene placed in the sequence of scenes which make up this revue of the future. And, very obviously, it is one of Mr Wells’s hobby horses, another example of Wells’s compulsion to throw everything he’s thinking about into a book, along with the kitchen sink.

With some of his last words, Karenin predicts that this ungendered human intelligence will eventually break free of the planet and set off into space, exploring and becoming one with the great universe.

‘These old bodies, these old animal limitations, all this earthly inheritance of gross inevitabilities falls from the spirit of man like the shrivelled cocoon from an imago. And for my own part, when I hear of these things I feel like that – like a wet, crawling new moth that still fears to spread its wings. Because where do these things take us?’

‘Beyond humanity,’ said Kahn.

‘No,’ said Karenin. ‘We can still keep our feet upon the earth that made us. But the air no longer imprisons us, this round planet is no longer chained to us like the ball of a galley slave….

‘In a little while men who will know how to bear the strange gravitations, the altered pressures, the attenuated, unfamiliar gases and all the fearful strangenesses of space will be venturing out from this earth. This ball will be no longer enough for us; our spirit will reach out…. Cannot you see how that little argosy will go glittering up into the sky, twinkling and glittering smaller and smaller until the blue swallows it up. They may succeed out there; they may perish, but other men will follow them….’

These are extraordinary visions to be having in 1913. They must have dazzled his readers. But a hundred years later, we know that these fine fantasies, which fuelled a century of scientific endeavour… are not to be. We are very much locked up in our own planet. And we are very much destroying it through the small-minded selfishness which Wells so feared.


Some science prophecies

Wells’s predictions of the future are hugely enjoyable if often completely wrong.

He thought airplanes would use flapping wings and a central helicopter set of rotors. In all his novels which feature air battles, the pilots or their co-pilots fire rifles at each other, sometimes getting up or leaning out of the plane to do so.

His prediction that the atom would be split in 1933 was close to the actual date, but atomic energy was used in weapon form in 1945 not 1955 – and then to entirely destructive result.

73 years later (!) we do use nuclear power in a general way to provide power for electricity grids, but it has turned out to be dangerous to run (Three Mile island, Chernobyl, Fukushima) and have extremely toxic by-products which we don’t know how to safely store.

Wells’s guess at how an atom bomb would work turned out to be wildly wrong – he thought it would continue churning out massive heat and explosive power indefinitely, a permanent explosion rendering areas where was one was dropped permanently uninhabitable. In the event, it turns out that they produce the same kind of one-off explosion as dynamite, just on an immensely bigger scale.

And neither Wells nor anybody else guessed at the profound damage which could be done to all living organisms by radioactivity.

It is also sweet that he thought the atom bombs would be big black round things (as in a Tom and Jerry cartoon) with two handles (a bit like 1970s spacehoppers). The co-pilot of the plane dropping them had to hold one over the edge – and then lean out and use his teeth to bite off the top of a celluloid strip – which allowed air into the mechanism and started the radioactive process. Charmingly amateurish. Like a Heath Robinson cartoon.

Critique

The need for a World Government to stop humanity blowing itself up became the over-riding, obsessive concern of Wells in all his writings for the next thirty years.

There are three obvious ripostes.

1. Joseph Conrad wrote Wells a letter pointing out that all his ideas fail to take into account the depravity and evil of people. Wells just wishes it away. But the twentieth century showed us not just that politics was tribal and judges wore silly wigs and newspapers are often little more than propaganda sheets. It also showed us that people enjoyed rounding up Jews and exterminating them. Or Armenians. Or kulaks. Or gypsies, or homosexuals, or the traitors or saboteurs or spies or whatever other names they give to ‘the other’ which must be exterminated so that the nation can be pure.

It showed us that most human nature is not waiting to be ‘set free’ to make baskets and flower arrangements. Or, if some human natures are, plenty of other are waiting to be set free to wear para-military uniforms and beat up foreigners.

2. Wells’s World Governments always come about after an event so seismic that it has more or less abolished old human nature or inaugurated an entirely new type of human: as in the magic gas which profoundly changes human nature in In The Days of The Comet or the ‘moral shocks’ administered by the complete collapse of civilisation depicted in The War In The Air.

But we now know that you can have two world wars of almost inconceivable destruction and it doesn’t change human nature one whit. In other words, human nature with all its manifold shortcomings, is simply not as malleable as Wells hopes.

3. On a narrow political view, Wells foresees the intervention of the World Government ‘withering away’:

It became more and more an established security and less and less an active intervention.

because the committees devoted to specific aspects – money, language, building, agriculture – do their jobs so well, and are so responsive to local needs, and work so rationally that they can’t be improved.

What this view of humanity leaves out is the problem that people have irreconcilable views. This is why democratic politics was, is and always will be a messy business of irrational compromises. Because people disagree about things, about everything, passionately, and the government has to somehow hold the ring and forge compromises.

In other words, government can never be rational because human beings will never be rational. Wells thinks something like a world war will shock people into becoming a new type of person.

The catastrophe of the atomic bombs which shook men out of cities and businesses and economic relations shook them also out of their old established habits of thought, and out of the lightly held beliefs and prejudices that came down to them from the past.

But two world wars came and went and nothing in human nature changed. I grew up in a world dominated by communist tyrannies (Russia, China) and military dictatorships (Chile, Spain, Portugal, Greece). As John Gray has made a living pointing out, when it comes to human nature, nothing changes.

The book’s structure

Prelude – The Sun Snarers
Chapter the First – The New Source of Energy
Chapter the Second – The Last War
Chapter the Third – The Ending of War
Chapter the Fourth – The New Phase
Chapter the Fifth – The Last Days of Marcus Karenin


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The adventures of William Mandella, one of the first to join up for the elite forces organised to fight the Taurians who humans encounter as soon as they discover interstellar travel, in a novel often taken as an allegory for the undending Vietnam War, in which Haldeman himself actually fought.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells (1910)

Wells was still in his early phase of creating genre-defining science fantasy stories when he wrote When The Sleeper Wakes, which was serialised in the Graphic magazine from January to May 1899.

It is his version of the familiar trope of the man who falls asleep for an unnaturally long period of time and wakes up in a future where everything has changed, where a new civilisation is in place. (If you think about it, falling asleep and waking in the far future is a variation on the theme of time travel – only with no coming back!)

Invariably, the civilisation of the future is shown to have either solved or exacerbated what the author sees as the great social issues of his own day so that the genre offers an author free rein to make prophecies and predictions, as well as working in as much social and political satire, as he or she wants.

Later, Wells became dissatisfied with When The Sleeper Wakes at top speed – he had been under pressure from obligations to complete another novel and write a number of journalistic articles, and he was also ill during the writing of the second half. So, in 1910, for a new edition of his works, Wells rewrote the book and published it with a new title, The Sleeper Awakes. This is the version which is usually republished and which I’m reviewing here.

Wells had joined the left-wing Fabian Society in 1903 and had quickly become one of its most famous publicists and promoters. By 1910 his views on politics and society were well-known and the 1910 version of the book brings these out more clearly, as well as trying to sort out infelicities in the writing. But in the prefaces to the 1921 and 1924 reprintings of the book, Wells continued to express dissatisfaction with the book, and this review will show some of the reasons why.

The plot – part one

Run-up

An artist named Isbister is wandering along the cliffs in Cornwall when he comes across Graham, a man contemplating suicide because he hasn’t been able to sleep for a week and feels like he’s going mad. While Isbister tries to talk sense to him, we are given evidence of Graham’s delirious frame of mind – he complains that he feels his mind spinning in an endless eddy, down, down, down.

Isbister takes Graham up to the cottage he’s renting, where he goes to make a drink, turns, and finds Graham sunk into a profound stupor, a cataleptic trance. His Long Sleep has begun.

In chapter two it is twenty years later and Isbister, older and wiser, discusses Graham’s case with a new character, Warming, a solicitor and Graham’s next of kin. We learn that Graham fell asleep in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897). Twenty years later it must be 1917, and Graham has been removed to the special ward of a hospital where he is sleeping on in a trance ‘unprecedented in medical history’.

We learn that Isbister has become a successful designer of adverts and posters, hundreds of which, as Warming points out, are now plastered all across the south coast, and has emigrated to America to pursue his career in advertising.

Meanwhile, Warming has invested in a new kind of road-surfacing. Irrelevant though this small talk appears, it later turns out to be important.

The sleeper wakes

In chapter three (there are 23 chapters) Graham awakes to find himself lying on a strange kind of pressure bed inside a case of green glass. He stumbles out of the bed to discover he is in a large antiseptic room. Attendants come running and then several men of command, notably:

a short, fat, and thickset beardless man, with aquiline nose and heavy neck and chin. Very thick black and slightly sloping eyebrows that almost met over his nose and overhung deep grey eyes, gave his face an oddly formidable expression. (Chapter 4 – The Sound of Tumult)

This is Howard, who appears to be in charge.

The next few chapters are very confusing. Graham hears a roaring from a balcony overlooking a great concourse. When he goes out onto the balcony he sees an immense space dominated by modernist architecture, with some kind of covering over the sky, globes emanating uniform light, and the floor covered with ‘moving ways’, enormous ‘roads’ which are moving at speed carrying people along, and segmented so as to go round corners. There are what appear to be escalators coming up towards the level Graham finds himself on, and a great crowd surging towards him but held back by what look like policemen in red uniforms.

This impression of the immensity and complexity of the city of the future, conveyed in rather gaseous descriptions, will be the keynote of the novel.

Technology and design of the future

Howard tells Graham that he has slept for precisely 203 years. It is the year 2100 AD (Wells thus going a century better than the year 2000, which was the setting for Edward Bellamy’s famous fictional vision of the future, Looking Backward).

The sky is fenced off. Cities appear to exist under vast domes. Light is artificially created. Buildings are immense. The moving ways dominate what used to be called roads. Internally, rooms, halls and corridors are smooth and undecorated (except for occasional examples of an indecipherable script). Doorways open vertically and instantaneously.

Before Graham can do anything his guardians arrange for a ‘capillotomist’ to cut his hair and beard. Then a tailor takes quick measurements and, using a futuristic machine, prints out a perfectly-fitting contemporary outfit for Graham. He is given magic medicines which make him feel stronger, some small vials of liquid to drink and some in spray form.

In other words, it feels to me a lot like a set from the Star Trek series, smooth walls, endless corridors, bright different clothes, mystery medicines.

The Council

After Graham has blundered to the balcony and had a brief powerful glimpse of the scale of the city, the covered sky, the enormous buildings, and a huge crowd milling round the foot of his building, he is quickly hustled away, and down a series of corridors to a ‘safe room’. Along the way he glimpses a big hall with the ‘Council of Eight’ standing far away at a table beneath an immense statue of Atlas holding the world on his shoulder.

Ah yes, the Council. There’s always a Council of spooky older men wearing elaborate futuristic cloaks in this kind of story.

Confusion

The keynote of Graham’s experiences, and of the novel as a whole, is confusion. The people around him are very obviously thrown into confusion and panic by the fact that the Sleeper Has Awoken, but we and Graham don’t understand why for some time.

He is hustled away from the balcony room into the so-called Silent Rooms where he is kept by Howard for three days incommunicado, Howard refusing to answer any of Graham’s questions, resulting in Graham -and the reader – persisting in not having a clue what’s going on. Very confusing.

Then, suddenly and with no warning, there is a heroic ‘rescue’. Some kind of ‘resistance’ warriors drop down the ventilation shaft into Graham’s room and, while some attack the futuristic door to try and block it, others carry Graham back up the shaft.

They emerge onto the surface of the vast dome which covers the city and turns out to be extremely complex and uneven, lined by rows of windmills – presumably generating power – with gullies between the domes, as well as walkways and grilles and abrupt abysses with ledges on them. And it is snowing. Snow flies in his face blinding him, and builds up into drifts, blocking the panic-stricken progress of Graham and his guide who is trying to get him away from the Silent Room to safety before Howard and the Council discover he is missing.

It’s a straightforward chase scene of the kind you find in a thousand Hollywood movies. Still, it’s impressive of Wells to conceive a chase scene across the top of the dome covering a city of the future, in the snow. Vivid and cinematic.

Despite the action nature of the scene, Graham’s liberators find the time to explain that his cousin, Warming, cornered the market in a new way of surfacing roads which eventually put the railways out of business. The artist, Isbister, having moved to America, made a decisive investment in the early forms of cinema and television. Both lacked heirs and left their money in trust to the sleeping Graham, with trustees to administer the fund for charity. Over the past 200 years these trustees have built on the founding investment to buy up everything – everything – and now this London-based Council owns the world!

The entire world is like London, empty countryside surrounding super-cities, all ruled by Councils subservient to the Council. The Council banked on him never waking up and so created a complex cult of the Sleeper, the Master, who watches over society. For over a century they have ruled this highly stratified civilisation in his name!

Now he has woken up, the Council, and Howard their representative, have, unsurprisingly, been thrown into panic and confusion. The awakening came at a time of growing dissatisfaction among ‘the People’. It was an unlucky accident that Graham blundered out onto a public balcony within minutes of waking, and a crowd below saw him. Word is spreading that the sleeper has woken and this could have who knows what cataclysmic consequences.

According to his liberators the Council were discussing whether to drug Graham back into sleep or murder him or to hire an imposter. So that’s why they have ‘liberated’ him, and are hurrying him along to where ‘the People’ await.

The revolution

But barely has all this been explained than a Council airplane (the book was written before airplanes existed, through there was intense speculation and discussion in the press about how to build one) spots the fleeing pair and flies down firing the strange green guns of the future.

The liberator puts Graham on a seat attached to a zip wire running from an opening in the dome down to ground level and pushes him off, just as the plane comes round for another salvo of shots. Graham comes swooping along the high-wire over the heads of a vast crowd. The line is shot down but he is caught by the crowd and then takes part in a heroically confusing scene in which he seems to be taken up by an enormous crowd chanting his name, which is marching through the city of huge buildings and moving ways, marching on the great Council Building to overthrow the Council.

Graham is barely getting any sense of where he is and what’s going on before the crowd is itself ambushed by a large number of red-dressed police, who open fire and there is pandemonium.

Confusing action instead of clear exposition

There’s no denying that the narrative of this book is very confusing. It’s obviously a deliberate, creative decision by Wells, and he makes this perfectly clear in an extended reference to Julian West, the hero of Edward Bellamy’s best-selling science fiction novel, Looking Backward, which had appeared a decade earlier.

In that book, the hero awakes a hundred years hence into the orderly household of a doctor of the future, who calmly and sedately takes him through a long, logical explanation of the economic, political and cultural arrangements of the society of the future. It is more like a political textbook than a novel.

In fact, in most books about people waking up in the far future, the heroes are presented with a nice, clean, logical explanation of how the Future Society works.

Well’s chief aim in When The Sleeper Wakes seems to have been to work on the exact opposite assumption. What happens if you sleep for two hundred years and wake up amid mayhem, with absolutely no idea what’s going on and no-one to explain it to you?

In fact, if you wake up to riots and ambushes and civil war, with all sides claiming your allegiance? How can you possibly know which ‘side’ is right, or why there even are sides, or what you’re supposed to do?

The perversity of his experience came to him vividly. In actual fact he had made such a leap in time as romancers have imagined again and again. And that fact realised, he had been prepared. His mind had, as it were, seated itself for a spectacle. And no spectacle unfolded itself, but a great vague danger, unsympathetic shadows and veils of darkness. Somewhere through the labyrinthine obscurity his death sought him. Would he, after all, be killed before he saw? It might be that even at the next corner his destruction ambushed. A great desire to see, a great longing to know, arose in him.

He became fearful of corners. It seemed to him that there was safety in concealment. Where could he hide to be inconspicuous when the lights returned? At last he sat down upon a seat in a recess on one of the higher ways, conceiving he was alone there.

He squeezed his knuckles into his weary eyes. Suppose when he looked again he found the dark trough of parallel ways and that intolerable altitude of edifice gone. Suppose he were to discover the whole story of these last few days, the awakening, the shouting multitudes, the darkness and the fighting, a phantasmagoria, a new and more vivid sort of dream. It must be a dream; it was so inconsecutive, so reasonless. Why were the people fighting for him? Why should this saner world regard him as Owner and Master? (Chapter 10 – The Battle of the Darkness)

So this sleeper awakes to find there is no polite doctor to talk him logically through the society of the future. Instead he is plunged into a social revolution which he doesn’t understand.

It’s an interesting idea, but it has one drawback. If the protagonist is confused, so too is the reader. Wells gets Howard, on the one hand, and the liberators, on the other, to throw out just enough hints to explain the situation to Graham (sort of, nearly). But the reader is left for three or four long, hectic chapters in a state of profound confusion.

Not only that but, in my opinion, Wells’s prose becomes confused. It sets out to mimic the panic of the unexpected rescue, the flight across the snowbound roof of the city, the panic-stricken glide down the high-wire down into the crowd, the confusion of a vast multitude marching chanting his name, the sudden ambush and red soldiers firing wildly into the crowd — but in doing so results in prose full of phrases describing vague forces, enormous spaces, shocks and detonations, huge crowds.

Now one of the appeals of The Island of Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man was the precision of their descriptions. You got a very accurate feel for what is happening. By contrast, Wells’s description of the vast spaces of this futuristic city, of its rearing architecture and machinery, is portentous but vague. It is hard to get a grasp of. Here is an excerpt describing the confused mob Graham has fallen among, as they march to overthrow the Council.

The hall was a vast and intricate space – galleries, balconies, broad spaces of amphitheatral steps, and great archways. Far away, high up, seemed the mouth of a huge passage full of struggling humanity. The whole multitude was swaying in congested masses. Individual figures sprang out of the tumult, impressed him momentarily, and lost definition again. Close to the platform swayed a beautiful fair woman, carried by three men, her hair across her face and brandishing a green staff. Next this group an old careworn man in blue canvas maintained his place in the crush with difficulty, and behind shouted a hairless face, a great cavity of toothless mouth. A voice called that enigmatical word ‘Ostrog’. All his impressions were vague save the massive emotion of that trampling song. The multitude were beating time with their feet – marking time, tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. The green weapons waved, flashed and slanted. Then he saw those nearest to him on a level space before the stage were marching in front of him, passing towards a great archway, shouting ‘To the Council!’ Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. He raised his arm, and the roaring was redoubled. He remembered he had to shout ‘March!’ His mouth shaped inaudible heroic words. He waved his arm again and pointed to the archway, shouting ‘Onward! They were no longer marking time, they were marching; tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. In that host were bearded men, old men, youths, fluttering robed bare-armed women, girls. Men and women of the new age! Rich robes, grey rags fluttered together in the whirl of their movement amidst the dominant blue. A monstrous black banner jerked its way to the right. He perceived a blue-clad negro, a shrivelled woman in yellow, then a group of tall fair-haired, white-faced, blue-clad men pushed theatrically past him. He noted two Chinamen. A tall, sallow, dark-haired, shining-eyed youth, white clad from top to toe, clambered up towards the platform shouting loyally, and sprang down again and receded, looking backward. Heads, shoulders, hands clutching weapons, all were swinging with those marching cadences. (Chapter 9 – The People March)

It’s a judgement call as to whether you think this is wonderfully vivid writing which accurately conveys the feeling of being caught up in a panic-stricken crowd – or whether it is a relentless stream of confused and shapeless prose.

If you’re not focusing very hard it’s easy to get lost in these enormous, long, wordy paragraphs and have to go back to the last place you remember, to reread entire passages and find, yet again, that no very clear picture of the action is conveyed.

Ostrog shows him the storming of the Council

The marching crowd Graham’s with is ambushed by red-uniformed police who open fire. In the mayhem, Graham escapes, running miles away from the scene of what seems to be a massacre. From early on his liberators and then members of the crowd have told him that the revolt is being led by ‘Ostrog’. From other scared citizens he learns that Ostrog is based at a control centre for the city’s weather vanes (a form of wind power). He asks his way there, goes into the lobby, asks to see Ostrog and is eventually is let up to the main room where Ostrog is monitoring the revolution.

Ostrog shows him a futuristic TV screen on which they watch the mob storming the Council Citadel, from which Graham had been liberated only a few hours earlier. They watch the Council fight a last-ditch battle, having detonated the buildings which surround their citadel in order to clear a space. Ostrog and Graham watch all this on a screen. The revolution is being televised.

Part two- a man of leisure

To cut a confusing story short, quite quickly the revolution is over and Ostrog takes control, settling the city back into law and order over the next few weeks. He is courteous and respectful to Graham and gets his number two, Lincoln, to fulfil the Sleeper’s every wish.

Now the revolution has been achieved and Ostrog is in control, Wells shows us that Graham is in fact a shallow dilettante. Having seen the airplane earlier, he tells Ostrog he wants to learn to fly. So he is taken up in a flying machine which circles London. From here he can see how the Wall of London rises sheer from the surrounding countryside like the wall of a medieval city. Beyond lie the ruins of suburbia and scattered empty houses.

It is important for Well’s vision that the entire population has been brought inside mega-cities where they can be completely controlled. Further south, Graham sees towns like Wareham and Eastbourne have been changed into single, vast skyscrapers. Here, as everywhere, all the scattered dwellings of individuals have been abandoned. Everyone lives in a regimented society.

The monoplane cruises across the south of England, then across the Channel and flies around Paris (where Graham sees the Eiffel Tower among the futuristic domes) before arriving back at one of the three vast landing platforms which dot south London.

The Flying Stages of London were collected together in an irregular crescent on the southern side of the river. They formed three groups of two each and retained the names of ancient suburban hills or villages. They were named in order, Roehampton, Wimbledon Park, Streatham, Norwood, Blackheath, and Shooter’s Hill. They were uniform structures rising high above the general roof surfaces. Each was about four thousand yards long and a thousand broad, and constructed of the compound of aluminum and iron that had replaced iron in architecture. Their higher tiers formed an openwork of girders through which lifts and staircases ascended. The upper surface was a uniform expanse, with portions – the starting carriers – that could be raised and were then able to run on very slightly inclined rails to the end of the fabric. (Chapter 16 – The Monoplane)

On the flight back, Graham insists on taking over the controls, and, upon landing, hassles Lincoln into getting him a flying license so he can spend the next few days having special flying lessons, happy as a kid.

In the evenings Graham attends social events and mixes with the upper class of this future world. Here Wells indulges in satire directed at the values of his own times. The upper classes of the future are spoilt and insouciant. Everyone dresses more freely and casually than Graham’s late-Victorian peers. He meets a bishop and the poet laureate. He asks about the art and literature of the day (oil painting has been abandoned). He meets the Master Aeronaut, the Surveyor-General of the Public Schools, the managing director of the Antibilious Pill Department, the Black Labour Master, the daughter of the Manager of the Piggeries, who makes eyes at him – all characters invented so Wells can make a little social comedy at the expense of the pretensions of his own time, 1910.

However, these social scenes also have the function of dropping hints about the true nature of the society Graham has found himself in.

For example, the surveyor of public education has made it his task to prevent the lower classes thinking too much. The black labour master is in charge of black workers and soldiers in the colonies. Graham listens to them lightly discussing the way black colonial soldiers have been brought to Paris to suppress the ongoing rebellion there, with great violence, and it all makes him… uneasy…

Future sex

In the London of 2100 women have been ‘liberated’ in the sense that they all work and don’t spend much time on childcare. The women Graham meets at these parties consistently make eyes at him. In fact, Wells makes it as clear as he could (writing in 1910) that sex is much more casual in the future. We are told there are entire cities known as Pleasure Cities where, well you can guess what happens there.

When Graham had been left alone in the Silent Rooms at the start of the story, he had picked up some cylindrical devices which proceeded to play ‘films’. Some appear to have been dramas, but it is as clear as Wells could make it that others were pornographic. He is shocked. the reader is impressed, as so often, by Wells’s prescience. Similarly, in those early scenes, Howard had appeared to offer him the services of prostitutes which, once he realised what was on offer, Graham quickly refused.

This must have been sailing close to the bounds of what was permissible in 1899.

A slender woman, less gaudily dressed than the others, a certain Helen Wotton, a niece of Ostrog’s, gets through to him at one of these parties and briefly manages to convey that ‘the People’ are still not happy, before Lincoln whisks him off to meet another notable.

Part three – reality hits home

Graham runs into Helen Wotton again, ‘in a little gallery that ran from the Wind-Vane Offices toward his state apartments’. She explains, with the passionate idealism of youth, that all her life she, and millions like her, have prayed for the sleeper to waken and liberate them from the repressive lives they live.

She surprises Graham by referring to the Victorian era as a golden age of liberty and freedom. He begins to put her right but she insists that back then the tyranny of the cities and the grip of Mammon was in its infancy. Now it has been perfected in a string of mega-cities covering the planet and entirely run by the rich, with up to a third of the population living underground, dressed in blue fatigues, and worked till they drop. As Helen explains:

‘This city – is a prison. Every city now is a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. Is that right? Is that to be – for ever? Yes, far worse than in your time. All about us, beneath us, sorrow and pain. All the shallow delight of such life as you find about you, is separated by just a little from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling. Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer. These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since – ! You owe your life to them.’
‘Yes,’ said Graham, slowly. ‘Yes. I owe my life to them.’ (Chapter 18 – Graham Remembers)

Graham’s conscience is pricked. Who are ‘his people’? What do they expect of him? What is Ostrog actually doing? Now he thinks about it, in between flying planes and partying, whenever he meets Ostrog, the latter tells him the revolution has mostly achieved its goals and peace has been restored around the world (the world that the Council ruled in Graham’s name). But has it? Why does fighting rumble on in Paris?

So Graham goes to confront Ostrog. This is a big scene in which Ostrog delivers his Philosophy of the Overman. He tells Graham that his 19th century sentimentality about equality is out of date. This is the era of the Over-Man. The weak go to the wall. The race is purified.

‘The day of democracy is past,’ he said. ‘Past for ever. That day began with the bowmen of Creçy, it ended when marching infantry, when common men in masses ceased to win the battles of the world, when costly cannon, great ironclads, and strategic railways became the means of power. Today is the day of wealth. Wealth now is power as it never was power before – it commands earth and sea and sky. All power is for those who can handle wealth.’ (Chapter 19 – Ostrog’s point of view)

As to the practical situation, in order to overthrow the Council, Ostrog had to make the people all kinds of promises about restructuring society. He reveals that it was he and his minions who created and taught the People the ‘Song of Revolt’ which they took up so enthusiastically. Now he is in power – now his coup d’etat has succeeded – Ostrog needs to put the people back in their place – hence the ongoing fighting in some cities, general strikes, workers on the street. ‘But don’t worry your pretty little head,’ he tells Graham. ‘I will soon have everything under control.’

They disagree. Ostrog is respectful but firm. Graham is frustrated and angry. They both go away harbouring their doubts. No good will come of this…

Part four – down among the proles

Determined to find out whether Helen is right, Graham dresses ‘in the costume of an inferior wind-vane official keeping holiday’, and, accompanied by the Japanese man-servant, Asano, who Ostrog has assigned to him, goes down among the proles.

This is a peculiar sequence. A combination of the visionary and the very familiar. It will come as no surprise that there are vast underground chambers beneath the city where the poor slave away. More surprising is the sequence about babies, where babies are separated at birth from their mothers and fed by machines which have the torsos and lactating breasts of women but screens for faces and metal pylons for legs.

Graham is appalled to witness a whole part of the underground covered in enormous and blatantly commercial hoardings advertising various Christian sects in unashamedly secular terms.

“Salvation on the First Floor and turn to the Right.” “Put your Money on your Maker.” “The Sharpest Conversion in London, Expert Operators! Look Slippy!” “What Christ would say to the Sleeper;—Join the Up-to-date Saints!” “Be a Christian—without hindrance to your present Occupation.” “All the Brightest Bishops on the Bench to-night and Prices as Usual.” “Brisk Blessings for Busy Business Men.”

He learns how individual living in individual houses has been swept away and the people live in huge dormitories and feed in vast canteens.

He also witnesses the oppressive ubiquity of trumpet-shaped loudspeakers of all sizes, some yards across, which broadcast an unremitting mixture of pro-government, morale-boosting propaganda, all prefaced by weird sound effects. They are called Babble Machines.

Another of these mechanisms screamed deafeningly and gave tongue in a shrill voice. ‘Yahaha, Yahah, Yap! Hear a live paper yelp! Live paper. Yaha! Shocking outrage in Paris. Yahahah! The Parisians exasperated by the black police to the pitch of assassination. Dreadful reprisals. Savage times come again. Blood! Blood! Yaha!’ The nearer Babble Machine hooted stupendously, ‘Galloop, Galloop,’ drowned the end of the sentence, and proceeded in a rather flatter note than before with novel comments on the horrors of disorder. ‘Law and order must be maintained,’ said the nearer Babble Machine. (Chapter 20 – In the City Ways)

There is much more in the same style. Asano guides him through the profoundly confusing and disorientating maze of tunnels, corridors, over bridges, onto balconies overlooking vast halls, up lifts, down escalators, all designed – I suppose – to give the exhausted reader a sense of the sheer stupefying scale of the city-state.

At last they come to the financial sector which is plastered, like the Christian sector, with huge billboards promoting all kinds of phoney get-rich-quick schemes and in whose halls overt, unashamed gambling and betting goes on.

Part five – the second revolution

It is while he is in a sector devoted to jewel working that Graham and Asano hear the Babble Machines announcing that the Black Police are coming from South Africa to put down the remaining protesters in London. There is instant consternation and cries of protest from all around him. Graham had explicitly told Ostrog that, as Master, he did not want black troops brought to London.

The announcement that they are coming prompts another uprising, which Graham gets caught up in much as in the confusing early chapters. Amid proles yelling ‘Ostrog has betrayed us’ Graham and Asano struggle through the throng back to the half-ruined Council House. Here complicated repairs are underway with scaffolding and workmen everywhere fixing up the damage done by the first assault. Despite this, Ostrog has made it his base to run his world empire.

Graham gets admittance, takes lifts and escalators and the usual complicated paraphernalia up to the room with the huge statue of Atlas in it, where he confronts Ostrog, and they reprise their political and philosophical disagreement:

‘I believe in the people.’
‘Because you are an anachronism. You are a man out of the Past – an accident. You are Owner perhaps of the world. Nominally – legally. But you are not Master. You do not know enough to be Master.’ He glanced at Lincoln again. ‘I know now what you think – I can guess something of what you mean to do. Even now it is not too late to warn you. You dream of human equality – of some sort of socialistic order – you have all those worn-out dreams of the nineteenth century fresh and vivid in your mind, and you would rule this age that you do not understand.’ (Chapter 22 – The Struggle in the Council House)

The argument becomes physical and Graham finds himself wrestled to the floor by Lincoln and Ostrog’s other strongmen. Already Ostrog has a small bodyguard of yellow and black suited Africans at his side. However, some of the workmen repairing the Council chamber witness the fight and run to the rescue. Cue a general melée, in which Graham and Ostrog are knocked to the ground, roll around with their hands on each others’ throats and so on.

Finally, they are separated, Graham is hauled up and away by members of ‘the People’, who form a protective bodyguard around him and carry him out of the building, up stairs, down lifts and round the houses in the spatially disorientating way which characterises the whole book.

Then, in a scene which brilliantly anticipates the movies, Graham and the crowd watch from down at ground level a monoplane come swooping out of the sky and land on the half-ruined roof of the Council House. They see tiny figures moving in the half-exposed rooms, and then the monoplane pushes off from the roof and plummets vertically down, down, down in an apparently ruinous dive straight towards the ground – in a scene I’ve witnessed in countless adventure movies – before at the last minute catching enough wind to rise up and fly just over Graham’s head. Ostrog has escaped!

Part six – Graham assumes control

Graham is taken by some of the crowd to a room where there are the gaping voicepieces of the phonograms and Babble Machines (an eerily prescient vision of the countless press conferences given by revolutionary leaders in front of banks of cameras and microphones) and Wells gives a good description of his utter confusion. He knows nothing about this world, nothing about politics, and has no idea what to say.

Then the slip of a girl – Helen Wotton – the one who leaked the news about the black troops being brought to London, comes into the room. She holds his hand. Graham is suffused with confidence and makes his big speech. He is on their side, he tells the microphones and ‘his people’ around the world. He will lay down his life for the People.

‘Charity and mercy,’ he floundered; ‘beauty and the love of beautiful things – effort and devotion! Give yourselves as I would give myself – as Christ gave Himself upon the Cross. It does not matter if you understand. It does not matter if you seem to fail. You know – in the core of your hearts you know. There is no promise, there is no security – nothing to go upon but Faith. There is no faith but faith – faith which is courage….

Things that he had long wished to believe, he found that he believed. He spoke gustily, in broken incomplete sentences, but with all his heart and strength, of this new faith within him. He spoke of the greatness of self-abnegation, of his belief in an immortal life of Humanity in which we live and move and have our being. His voice rose and fell, and the recording appliances hummed as he spoke, dim attendants watched him out of the shadow….

His sense of that silent spectator beside him sustained his sincerity. For a few glorious moments he was carried away; he felt no doubt of his heroic quality, no doubt of his heroic words, he had it all straight and plain. His eloquence limped no longer. And at last he made an end to speaking. ‘Here and now,’ he cried, ‘I make my will. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. To all of you. I give it to you, and myself I give to you. And as God wills to-night, I will live for you, or I will die.’ (Chapter 23 – Graham Speaks His Word)

He, and we the reader, then have to wait, locked up in that little room confronted by banks of microphones, with only Helen to hold his hand, while reports trickle through of the fighting around the landing platforms, which is where the fleet of airplanes carrying the Africans is planning to land. They hear of – victory!

‘Victory?’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Graham. ‘Tell me! What?’
‘We have driven them out of the under galleries at Norwood, Streatham is afire and burning wildly, and Roehampton is ours. Ours!‘ (Chapter 24 – While the Aeroplanes Were Coming)

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry. The description of the fighting between Ostrog’s forces and the untrained, badly-equipped militias raised from the poor wards is fierce and intense. And yet the way it is reported back to the confused Graham in his room, holding onto Helen’s hand, seems absurd.

But although the people take one of the landing stages, his advisers explain that there are still too many planes in the enemy fleet, up to 100 of them, and that the other three landing bases are uncaptured, so they’ll be able to land.

It is then that Graham sees his destiny. All those days spent fooling around in an airplane will now bear fruit. He tells the small group of advisers he will go up in the monoplane and attack the enemy fleet, not expecting to defeat it, but to delay the planes long enough for the other landing pads to be taken by the people.

The advisers all point out this has never been done before, planes fighting in the air. Graham insists. Helen runs to him. He clutches her to his heaving breast. He must do it. It will save London. It is his destiny. She bows her head to the inevitable. He kisses the top of her head chastely.

And so the last five pages of the novel are an intensely imagined description of a fight in the air between the monoplane Graham is flying and a fleet of troop planes, a description of a technology which did not exist when Wells wrote about it.

Given this fact, he is amazingly prescient about the joy of flying, the sheer exhilaration of speeding through the high blue air, even if the combat technique Graham adopts – of ramming the enemy planes – wouldn’t have worked with the flimsy wood-and-cloth early planes which flew in the Great War.

Graham takes out two of the big troop carriers by ramming them and several others crash in trying to avoid him. He sees a monoplane taking off from the last platform, at Blackheath, and guesses it must be Ostrog. He sets off in fierce pursuit, dives and misses twice. Ostrog’s pilot is good. Then he sees the landing platforms of Shooter’s Hill and Norwood explode up into the air. They have been taken by the People and disabled for the landing flotilla. The People have won!

And then the shockwaves from the blasts hit his light monoplane, tipping it on its side so that it plummets out of the sky straight for the earth, and his last thought is of Helen. Bang. The end.


Thoughts

Quite a pell-mell farrago, isn’t it? A heady, fast-paced, confusing mish-mash of adventure story, sci-fi tropes, technological predictions, social prophecy, and ham-fisted psychology.

On the technology, Wells makes stunningly accurate predictions about hand-held moving picture devices, about phonograms, about propaganda blaring from loudspeakers, about wheeled vehicles, and, most strikingly, about the airplanes whose battle climaxes the novel.

The political idea of a liberal revolution which overthrows an autocracy but doesn’t change the exploitation of the working classes, and so needs to be supplemented by a second, proletarian, revolution, is straight out of revolutionary history.

The adventure trope describing the man who pitches up in an unknown society and ends up helping the poor and exploited overthrow their wicked rulers has all the power of myth and archetype.

The psychology of the sleeper is conveyed well enough, on the same general level as the rest of the book. It’s only with the sentimental relationship with young Helen, and especially the ‘it’s a far, far better thing I do’ climax where they cling passionately together before he turns and walks unflinchingly towards his certain doom – that you are forced to admit the whole thing is tripe.

These are all impressive, sometimes dazzling elements. But the main conclusion I took from the book was Wells’s ignorance of economics.

I’m really glad I recently read Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward and made the effort to complete it, despite it being at some points oppressively boring. Because, despite this, it is a really thorough and penetrating analysis of how you would arrive at a feasible, enduring, classless and equal society.

Central is the idea of banning private enterprise, and having all production and distribution handled by the state. The two hundred pages it takes for Bellamy to work through all the logical consequences of banning capitalism, private enterprise and money, are long enough to make you really think about the basis of our current society – to force you to admit what capitalism means right down to the trivialest social interactions of human behaviour – and to make you really think through what changing it would actually mean, in practice.

Bellamy’s book has almost no plot but hugely impresses by its logic and thoroughness. I can see why it was a great success and even inspired a short-lived political party.

On the face of it Wells’s novel uses the same plot device – man falls asleep, wakes up in society of the distant future – but Wells couldn’t be more dissimilar in approach, content and impact. The comparison makes clear that Wells is diverted by science and technology from really thinking about the economic base of society. All the technological predictions are so much shiny flim-flam which hide the underlying lack of ideas.

It is all too easy to be bamboozled by Wells’s envisioning of kinematographs and phonograms and Babble Boxes, and hand-held film devices, and airplanes, and multi-wheeled vehicles, and ‘moving ways’ – to write long essays about his uncanny ability to predict technologies of the future — and to neglect the basic fact that his economic understanding is primitive to non-existent.

The People are oppressed, so our hero helps them rise up and overthrow their dictator. And what then? Who knows? Certainly not Wells. He is against oppression of the poor, and in favor of … what? ‘Equality’? ‘The People’? It isn’t enough.

Where Bellamy had acute economic analysis, Wells has men rushing across the domes of future cities being strafed by fighter planes. Where Bellamy worked through the logic of abolishing private enterprise, Wells has ambushes, fist fights, Pleasure Cities and babies brought up by robots. Where Bellamy calculated that abolishing competition between companies and the advertising such competition requires would result in net savings to society which could be redistributed to increase overall prosperity, Wells has rowdy satire about house-high billboards advertising Christianity-on-the-go or finance capitalism as literal casinos.

The thrill of the fast-paced adventure and the vivid action scenes, the steady stream of clever technological predictions, the primal archetypes of innocent good man confronting cynical manipulator, and of betrayed populace rising up against spoilt aristocrats – the combined result of all this garish phantasmagoria can easily overwhelm the reader and persuade her that something important and insightful is being said.

But it isn’t. Comparison with the logical economic and social analysis in Bellamy’s novel makes you realise what a showy huckster Wells was, and why, once the hysteria of the Great European Crisis of the 1930s ended in the ruinous grind of the Second World War, and when the world finally emerged into the cold light of day — the imaginative hold he’d exerted over generations of intellectuals and writers vanished like smoke because it turned out that he had nothing – of any permanent intellectual value – to offer.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’ (Dr Leete. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of almost daily strikes by the workmen – and worrying about his impending marriage to his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so that, at the end of another trying day, when he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house to insulate him from all distractions, he sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up it is to find himself in a strange room. The kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days.

Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are mostly gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society of the Future..

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he meant that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on, creating a permanent sense of crisis.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat at the head of its thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling, and clamber up the coachwork a bit. But even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the buried concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier. On breaking a hole into it, they discovered West’s perfectly preserved, barely breathing body.

They speculate that Dr Pillsbury must have put West into a trance, but then later that night the house burned down. Everyone assumed West had perished in the fire.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000.

Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality. He then begins the immense lecture about society 2000, an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future, which makes up most of the text.

Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Private enterprise has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21 and is educated to the highest level they can attain, and then everyone undertakes three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for the career which best suits their skills, whether it be coal mining or teaching Greek. At that point they join one of the dozen or so ‘armies’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month, regardless of their job. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

This Perfect Society is, then, a sustained attempt to put into practice the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and to overthrow the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Friedrich Engels

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, the late nineteenth century was seeing, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, the emergence of larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, eventually creating monopolies. This, they claimed, appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if left unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the state should step in and run these industries as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism – naturally, inevitably.

And that’s exactly what has happened in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete is now explaining to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that stage grasped the trend and seen how efficiently the government managed the other big concerns already in its control. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his own day and the wonder of the Perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the changes between West’s day and the present.

The revolution

Here is Dr Barton long-windedly describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes, and that the precise nature of the ‘revolution’ is the touchiest subject of all – and so becomes obscured by the most gasous verbiage – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘A mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’. Hmmm.

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Anyway, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up ‘the nation’ adjust and control things in the interests of the people, and everyone agrees what those are.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about gaining, protecting and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all of the old law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money or property. In a society without money, there is no motive for crime.

A platonic dialogue

And so on and so on, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, on the artificial creation of different brands and makes, on the  countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it.

All that has gone.Now you go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes but this is solely a pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty with this kind of thing is always explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. For example many utopian authors have invoked a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling to examine in detail. Andthis, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both use that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people.

Notoriously, Engels speculated that the post-revolutionary state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does just the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, a cabal of cunning, calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will take advantage of a weakened state to seize absolute power – it happened in Tsarist Russia, in post-war Italy, in Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda at their command.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

But even more important than the question of how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’.

In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: in order to bring all this about there must have been some kind of revolution in human nature: how did you bring that about?

To which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People, says Dr Leete, are naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them be. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature – it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on – an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – well before any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, albeit not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My central critique of books like this is not economic or political it is psychological, it is to do with the extremely narrow grasp of human psychology which books like this always depict.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and discovers – that they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think even to this day.

In my opinion most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the most basic fact that a huge number of people don’t even read books, ever, let alone fairy tales like this – and so never hear about these writers and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library, which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

The central problem with propertyless socialism

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because they cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter.

As I read that I thought, but people will still barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods, selling them on to the right person at the right time, at a profit – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is all about money and value. Maybe these are all ‘tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world’. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial, but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. Farmers had stopped growing crops because the Red soldiers just commandeered them without paying. Where was their motivation to get up before dawn and slave all day long if the produce was just stolen?

And so Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence, ten years later, that all agricultural produce was to be taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering, really ram this point home.

Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back, and so destroy the entire socialist society and economy they were building.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed.

In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union’s economy to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating human nature.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful, completely failing to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries, far more than most authors of utopias, to paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ need not be as pedantically systematic as the one he has written; they can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of our present day society. And here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your tat – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All these aspects of contemporary capitalist society come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of dazzling revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose style – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of hunts for treasure in colourful settings or detective sleuthing – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington in the late 1880s.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, thoughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s prose points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move on Bellamy’s part to make the American rejection of capitalism around 1900 seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier (in the 1775 War of Independence).

And here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isn’t it? Clear, rational, sensible… And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And then West wakes up and it was all – a dream!

I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant to find himself back in bed, in  his underground bunker, back in 1887 – and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises that the future world he was just getting used to… was all a fantasy.

There then follows by far the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book. West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy, smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, all that human effort wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of ‘the system’, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time, in his mind, West is comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is another, final twist. West wakes again… and is back in the Perfect Society of the future.

His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led back and the values he unthinkingly accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged position, enjoyed the wine and the fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society, and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Reviews of other early science fiction

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
1898 The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells

1901 The First Men in the Moon  by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929)

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


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