Modernism

Boulez is DEAD

“I do not hesitate to write, not out of any desire to provoke a stupid scandal, but equally without bashful hypocrisy and pointless melancholy: BOULEZ IS DEAD.”

You get that joke or you don’t, there is no explaining.

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They Died For Our Freedom (?)

The First World War actually started on the 28th of July 1914, but the British establishment and British media has chosen to celebrate ‘commemorate’ the anniversary on the 4th of August (i.e. today) because it was on the 4th of August 1914 that Great Britain threw itself headlong into the greatest clusterfuck in human history and declared war on the German Empire. I have learned many new things from the ensuing (awful) coverage. For instance, did you know that British* troops fought in the First World War in order to defend/preserve/whatever Our Freedom? And that we, therefore, owe them something (exactly what is not made clear) because of Their Sacrifice as They Died For Us. I had no idea of this, having previously believed that Great Britain was not a particularly free country in 1914 and that it was certainly not a democracy as I understand the term. My general (apparently inaccurate) view was that Britain was involved in the war not in order to Preserve Our Freedoms but largely in order to preserve (and ideally enhance) Britain’s status as a Great Power and because of impossible-to-wriggle-out-of diplomatic treaties, understandings and outright alliances. Indeed I was even of the view that poor innocent Great Britain was not in fact terribly innocent and had actually contributed significantly to the outbreak of war by involving itself in a massive naval arms race with Germany. My general opinion was that the First World War was a pointless and pointlessly bloody disaster, and that the millions who died in it ultimately died for nothing; that they were needlessly sacrificed as a result of the idiocy and incompetence of generals and politicians on all sides, and that the ultimate result of all the slaughter was not a bright new future of freedom, but even greater horror just twenty one years later. How delightful it truly is to learn that I was wrong and that British soldiers were, indeed, Making A New World:

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*And Imperial (the White Dominions and the colonial possessions both), but let us draw a veil over that as it makes Britain look bad.

Aspects of working-class life with special reference to publications and entertainments

In the end Richard Hoggart, who has died at the age of 95, outlived not just his best known son but also himself.

A personal hero of mine for various predictable reasons, he was one of the most important British intellectuals of the 20th century and his death has been noted in countries other than this one. The influence of The Uses of Literacy is so immense that any form of measurement is impossible: indeed, I would argue that it is literally impossible to understand British cultural and intellectual life between the publication of The Uses of Literacy in 1957 and the election of the Thatcher government in 1979 without having at least a reasonable understanding of the book and the arguments contained within it. One of its early readers, for instance, was a young Dennis Potter, and a clear Hoggartian strand runs through his vast and brilliant output, from Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton to Cold Lazarus and everything between (including the Hamlet of television that is The Singing Detective). Even in post-social democratic and post-industrial Britain (in which Hoggart’s big-hearted highbrow labourism with its almost evangelical agenda of cultural democracy has been eliminated even – especially? – in academia), The Uses of Literacy continues to matter, to provoke, and, yes, even to influence, even if as as a sort of opposition manifesto. Consider, just for a moment, the distinction that Hoggart made between what he described as ‘popular culture’ and what he dubbed ‘mass culture’: popular culture to Hoggart was culture created by ordinary people for themselves, while mass culture is the product of the culture industries. Much contemporary discussion about football and the culture of football could be improved with reference to this careful distinction. And Hoggart’s legacy does not end with his most famous work: he was (amongst other things) a co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, a key figure in the creation of BBC2, and a star witness in R v Penguin Books Ltd. (also known as the Lady Chatterley trial). Hoggart was not just an important intellectual, he was one of the faces of the genuine cultural anti-elitism that mattered so much in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the main argument of The Uses of Literacy, it is perhaps appropriate that the death of Hoggart reminds us with a sudden sharpness of what has been lost in recent decades.

The Uses of Literacy concludes with the following passage:

‘So much is profoundly encouraging. And it may be that a concentration of false lights is unavoidable at this stage of development in a democracy which from year to year becomes more technologically competent and centralized, and yet seeks to remain a free and ‘open’ society. Yet the problem is acute and pressing – how that freedom may be kept as in any sense a meaningful thing whilst the processes of centralization and technological development continue. This is a particularly intricate challenge because, even if substantial inner freedom were lost, the great new classless class would be unlikely to know it: its members would still regard themselves as free be told that they were free.’

The Adelphi, Oct-Dec. ’45 – part one

My Grandad used to read The Adelphi and seems to have collected back issues as well. He kept them his whole life (the magazine ceased to be in the mid 50s: he died in 1993) and my Mum has kept them since. The Adelphi was a modernist literary magazine with overtly socialist – and frequently pacifist as well – politics, and was the creation of John Middleton Murry, the widower of Katherine Mansfield and a notable figure in his own right. Notable contributors included George Orwell,* D.H. Lawrence, and Dylan Thomas. Its editors included Sir Richard Rees and Max Plowman. It had a mysteriously large readership, apparently.

I mention all of this just to give some kind of vague context.

The October-December edition of 1945 – which I have right in front of me as I type – has piece by Middleton Murry on the front page entitled ‘The Significance of Shylock’. Note that this is 1945: obviously there’s more than literary criticism going on here. The piece ends with a direct reference to the Holocaust (“Now when the Jewish race has just emerged from the most terrible of all the terrible persecutions it has endured…”) and a call for the government to relax the restrictions on Jewish emigration to Mandate Palestine.

There is then an article by the Anglo-Irish academic Arland Ussher about various things (the article is called ‘Four Speculations’), and then a long piece by Herbert Read with the following glorious title:

There Is Now No Other Way: An Appeal To Youth

Which feels to me to be delightfully period.

Anyway, it’s an article about the emerging Cold War (as it was not quite yet then known) and reflects the fears of the then very, very, very new nuclear age, a particularly good example of which is the following well-crafted sentence:

“Someone has said that Great Britain is destined to be the Malta of the next war, but Malta, under a rain of atomic bombs, would have been dispersed as volcanic dust into the waters of the Mediterranean.”

…and also this, near the end:

“…we who have brought the world literally to the dark age of nothingness, can but entrust the future to those whose living concern in might be, realizing that while we tremble and would inevitably fall, their fresh nerves may yet be capable of instinctive balance.”

Broadly speaking Read uses the article to argue in favour of a form of pacifist politics that he described as ‘passive resistance’. That the young – across the world it seems – should refuse to be conscripted, and that they should do so on the basis that modern war endangers the very existence of civilisation. Millions, notes Read, must be moved, not thousands.  You think you see echoes of Gandhi here? Well observed, oh reader: he even acknowledges the point, but stresses that the point shouldn’t be “pressed too far”. As an illustration of the fears of the time, it’s pretty fascinating.

That’s all for now, but there will be more later.

*If it is remembered at all today (and it isn’t really), then it’s mostly for the Orwell association, I guess. In particular, The Adelphi published the first fruits of Orwell’s time as a tramp (an essay called ‘The Spike’), which, as you know I guess, led to Down and Out in Paris and London.

The Bridge as Expressionist Crime Drama – part two

I promised ‘further consideration’ and so ‘further consideration’ is about to be very much forthcoming. There will be pictures, but you’ll have to wade through a fair bit of text to get to them.

Expressionism is infamously difficult to define as an artistic or cultural movement (there were in reality several quite distinct Expressionist movements in the early Twentieth Century, all of which had relations and links with other modernist artistic movements with different priorities and ideologies) , but when it comes to using the word as a descriptive cultural term, matters are much clearer.

Expressionism, in essence, means the prioritisation of emotion, of feeling and of inner lives, inner worlds and inner turmoils, over ‘objective’ reality and of ‘objective’ realities.* It can thus be seen – and often is,  as a rejection of realism in favour of the subjective, but that’s not quite how I would tend to look at it. Rather, it represents a realisation that all art is subjective; that realism for the sake of realism** is the biggest and most self-defeating cultural lie going. Living as we do in an era in which postmodernism dominates the cultural landscape, it is also important (I suspect) to add that the emotions and feelings depicted and represented must also be sincere ones.

Is all of the above true of The Bridge? I believe so, and I believe that it is one reason*** why it is such absolutely compelling viewing. And, naturally, the really fun thing about using terms like ‘Expressionism’ in a generic and descriptive way, is that it doesn’t entirely matter if it is what those who made the programme actually intended (of this I have no idea).

Anyway, I promised pictures. The purpose of the pictures is to show why I started thinking along these lines in the first place…

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Scenes of massive urban and industrial – actually usually firmly post-industrial – massiveness, in which said massive urban postindustrial massiveness appears to have a strange will – or at least firmly sentient character – of its own, and in which humans are very small and almost even incidental are extremely frequent in The Bridge. These are not mere location shots: they are important as scenes in their own right, and play an important role in establishing the emotional tone of the programme. And in some respects they are strikingly similar to shots of massive urban and industrial massiveness in that great Expressionist film Metropolis:

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The influence seems clear enough, and it was this that got me thinking in more general terms about The Bridge and its relationship to Expressionism. I like to think logically and insightfully, but that may just be self-delusion. And on that note, I think I shall finish.

*’Feeling the feeling’, as Philip Marlow put it in The Singing Detective.

**There’s a reason why ‘Abstract Expressionism’ is/was a specific sub-genre of Expressionist Art: Expressionism does not necessarily denote a total abandonment of realism (even in painting), just that other considerations are placed above it.

***And there are plenty of others. Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin are both unbelievably talented actors, for example.