Friday, 9 December 2016

Blossom and Fade - Hermann Hesse

In 1943 Hermann Hesse published his last major work, Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). It was first published in English in 1949 under the title Magister Ludi, which is the novel’s Latin designation for the chief controller and premier player of a complex and esoteric intellectual endeavor, the Glass Bead Game, which a dedicated monastic cult will have perfected in a peaceful and rational world about three hundred years from now. The book was important to Hesse’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, maybe because it was so long (892 pages in the original German edition). Hesse began writing it in 1931, and it asks to be read in the context of its time, though it has no overt connection to politics—in that respect resembling James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, 1933, also a vision of peace, possibility, and virtue somewhere else than here and now.

It’s not easy to imagine what reading it must have been like for German speakers in 1943 (Hesse’s books were banned by the Nazis by then). I read it, like many people my age, when a new translation (restoring the original title) appeared in 1969—a different sort of year, not three hundred years on, though sometimes it seemed to be: like living in the future, or far away. We’d already read the hallucinatory Steppenwolf and the mild Siddhartha; the theosophy and Jungian esotericism Hesse had grown up with were coming back hotly, the onset of new-old possibilities that somehow yoked renunciatory asceticism with personal liberation and indulgence, mild peaceableness with violent rejection of the status quo and its masters. It may seem strange that so many could have read this often tedious and peculiarly arid book, but they did—or at least enough of it to get the idea, the gist, of an all-encompassing, all-absorbing game that can be played but never finished, mastered but never won.

It evolves, or will evolve, in this way. In the Age of the Feuilleton—a period that seems to encompass both Hesse’s time and our own—though people have acquired “an incredible degree of intellectual freedom,” culture has degenerated into a mess of pandering to mass taste, superficiality, showing off, and a lack of rigor such that the very notion of “rigor” has vanished; truth is diluted to opinion and maundering, art is deprived of connection to profound practices of the past, writing and education deal with ephemera. This time of confusion and excess leads to, or is at any rate followed by, the Century of Wars, after which, through the dedication and labor of a few remarkable individuals, discipline and order are returned to intellectual pursuits. Formal mathematics and classical music from Michael Praetorius to Mozart are rediscovered. And while creativity and originality in art and other intellectual pursuits never recover from the bad ages, a new power begins to emanate from reviving intellectual centers, as from the monasteries of the ages formerly known as Dark. A strictly regulated brotherhood upholds scholarly standards of such purity that they gradually win admiration for standards in themselves. Teachers trained in the new institutions, called Castalia collectively, go out to instill a new elite with enduring values, and while the common pursuits of mankind—marrying, making money, politics—continue, at least they are pursued rationally and temperately.

(This sort of elaborated summary is actually the mode of the book, which is one long violation of the creative-writing teacher’s “show don’t tell” rule.)

Anyway, in the isolation of Castalia, a new art or science will be perfected. It will arise first in the music academies, where a system of glass beads of different sizes and colors, strung on a frame like an abacus, is used to represent musical themes and the rules of counterpoint, allowing themes to be reversed, transposed, and developed. Problems and challenges in music theory can be set and solved with the game in interesting ways. Soon other disciplines, philology, physics, begin to see ways to employ and expand the symbol sets. “Mathematicians in particular played it with a formal strictness at once athletic and aesthetic.” (“Strict” and “strictness” are ubiquitous words in the book.) From Chinese beliefs that music can model the structure of heaven and earth—and from the expressive possibilities inherent in Chinese ideograms—come further developments, until it will be possible for players of the evolved game to deploy a language of symbols (the glass beads themselves long since given up) to unveil the real relations among far-flung products of intellectual endeavor: perhaps a first theme of a Scarlatti sonata evoking an equation mentioned in an Arab manuscript, answered by an oddity of Latin grammar in one direction, a fragment of Parmenides, or a rule in Vitruvian architecture in another. When players begin to practice meditation techniques, games will become at once more personally expressive and more universal. Top players will introduce new symbol sets—alchemical emblems, the I-Ching; in weeks-long festivals their games induce in observers ineffable experiences of insight.

Wow. However all this was understood in 1943, when I came upon it, the idea that a single reality underlies music and mathematics, art and science, expressible only in a nonverbal language of very cool hieroglyphs, was irresistible, attracting the serious psychedelic vanguard and the daily dope smokers alike. It was easy to feel that our late-night speculations in aromatic Hoboken lofts or Topanga cottages were games of the same kind, and we were players (though doubtless we more closely resembled the vain and fatuous spielers of the Feuilletonist Age). But we were drawn also by a game “played” more as music is played than as a sport is played, a game that players spend a lifetime learning and yearning to excel in, but in which they can excel only by cooperating, not competing: you triumph at the Glass Bead Game only insofar as other players do too. No one is defeated. That’s what got to me, and what I talked about with others, when I first read the book. 

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Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Herbert Marcuse: One-Dimensional Man

Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger? The efforts to prevent such a catastrophe overshadow the search for its potential causes in contemporary industrial society. These causes remain unidentified, unexposed, unattacked by the public be- cause they recede before the all too obvious threat from without--to the West from the East, to the East from the West. Equally obvious is the need for being prepared, for living on the blink, for facing the challenge. We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, to the perfection of waste, to being educated for a defense which deforms the defenders and that which they defend.

If we attempt to relate the causes of the danger to the war in which society is organized and organizes its members, we are immediately confronted with the fact that advanced industrial society becomes richer, bigger, and better as it perpetuates the danger. The defense structure makes life easier for a greater number of people and extends man's mastery of nature. Under these circumstances, our mass media have little difficulty in selling particular interests as those of all sensible men. The political needs of society become individual needs and aspirations, their satisfaction promotes business and the commonweal, and the whole appeals to be the very embodiment of Reason.

And yet this society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence--individual, national, and international. [page xli] This repression, so different from that which characterized the preceding, less developed stages of our society, operates today not tram a position of natural and technical immaturity hut rather from a position of strength. The capabilities (intellectual and material) of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than ever before-which means that the scope of society's domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than ever before. Our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living.

To investigate the roots of these developments and ex. amine their historical alternatives is part of the aim of a critical theory of contemporary society, a theory which analyzes society in the light of its used and unused or abused capabilities for improving the human condition. But what are the standards for such a critique?

Certainly value judgments play a part. The established war of organizing society is measured against other possible ways, ways which are held to offer better chances for alleviating man's struggle for existence; a specific historical practice is measured against its own historical alter. natives. From the beginning, any critical theory of society is thus confronted with the problem of historical objectivity, a problem which arises at the two points where the analysis implies value judgments:
  1. the judgment that human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living. This judgement underlies all intellectual effort; it is the apriori of social theory, and its rejection (which is perfectly logical) rejects theory itself;
  2. the judgment that, in a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and specific< ways and means of realizing these possibilities. Critical analysis has to demonstrate the objective validity of these judgments, and the demonstration has to proceed on empirical grounds. The established society has available an ascertainable quantity and quality of intellectual and material resources. How can these resources be used for the optimal development and satisfaction of individual needs and faculties with a minimum of toil and misery? Social theory is historical theory, and history is the realm of chance in the realm of necessity. Therefore, among the various possible and actual modes of organizing and utilizing the available resources, which ones offer the greatest chance of an optimal development?
The attempt to answer these questions demands a series of initial abstractions. In order to identify and define the possibilities of an optimal development, the critical theory must abstract from the actual organization and utilization of society's resources, and from the results of this organization and utilization. Such abstraction which refuses to accept the given universe of facts as the final context of validation, such "transcending" analysis of the facts in the light of their arrested and denied possibilities, pertains to the very structure of social theory. It is opposed to all metaphysics by virtue of the rigorously historical character of the transcendence[1]. The "possibilities" must be within the reach of the respective society; they must be definable goals of practice. By the same token, the abstraction from the established in- situations must be expressive of an actual tendency-that is, their transformation must be the real need of the underlying population. Social theory is concerned with the historical alternatives which haunt the established society as subversive tendencies and forces. The values attached to the alter- natives do become facts when they are translated into reality by historical practice. The theoretical concepts terminate with social change.

But here, advanced industrial society confronts the critique with a situation which seems to deprive it of its very basis. Technical progress, extended to a whole system of domination and coordination, creates forms of life (and of power) which appear to reconcile the forces opposing the system and to defeat or refute all protest in the name of the historical prospects of freedom from toil and domination. Contemporary society seems to be capable of containing social change-qualitative change which would establish essentially different institutions, a new direction of the productive process, new modes of human existence. This containment of social change is perhaps the most singular achievement of advanced industrial society; the general acceptance of the National Purpose, bipartisan policy, the de- cline of pluralism, the collusion of Business and Labor within the strong State testify to the integration of opposites which is the result as well as the prerequisite of this achievement.

A brief comparison between the formative stage of the theory of industrial society and its present situation may help to show how the basis of the critique has been altered. At its origins in the first half of the nineteenth century, when it elaborated the first concepts of the alternatives, the critique of industrial society attained concreteness in a historical mediation between theory and practice, values and facts, needs and goals. This historical mediation occurred in the consciousness and in the political action of the two great classes which faced each other in the society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In the 'Capitalist world, they are still the basic classes. However, the capitalist development has altered the structure and function of these two classes in such a way that they no longer appear to be agents of historical transformation. An overriding interest in the preservation and improvement of the institutional status quo unites the former antagonists in the most advanced areas of contemporary society. And to the degree to which technical progress assures the growth and cohesion of communist society, the very idea of qualitative change recedes before the realistic notions of a non-explosive evolution. In the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change, the critique is thus thrown back to a high level of abstraction. There is no ground on which theory and practice, thought and action meet. Even the most empirical analysis of historical alternatives appears to be unrealistic speculation, and commitment to them a matter of personal (or group) preference.

And yet: does this absence refute the theory? In the face of apparently contradictory facts, the critical analysis continues to insist that the need for qualitative change is as pressing as ever before. Needed by whom? The answer continues to be the same: by the society as a whole, for every one of its members. The union of growing productivity and growing destruction; the brinkmanship of annihilation; the surrender of thought, hope, and fear to the decisions of the powers that be; the preservation of misery in the face of unprecedented wealth constitute the most impartial indictment -even if they are not the raison d' etre of this society but only its by-product: its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.

The fact that the vast majority of the population accepts, and is made to accept, this society does not render it less irrational and less reprehensible. The distinction between true and false consciousness, real and immediate interest still is meaningful. But this distinction itself must be validated. Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest. They can do so only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing. It is precisely this need which the established society man- ages to repress to the degree to which it is capable of "delivering the goods" on an increasingly large scale, and using the scientific conquest of nature for the scientific conquest of man.

Confronted with the total character of the achievements of advanced industrial society, critical theory is left without the rationale for transcending this society. The vacuum empties the theoretical structure itself, because the categories of a critical social theory were developed during the period in which the need for refusal and subversion was embodied in the action of effective social forces. These categories were essentially negative and oppositional concepts, defining the actual contradictions in nineteenth century European society. The category "society" itself expressed the acute conflict between the social and political sphere-society as antagonistic to the state. Similarly, "individual," "class," "private," "family" denoted spheres and forces not yet integrated with the established conditions-spheres of tension and contradiction. With the growing integration of industrial society, these categories are losing their critical connotation, and tend to become descriptive, deceptive, or operational terms.
An attempt to recapture the critical intent of these categories, and to understand how the intent was cancelled by the social reality, appears from the outset to be regression from a theory joined with historical practice to abstract, speculative thought: from the critique of political economy to philosophy. This ideological character of the critique results from the fact that the analysis is forced to proceed from a position "outside" the positive as well as negative, the productive as well as destructive tendencies in society. Modern industrial society is the pervasive identity of these opposites -it is the whole that is in question. At the same time, the position of theory cannot be one of mere speculation. It must be a historical position in the sense that it must be grounded on the capabilities of the given society.

This ambiguous situation involves a still more fundamental ambiguity. One-Dimensional Manwill vacillate throughout between two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society. I do not think that a clear answer can be given. Both tendencies are there, side by side-and even the one in the other. The first tendency is dominant, and what- ever preconditions for a reversal may exist are being used to prevent it. Perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about the change.

The analysis is focused on advanced industrial society, In which the technical apparatus of production and distribution (with an increasing sector of automation) functions, not as the sum-total of mere instruments which can be isolated from their social and political effects, but rather as a system which determines a priori the product of the apparatus as well as the operations of servicing and extending it. In this society, the productive apparatus tends tobecome totalitarian to the extent to which it determines not only the socially needed occupations, skills, and attitudes, but also individual needs and aspirations. It thus obliterates the Opposition between the private and public existence, between individual and social needs. Technology serves to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control and social cohesion. The totalitarian tendency of these controls seems to assert itself in still another sense-by spreading to the less developed and even to the pre- industrial areas of the world, and by creating similarities in the development of capitalism and communism.

In the face of the totalitarian features of this society, the traditional notion of the "neutrality" of technology can no longer be maintained. Technology as such cannot be isolated from the use to which it is put; the technological " society is a system of domination which operates already in the concept and construction of techniques. The way in which a society organizes the life of its members involves an initial choice between historical alter- natives which are determined by the inherited level of the material and intellectual culture. The choice itself results from the play of the dominant interests. It anticipates specific modes of transforming and utilizing man and nature and rejects other modes. It is one "project" of realization among others[2]. But once the project has become operative in the basic institutions and relations, it tends to become exclusive, and to determine the development of the society as a whole. As a technological universe, advanced industrial society is a political universe, the latest stage in the realization of a special historical project--namely, the experience, transformation, and organization of nature as the mere stuff of domination.

As the project unfolds, it shapes the entire universe of discourse and action, intellectual and material culture. In the medium of technology, culture, politics, and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives. The productivity and growth potential of this system stabilize the society and contain technical progress within the framework of domination. Technological rationality has become political rationality. 

In the discussion of the familiar tendencies of advanced industrial civilization, I have rarely given specific references. The material is assembled and described in the vast sociological and psychological literature on technology and social change, scientific management, corporative enterprise, changes in the character of industrial labor and of the labor force, etc. There are many unideological analyses of the facts--such as Berle and Means, The Modem Corporation and Private Property, the reports of the 76th Congress' Temporary National Economic Committee on the Concentration of Economic Power, the publications of the AFL-CIO on Automation and Maior Technological Change, but also those of News and Letters and Correspondence in Detroit. I should like to emphasize the vital importance of the work of C. Wright Mills, and of studies which are frequently frowned upon because of simplification, overstatement, or journalistic ease--Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuders, The Status Seekers, and The Waste Makers, William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, Fred J. Cooks The Warfare State belongin this category. To be sure, the lack of theoretical analysis in these works leaves the roots of the described conditions covered and protected, but left to speak for themselves, the conditions speak loudly enough. Perhaps the most telling evidence can be obtained by simply looking at television or listening to the AM radio for one consecutive hour for a couple of days, not shutting off the commercials, and now and then switching the station.

My analysis is focused on tendencies in the most highly developed contemporary societies. There are large areas within and without these societies where the described tendencies do not prevail--I would say: not yet prevail. I am projecting these tendencies and I offer some hypotheses, nothing more.

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Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man As A Parable Of Our Time

In 2012, I was a high-school English teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, when Trayvon Martin, a boy who looked like so many of my students, was killed in the suburbs of Florida. Before then, I had envisioned my classroom as a place for my students to escape the world’s harsher realities, but Martin’s death made the dream of such escapism seem impossible and irrelevant. Looking for guidance, I picked up Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man,” which had been a fixture of the “next to read” pile on my bookshelf for years. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ellison writes in the prologue. The unnamed black protagonist of the novel, set between the South in the nineteen-twenties and Harlem in the nineteen-thirties, wrestles with the cognitive dissonance of opportunity served up alongside indignity. He receives a scholarship to college from a group of white men in his town after engaging in a blindfolded boxing match with other black boys, to the delight of the white spectators. In New York, he is pulled out of poverty and given a prominent position in a communist-inspired “Brotherhood” only to realize that these brothers are using him as a political pawn. This complicated kind of progress seemed to me to accurately reflect how, for the marginalized in America, choices have never been clear or easy. I put the book on my syllabus.

The school was situated inside the beltway of Prince George’s County, and my classroom was filled with almost exclusively black and brown students, many of them undocumented immigrants. While Ellison wrote of invisibility as a black man caught in the discord of early-twentieth-century racism, this particular group of students read the idea of invisibility not as a metaphor but as a necessity, a way of insuring one’s protection. I was expecting that the class would relate the novel to the current climate of violence toward black bodies. But, as they often did, my students presented a compelling case that broadened the scope of the discussion.

Before my time in the classroom, immigration was rarely at the forefront of my consciousness. I did not come from a family of immigrants but from a group of people who had been brought to this country involuntarily, centuries ago. I cannot point to a map and say, “That is the country I came from”; our ancestry lies in the cotton fields of Mississippi and in the swamps of southern Florida. The repercussions of immigration did not feel as concrete to me as they did to the more than eleven million unauthorized immigrants across the country.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, one of my former students, from that same class, sent me a text message. We had not spoken in some time. She wrote, “I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m a little scared. Unsure of what’s going to happen.” She continued, “I know I wasn’t born here, but this has become my country. I’ve been here for so long, with a lot of shame, I don’t even know my own country’s history, but I know plenty of this one.” In his interview with “60 Minutes,” Trump reiterated that he would move immediately to deport or incarcerate two to three million undocumented immigrants. As for the rest, he said, “after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination.” After I listened to the interview, I began looking over the essays from a writing assignment I had given a different group of students, years ago. The students were asked to write their own short memoirs, and many of them used the exercise as an opportunity to write about what it meant to be an undocumented person in the United States. Their stories narrated the weeks-long journeys they had taken as young children to escape violence and poverty in their home countries, crossing the border in the back of pickup trucks, walking across deserts, and wading through rivers in the middle of the night. Others discussed how they did not know that they were undocumented until they attempted to get a driver’s license or to apply to college, only to be told by their parents that they did not have Social Security numbers.

One student stood up in front of the class to read his memoir and said that, every day, coming home from school, he feared that he might find that his parents had disappeared. After that, many students revealed their status, and that of their families, to their classmates for the first time. The essays told of parents who would not drive for fear that being pulled over for a broken taillight would result in deportation; who had never been on an airplane; who were working jobs for below minimum wage in abhorrent conditions, unable to report their employers for fear of being arrested themselves. It was a remarkable scene, to witness young people collectively shatter one another’s sense of social isolation.

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Monday, 5 December 2016

Penelope Lively: ‘I thought short stories had left me completely’

Penelope Lively thought she was done with short stories, when to her surprise an idea popped into her head. She had recently completed Ammonites and Leaping Fish, a book about memory and ageing that she refers to as “the view from 80”, when she went to an exhibition about Pompeii with her son-in-law.

The pair share an interest in birds, and were going around the British Museum in London spotting them in Roman frescoes. One puzzled them, and a curator was called to identify the large, long-legged wetland fowl as a purple swamphen – the creature that supplies the title for Lively’s latest book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories (Fig Tree).

“I thought the form had left me completely. I hadn’t written any for almost 20 years,” Lively explains as we talk in front of another bird picture – this one painted in oils by her aunt Rachel Reckitt – on the wall of her north-London sitting room. “I thought I’d like to get back to fiction, but a novel is like hacking at the rock face and I didn’t feel like hacking at the rock face. Then a story came, and another, and so forth – they are so totally unpredictable. The prime thing is the idea, that’s the joy of the short story.”

Lively’s career began in the 1970s in the snatched hours before her children got home from primary school in Swansea, and reached the twin peaks of the Carnegie medal for her children’s book The Ghost of Thomas Kempe in 1973, and the Booker prize for her adult novel Moon Tiger in 1987. With more than 30 books to her name, she remains the only author to have won both awards, and in 2012 was made a dame of the British empire.

Her new collection includes a couple of ghost stories but is mostly concerned with character, relationships and contrasting points of view: several stories unpick marriages or partnerships, including one, “A Biography”, which reveals two lost babies to be the sad secret buried in the past of a pioneering TV historian. “It’s the one thing you’re constantly confronted with: other people’s relationships, and how wrong you can be about them too,” Lively says. “I don’t think a relationship is always very visible on the surface. I think they can appear to be quite otherwise than they are.”

Lively’s own marriage lasted 41 years, until her husband Jack died aged 69 in 1998. They married when she was 24, having emerged from Oxford University with a history degree and “no career plan whatsoever”, and she had two babies as Jack took his first steps in academia. Determined to look after her children after her own experience of being cared for almost exclusively by a nanny, she says she knew “something had to be done about a job as soon as the bottom one went to primary school”.

The obvious choice was teaching but Lively, though clever, had not been a good student and was reluctant to take any more courses. She decided to try writing and after a few attempts found her register: comic and poignant; drawing on the classic tradition of English children’s stories she had grown up with, but giving it a sharp contemporary twist. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, in which a home counties boy is adopted by a poltergeist, was an instant classic, and took its place on the shelf of postwar English children’s novels alongside books by Philippa Pearce, Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield and others. Lively names Thomas Kempe when asked to name a favourite among her books. “It’s about the power of memory, but for goodness’ sake I don’t want any child to come away from it thinking that,” she says. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently began work on a stage version. By contrast her other most famous title, Moon Tiger, which used the wartime Egypt of her childhood as the backdrop for a love story between a war correspondent and an army officer, “was for a while very definitely my unfavourite book, I got very unfond of it,” she says, recalling the days when she travelled hither and thither delivering workshops, talks and lectures at the behest of the British Council and her publishers – a Booker prize-winner who took the responsibilities of a literary ambassador seriously. One of the pleasures of old age, says Lively, is knowing she will never see Heathrow again.

Launch parties were never her thing – she says they make any bad reviews even more embarrassing – but in other respects she embraced the role of the professional writer. Fiction was her career, chosen after a childhood and early adulthood in which books were her constant companions. “From about four, I can actually remember the joy of suddenly realising that I could read, that these squiggles on a page were beginning to make sense,” she says. “I was always reading while feeding a baby, reading while stirring things at the stove, and going once a week to the public library with books at one end of the pram and the children in the other.”

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An English Affair - Emile Zola

At half past one in the morning of Tuesday 19 July 1898, passengers on the cross-Channel steamer from Calais to Dover might have observed a solitary middle-aged man standing on the deck, gazing steadfastly at the sleeping port as the boat pulled out into open water. He was visibly moved and after a few minutes his eyes began filling with tears. The breeze got up, under a covering of cloud across a calm sea, but though he had brought no overcoat with him he stayed where he was until the glimmer of dawn dimmed the gas lamps along Dover’s harbour front. The traveller was singularly unprepared for the landfall he was about to make. He knew almost no English and had embarked on the journey without a change of clothes or toilet articles. Managing to reach Victoria by train, he asked a cabby to take him to the Grosvenor Hotel. The man was pardonably surprised, given that the hotel was a matter of metres from the station, but deposited his fare at the front steps anyway.

Things had been different on Emile Zola’s first visit to England five years previously, when he arrived as the honoured guest of the Institute of Journalists, whose annual conference was taking place at the Crystal Palace. Although some of his novels, such as Nana and Thérèse Raquin, had been excoriated by the British press for their nauseating obscenity and dangerous influence on impressionable readers, the doyen of the French naturalist school was on that occasion whisked from a Guildhall banquet, lunch at the Athenaeum and oysters at the Café Royal to Drury Lane Theatre, the French Hospital and the Greenwich Observatory. Oscar Wilde, practised schmoozer of the famous, sent a basket of flowers for Madame Zola, the National Society of Teachers of French gave a champagne reception and the novelist took a turn around the House of Lords, which reminded him, not altogether agreeably, of the Académie française.

The Zola who fetched up in London in the summer of 1898 was a lonely fugitive from justice. His polemic J’Accuse…!, published in Georges Clemenceau’s left-wing newspaper L’Aurore, had fearlessly condemned the military court proceedings in the Dreyfus case, which was at the time tearing France to pieces. For denouncing the fraudulent basis of the two espionage trials that resulted in Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s expulsion from the army and imprisonment on Devil’s Island, Zola was deemed a criminal, guilty of libelling a public institution, which entailed a fine of 3,000 francs and a year’s jail sentence. Self-imposed exile seemed a more sensible option than this kind of martyrdom, but he boarded the Calais boat train with the bitterest sense of his country’s ingratitude. Michael Rosen’s lively and thoughtful analysis of the whole episode emphasises the novelist’s anguished bewilderment at the way in which France, by the very act of persecuting him for truth-telling, seemed ready to betray its finest traditions of rational discourse and civilised dissent. ‘To think’, he exclaimed, ‘that after a lifetime of work, I would be forced to leave Paris, the city which I’ve loved and celebrated in my writings, in such a way!’

Once across the Channel, however, Zola generally avoided attempts by British journalists to glamorise his victimhood. Inspiration for his new novel, Fécondité, came more easily to him in the anodyne dullness of a Surrey suburb than in the Grosvenor Hotel. First of all he rented Penn, a house in Weybridge, at five guineas a week, then shifted quarters to the Queen’s Hotel in Upper Norwood, maintaining a variety of incognitos as he went. Surprisingly, that summer of 1898 turned into something of an idyll. Zola bought a bicycle and rode it among the trim little villas and clipped holly hedges of Walton and Chertsey, taking his camera with him to snap anything from a busy high street or a herd of cows to road sweepers and bobbies on the beat.

Life was further sweetened by the arrival of his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, with their daughter and son. The visit was arranged by his wife, Alexandrine. Resigned to her husband’s divided affections, she assumed the role of manager and legal representative during his absence in England. ‘I had little more to do with my sad existence’, she declared, ‘than to do good things for those I love.’ This was the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. Ensconced at Weybridge, Rozerot and the children joined gamely in the bike rides, took a trip to Windsor Castle and came to share Zola’s loathing of British cuisine. Why, he moaned, was everything unsalted? Why were the vegetables cooked without butter, the beefsteaks garnished with something called ‘gravy’ and the fruit tarts served hot?

Friends worried that Rozerot’s presence might damage his reputation, not merely among the Surrey bourgeoisie but also, more importantly, with a powerful Protestant echelon in France sympathetic to his campaign to exonerate Dreyfus. In Paris sales of his books plummeted, a further libel case threatened to cost him 40,000 francs and he was stripped of the Légion d’honneur. In Britain, on the other hand, he was becoming something of an adoptive national treasure. Crowds flocked to inspect the waxwork of Zola at Madame Tussaud’s. The Manchester Guardian praised his dogged courage, the Daily Chronicle saw him as embodying the finest of French values and The Times, portraying the original court case against Dreyfus as an intellectual treat for the educated, proclaimed that ‘he will be honoured wherever men have free souls’.

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Jean Rhys’s literary cauldron

When Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea fifty years ago, she was seventy-five years old. After spending the best part of two decades secluded and largely unread, Rhys had produced a book that would secure her lasting popularity and a place in the canons of a discipline – postcolonial studies – that had not yet been invented.

But what is it about Wide Sargasso Sea that makes it so compelling? One easy answer is that it takes its inspiration from a favourite classic of English literature: Jane Eyre. It is a brilliant adaptation, faithful to the essence of the original but successfully made relevant to a radically different audience and time. However, perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel relates to Rhys’s conception of literature as the cauldron where reality and imagination meet; family lore, history, literary tradition and memory all converge in a single book.

Placing the action in Jamaica in 1839, immediately after the abolition of slavery, Rhys drifts in and out of the landscape of her own childhood memories in Dominica at the turn of the twentieth century. This is evident from the very first page, where we learn that the Cosways’ estate is called Coulibri – the French word for hummingbird, a perfectly plausible name for a plantation in St Kitts, St Lucia or indeed Dominica, all islands with historical links to France, but certainly not in Jamaica.

That detail may be small, but it reveals how permeable the boundaries are between the spaces of fiction and memory – and they are permeable in all Rhys’s fiction. In her early novels, written and set in the 1920s and 1930s, Rhys never fully detaches her fiction from her real-life experiences. This is most palpably true of her troubled extra-marital relationship with Ford Madox Ford and her time in Paris, a city “saturated with the past . . . all the hotel rooms I’ve ever slept in. All the streets I’ve ever walked in” (Good Morning, Midnight, 1939).

In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys progressively moves away from her free association of memory and fiction as the novel comes closer to the realm of Jane Eyre. Alternating her first-person narration between Rochester and Antoinette, she makes the two inhabit different dimensions, their world views diametrically opposed. When Antoinette asks Rochester if it’s true that England is like a dream, he seems insulted by the question. To him what seems like a dream is the West Indies; “But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?”, asks Antoinette. His answer signals an impasse: “How can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?” In the Caribbean, Antoinette, laden with the weight of Rhys’s childhood experience, and Rochester, burdened with the expectations of a patriarchal society, find the freedom necessary (“Here I can do as I like”, they tell each other) to weave a brief episode of careless mirth. But as soon as the decision is made to travel to England, Rochester assumes the dominant position, condemning Antoinette to the miserable existence given to Bertha Mason by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre.

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Saturday, 3 December 2016

Theodor Adorno: The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

THE sociological theory that the loss of the support of objectively established religion, the dissolution of the last remnants of pre-capitalism, together with technological and social differentiation or specialisation, have led to cultural chaos is disproved every day; for culture now impresses the same stamp on everything.

Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system. The decorative industrial management buildings and exhibition centers in authoritarian countries are much the same as anywhere else. The huge gleaming towers that shoot up everywhere are outward signs of the ingenious planning of international concerns, toward which the unleashed entrepreneurial system (whose monuments are a mass of gloomy houses and business premises in grimy, spiritless cities) was already hastening. Even now the older houses just outside the concrete city centres look like slums, and the new bungalows on the outskirts are at one with the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans.

Yet the city housing projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent unit in a small hygienic dwelling make him all the more subservient to his adversary – the absolute power of capitalism. Because the inhabitants, as producers and as consumers, are drawn into the center in search of work and pleasure, all the living units crystallise into well-organised complexes. The striking unity of microcosm and macrocosm presents men with a model of their culture: the false identity of the general and the particular. Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.

Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms. It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods. The technical contrast between the few production centers and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points is said to demand organisation and planning by management. Furthermore, it is claimed that standards were based in the first place on consumers’ needs, and for that reason were accepted with so little resistance. The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger. No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself. Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together until their leveling element shows its strength in the very wrong which it furthered. It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than the achievement of standardisation and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.

This is the result not of a law of movement in technology as such but of its function in today’s economy. The need which might resist central control has already been suppressed by the control of the individual consciousness. The step from the telephone to the radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former still allowed the subscriber to play the role of subject, and was liberal. The latter is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same. No machinery of rejoinder has been devised, and private broadcasters are denied any freedom. They are confined to the apocryphal field of the “amateur,” and also have to accept organisation from above.

But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favours the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it. If one branch of art follows the same formula as one with a very different medium and content; if the dramatic intrigue of broadcast soap operas becomes no more than useful material for showing how to master technical problems at both ends of the scale of musical experience – real jazz or a cheap imitation; or if a movement from a Beethoven symphony is crudely “adapted” for a film sound-track in the same way as a Tolstoy novel is garbled in a film script: then the claim that this is done to satisfy the spontaneous wishes of the public is no more than hot air.

We are closer to the facts if we explain these phenomena as inherent in the technical and personnel apparatus which, down to its last cog, itself forms part of the economic mechanism of selection. In addition there is the agreement – or at least the determination – of all executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves.

In our age the objective social tendency is incarnate in the hidden subjective purposes of company directors, the foremost among whom are in the most powerful sectors of industry – steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals. Culture monopolies are weak and dependent in comparison. They cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power if their sphere of activity in mass society (a sphere producing a specific type of commodity which anyhow is still too closely bound up with easy-going liberalism and Jewish intellectuals) is not to undergo a series of purges. The dependence of the most powerful broadcasting company on the electrical industry, or of the motion picture industry on the banks, is characteristic of the whole sphere, whose individual branches are themselves economically interwoven. All are in such close contact that the extreme concentration of mental forces allows demarcation lines between different firms and technical branches to be ignored.

The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasised and extended. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification. Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. Consumers appear as statistics on research organisation charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda.

How formalised the procedure is can be seen when the mechanically differentiated products prove to be all alike in the end. That the difference between the Chrysler range and General Motors products is basically illusory strikes every child with a keen interest in varieties. What connoisseurs discuss as good or bad points serve only to perpetuate the semblance of competition and range of choice. The same applies to the Warner Brothers and Metro Goldwyn Mayer productions. But even the differences between the more expensive and cheaper models put out by the same firm steadily diminish: for automobiles, there are such differences as the number of cylinders, cubic capacity, details of patented gadgets; and for films there are the number of stars, the extravagant use of technology, labor, and equipment, and the introduction of the latest psychological formulas. The universal criterion of merit is the amount of “conspicuous production,” of blatant cash investment. The varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves.

Even the technical media are relentlessly forced into uniformity. Television aims at a synthesis of radio and film, and is held up only because the interested parties have not yet reached agreement, but its consequences will be quite enormous and promise to intensify the impoverishment of aesthetic matter so drastically, that by tomorrow the thinly veiled identity of all industrial culture products can come triumphantly out into the open, derisively fulfilling the Wagnerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the fusion of all the arts in one work. 

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