I just burned an hour churning through old Terry Eagleton essays in the London Review of Books. The guy can write. On the heels of Scott Poole’s recent call for the Left to reclaim the memory of George Orwell, it’s worth revisiting Eagleton’s 2003 essay on the improbably eventful career and endlessly arguable thought of this singular English socialist.
A review of three then-new books on Orwell, the piece is a rich mine of anecdotal nuggets, which Eagleton deftly converts into polished insights: “Orwell’s father bore in India the Monty Pythonesque rank of Assistant Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, Fifth Grade, so one can see what Orwell meant by designating his background ‘lower upper middle class’… If the Empire co-opted the fathers, it could also make the children feel social misfits in suburban England, and this could later be translated into political rebellion.”
The young Orwell (Eric Blair) with his mother, sister, and Pythonesque father.
But the radicalism of Orwell’s politics, Eagleton believes, was captive to the even sterner radicalism of his empiricist philosophy. “Whereas Gramsci believed that socialism must become common sense, Orwell at his worst seemed to imagine that common sense was socialism…[He] detested those, mostly on the Left, who theorised about situations without having experienced them… There is no need to have your legs chopped off to sympathise with the legless, and no reason why being legless yourself should necessarily entail compassion for those in a similar state.”
I’m persuaded by much of Eagleton’s critique, even if it seems odd to attack Orwell for being “in love with Dickens,” and, like Dickens, preferring individual ‘character’ to collective politics — when Orwell, after all, wrote a famous essay that attacked Dickens, more or less because his novels elevated personal morality over structural critique. (Raymond Williams was right, in any case, that Orwell misread Dickens on this score.)
My favorite section of the essay, though, comes when he stops to assess the power of Orwell’s Left ideas. Eagleton argues that Orwell envisioned socialist society not as a mystical or unknowable Eden, but something built from parts that already exist in the real world. If today’s socialists are utopians, it is not because their dreams are very large, but the imaginations of their opponents are so pitifully small. By contrast Orwell, like Williams and E.P. Thompson,
…insist[ed] on the continuities between the class-bound present and the socialist future, rather than on some apocalyptic break between them. Socialism will indeed involve such ruptures; but it is primarily an extension of the existing values of comradeship and solidarity to society as a whole… The socialist future is not just a nebulous utopian ideal, but is in some sense immanent in the present, and would not be valid if it were not.
C. Vann Woodward, on visiting Duke’s campus for the first time in 1933:
"Duke was a case of loathe at first sight for me—Middle Gothic in celophane; gigantic, turetted, battlemented entrances with pneumatic hinged swinging doors in place of iron portcullisses—innumerable chimneys—all dummies—there being a central heating plant; concrete gargoyles, great ivy vines, clamped on with tin. Cloistered picture show. Replica of Westminster, with elevator in tower. Leaded windows in library that let in no light. Attended opening meeting of Graduate club—Herr Doctor Katzenjammer of German Dept., just back from Vaterland lectured dithyrambically on Der Führer und der Neue Geist—Hitler saving Western civilization from barbarism—Professors applauded & Woodward muttered & finally puked on the floor. Goddam, how I loathe that place…”
In Katherine Hill’s The Violet Hour, Abe Green climbs a hill in San Francisco:
"He could hardly feel the shadow as he walked to the nearest intersection, which looked downhill in two directions. From there he could see the tops of several parks, lying about the city like the contents of a scattered bag. The city offered itself beneath a gaping blue sky, urging him downhill, past staircases wedged like sandbags against the flood of land, past streetlamps riding high upon the waves. In the sun, every house seemed newly painted in whites whiter than his coat, which he removed and slung over his arm, the other colors—the mints and the slates and the saffrons and the plums—shivering in the light as though they’d just emerged from the surf, salt-washed and freshly wet."
At one point in her novel NW, Zadie Smith leaves us with four successful young professionals enjoying a weekend brunch at a London cafe, sometime in the mid-2000s. The central character, Natalie, has just left her job as a public-interest paralegal for a position at a large law firm.
"It’s organic," said Ameeta. She referred to the ketchup.
"It’s bad, said her husband, Imran. He was also referring to the ketchup.
"It’s not bad. It doesnt have the fourteen spoonfuls of sugar you’re used to, said Ameeta…
They continued on with their breakfast. Breakfast tipped into brunch. They did this once or twice a month. Today’s brunch seemed, to Natalie, a more lively occasion than usual, and more comfortable, as if by rejoining a commercial set and acting, at least in part, for the interests in corporations, she had lost the final remnants of a troubling aura that had bothered her friends and made them cautious around her…
"It’s an insurgency," said Ameeta. Natalie pressed a knife to her egg and watched the yolk run into her beans. "Another cup of tea?" said Frank. They were all agreed that the war should not be happening. They were against war… "But Irie was always going to be that kind of mother," said Ameeta, "I could have told you that five years ago." Only the private realm existed now. Work and home. Marriage and children. Now they only wanted to return to their own flats and live the real life of domestic conversation and television and baths and lunch an dinner. Brunch was outside the private realm, not by much—it was just the other side of the border. But even brunch was too far from home. Brunch didn’t really exist. “Can I give you a tip?” said Imran. “Start on the third episode of series two.” Was it possible to feel oneself on a war footing, constantly, even at brunch?
Well, I finally got around to reading the wonderful slim volume that helped give this blog its name: Robert D. Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. (I first encountered Emerson’s Tumblr-friendly aphorism about glances vs. gazes in John Banville’s NYRB review a few years ago).
It’s a reliable if sadly infrequent delight to consume an 85-page book — a delicious between-meal snack that by an accident of material culture is usually inflated into a 200-pp tome or boiled down to a 30-pp article. The midsize morsels that do make it into print, anyway, are often worth your time.
But an 85-page book stuffed to the brim with lines from Emerson is better than most. Not that Waldo himself would have agreed: Americans, he complained, “dote on the old and the distant: we are tickled by great names… every man is a borrower and a mimic, life is theatrical and literature a quotation.” Works that collected other writers’ opinions earned even fiercer disdain: “Avoid all second-hand borrowing books—‘Collections of—’, ‘Beauties of—’, etc… I would burn them. No one can select the beautiful passages of another for you… Do your own quarrying.”
We can be grateful that the Sage of Concord isn’t around to burn this borrowing book of sorts, because Richardon (who also wrote an award-winning life of Emerson) proves to be an excellent quarrier. Among many upturned nuggets that sent me back to the original rock-pit, my favorite is the passage where Emerson explains his dictum that “words are signs of natural facts.”
"The use of outer creation [is] to give us language for the beings and changes of the inner creation. Every word which is used to express a moral and intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight. Wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of an eyebrow.”
Richardson adds another crisp example — “the abstract and vague word consider leaps to life when we learn that it originally meant study the stars (In Latin sidus, sideris means star)” — and then relates how Emerson’s 1844 essay “The Poet” anticipated the foundational aesthetic insight of the Oxford English Dictionary:
"The poets made all the words," says Emerson, "and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry." It is the poet’s, the writer’s job to "re-attach things to nature." "Genius, says Emerson, "is the activity which repairs the decays of things."
As far as I can tell, From Here to Eternity is mostly remembered today as a two-and-a-half hour film vehicle for one racy-but-not-that-racy make-out scene. If you’ve actually seen the movie, you know that the legendary Beach Kiss is an abrupt, hectic disappointment: Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr barely pucker up before the tide rolls out and they pop off the sand; thirty seconds later they’re bickering over lunch. (The Beach Kiss’s fame, I think, counts as paradoxical evidence for Kazuo Ishiguro’s claim that we remember still images better than moving pictures — and the Lancaster/Kerr smooch did produce an epic still.)
This letdown, though, is acutely faithful to spirit of the film and the James Jones novel. “It seems like life,” says Pvt. Robert E. Lee ‘Prew’ Prewitt, “is made up of saying hello to people we dont like and good-by to people we do.” From Here to Eternity is about cruelest of life’s disappointments: not that good things never come, but that they never last. It’s the Great American Novel of good-byes.*
Fittingly, then, it’s a novel about soldiers, men who live in constant fear and certain expectation of one final good-bye. Jones’s Army is largely a peacetime unit: in an 850 page book about U.S. troops stationed in Hawaii in 1941, Pearl Harbor doesn’t get bombed until page 735. Soldiering, for most of the novel, is merely a synonym for everything else — a world where the civilian routine of work, status, and rejection is neatly concentrated into drill, rank, and punishment. “James Jones,” writes Joan Didion in her classic essay on Hawaii, “had known a great simple truth: the Army was nothing less than life itself.”
A great theme in From Here to Eternity is soldiering as laboring. The novel’s heroes and villains are nearly all workers — dog privates and roughneck sergeants — while the officer class, the employers, remain resolutely in the distance. (They’re usually out golfing.) The ambivalent but real sense of allegiance the men feel for the Army is thus a kind of class allegiance — national duty as worker solidarity, and vice versa. The sweaty Popular Front patriotism of Steinbeck and Dos Passos takes its last whiskey-soaked furlough in From Here to Eternity, as imprisoned joes wax nostalgic about the I.W.W. and lament the injustices of “this man’s Army” — but when the planes come for Pearl Harbor, every man wants to do his part.
In many ways this is a foreign sensibility on today’s American Left, which since the 1960s at least has preferred rigorous critique and ruthless mythbusting to romantic national pride — a combination, naturally, that has made for good history and bad politics. But From Here to Eternity is that ancient artifact of a novel that can make a socialist feel all gooey about “Taps.” It’s too late for May Day (or Loyalty Day!) but I recommend you fire up the YouTube bugler while you read along below. He’s not as good with a horn as Prew was, but he fills out Jones’s requiem for the common soldier — the soldier as worker, and the worker as the American everyman who is always having to saying good-bye:
“There was no placed regimented tempo to this Taps. The notes rose high in the air and hung about the quadrangle. They vibrated there, caressingly, filled with an infinite sadness, an endless patience, a pointless pride, the requiem and epitaph of the common soldier, who smelled like a common soldier, as a woman once had told him. They hovered like halos over the heads of the sleeping men in the darkened barracks, turning all grossness to the beauty that is the beauty of sympathy and understanding. Here we are, they said, you made us, now see us, don’t close your eyes and shudder at it; this beauty, and this sorrow, of things as they are. This is the true song, the song of the ruck, not of battle heroes; the song of the Stockade prisoners itchily stinking sweating under coats of grey rock dust; the song of the mucky KPs, of the men without women who collect the bloody menstrual rags of the officers’ wives, who come to scour the Officers’ Club — after the parties are over. This is the song of the scum, the Aqua-Velva drinkers, the shapeless ones who greedily drain the half filled glasses, some of them lipsticksmeared, that the party-ers can afford to leave unfinished.”
“This is the song of the men who have no place, played by a man who has never had a place, and can therefore play it. Listen to it. You know this song, remember? This is the song you close your ears to every night, so you can sleep. This is the song you drink five martinis every evening not to hear. This is the song of the Great Loneliness, that creeps in like the desert wind and dehydrates the soul. This is the song you’ll listen to on the day you die…”
"The more Grover Norquist calls President Barack Obama’s centrist policies ‘socialist,’ Bhaskar Sunkara writes, “the less threatening that dreaded slur has started to sound.” On the heels of my own hopeful talk about a new 21st century socialism, Sunkara’s point offers as good an excuse as any to dive back into Karl Marx’s greatest historical essay. In fact clever leftists have long held a soft spot for conservative hysteria about the S-word.
The right-wing response to debate in the French National Assembly after the 1848 revolution, Marx wrote, was “flat as a riddle whose answer is known in advance”:
Whether it was a question of the right of petition or the tax on wine, freedom of the press or free trade, the clubs or the municipal charter, protection of personal liberty or regulation of the state budget, the watchword constantly recurs, the theme remains always the same, the verdict is ever ready and invariably reads: “Socialism!” Even bourgeois liberalism is declared socialistic, bourgeois enlightenment socialistic, bourgeois financial reform socialistic. It was socialistic to build a railway where a canal already existed, and it was socialistic to defend oneself with a cane when one was attacked with a rapier.
So far, so good. This sounds just like Norquist on Obama. (Come on, you know that if Jim DeMint went after the President with a rapier and Barack pulled out his cane, Fox News would be ON IT.) But Marx goes further. The Norquists of the world, it turns out, have a real point:
This was not merely a figure of speech, fashion, or party tactics. The bourgeoisie had a true insight into the fact that all the weapons it had forged against feudalism turned their points against itself, that all the means of education it had produced rebelled against its own civilization, that all the gods it had created had fallen away from it. It understood that all the so-called bourgeois liberties and organs of progress attacked and menaced its class rule at its social foundation and its political summit simultaneously, and had therefore become “socialistic.”
Oh shit. Sounds like those bourgeois conservatives had really fucked themselves, no? Unfortunately for themselves, and for nineteenth century France, Marx’s right-wing parliamentarians still had a trump card to play: their own political self-annihilation.
Thus by now stigmatizing as “socialistic” what it had previously extolled as “liberal,” the bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its own rule; that to restore tranquillity in the country its bourgeois parliament must, first of all, be given its quietus; that to preserve its social power intact its political power must be broken; that the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and to enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion, and order only on condition that their class be condemned along with the other classes to like political nullity; that in order to save its purse it must forfeit the crown, and the sword that is to safeguard it must at the same time be hung over its own head as a sword of Damocles.
So, yeah. It all winds up with Louis Bonaparte’s right-wing coup, the end of representative government, and the start of the Second Empire. This is where the analogy to today seems to break down, but it’s worth remembering exactly what’s at stake in the demonization of “liberal” measures as “socialistic.” Marx saw the bourgeois willingness to dissolve democracy in order to preserve its privilege as evidence that democratic reform was useless, and that even contemporary Socialist “twaddles about mind, education and freedom” availed for nothing. For the French left, it was revolution or destruction.
But there’s another conclusion to draw here: if even liberal reform threatens the social foundation of class rule, then, fuck, bring on liberal reform. (This is more or less Sunkara’s argument, too.) Precisely because a military coup isn’t on the agenda in the 21st century U.S., our own democratic “organs of progress” really can present a fundamental challenge to the ruling power of big capital. That’s why big capital fights so fucking hard against them, even when they seem so obviously feeble. Unlike its counterpart in the French National Assembly, today’s Party of Order can’t save its purse by handing off its crown; it has to have both, or it will die.
"The parliamentary regime," Marx noted, "leaves everything to the decision of majorities; how shall the great majorities outside parliament not want to decide? When you play the fiddle at the top of the state, what else is to be expected but that those down below dance?"
Working toward liberal reform is not the only thing the Left can do to do to challenge the power of capitalism — it’s probably not even the most important thing. But it can be part of the fight. Those who insist otherwise do not merely prefer posture to struggle, or the purity of motive to the power of result. They also underrate the radical potential of political engagement, and they misread their Marx.
To paraphrase another great ex-Berliner, there’s only one way to find out if those great majorities below have their red shoes on. Let’s dance.
On Sunday at the Masters, I came across this bit in From Here to Eternity — the only worthwhile golf-related passage in American letters.
The truck had to pass toward the Post and around the golf course to the Kolekole black top.
“Look at them sons of bitches,” Hanson said bitterly, sitting on tailgate. “Did you ever play golf?”
“No,” Prew said.
“Me neither,” Hanson said. “The sons of bitches.”
Strong stuff from the first pages of Trotsky’s autobiography:
"The idealization of childhood originated in the literature of the privileged. A secure, affluent, and unclouded childhood, spent in a home of inherited wealth and culture, a childhood of affection and play, brings back to one memories of a sunny meadow at the beginning of the road of life. The grandees of literature, or the plebians who glorify the grandees, have canonized this purely aristocratic view of childhood. But the majority of the people, if it looks back at all, sees, on the contrary, a childhood of darkness, hunger, and dependence. Life strikes the weak—and who is weaker than a child?"
Harsh, but fair; and yet I still stand by the idea that one of the first aims of any worthwhile socialist utopia should be to provide a proper Toad Hall, or at least a substitute Hundred Acre Wood, for every child in every social situation.
The Iron List’s Top 50 films of 2012 wrap up with a look at the gangland vision of slavery in Django Unchained, the cruel entrapments of Amour, and the pathos of Magic Mike; the elegy for youth in Oslo, August 31, the Whitmanesque body poetry in Rust & Bone, and crime and unpunishment in Elena; the fierce literacy of Lincoln and the claustrophobic fortresses of Footnote. It all culminates with lost children and two vital fables in a state of emergency, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Kid with a Bike.
We began with a run-down of some of the year’s themes, including bromance and public urination, and continue today with the Bottom Ten movies of 2012. Key discussion points include the best John Cusack masturbation scene of the year, the melancholy decline of Tom Hardy’s hotness, and the inevitability of Jason Biggs starring in AMERICAN FUNERAL, circa 2063. Go on and check it out.
It’s a cliche that Balzac’s novels are more tightly bound to nineteenth century Paris than most works of fiction are to their environments — and yet, reading Cousin Bette, it’s striking how often he seems to anticipate the banality, the absurdity, and the viciousness of our own era.
“Money has never lost the least opportunity of showing how stupid it is,” he notes, without ever having had the advantage of discovering Donald Trump. “[A]n unattractive woman counts for nothing in Paris,” he observes, without knowing a thing about Carla Bruni or Ségolène Royal. “[G]enerally, well-bred, very dissolute people are much more agreeable than the virtuous. Having crimes to compensate for, they seek indulgence in advance by being lenient with their judges’ failings,” he writes, without ever watching an episode of Oprah.
Most impressive of all, though, is his anticipation of George Costanza’s wondrous discovery in Season 8 of Seinfeld:
"Virginity, like all abnormalities, has its special richness, its own absorbing grandeur. Life, in a virgin, husbands its forces and takes on an incalculable quality of resistance and endurance. The brain, as a whole, has been enriched by the sum total of its unexpended faculties. When chaste people need their bodies or their minds, when they resort to deed or thought, they find that their muscles are of steel or that their minds have been infused with intuitive wisdom; they have diabolical strength or the black magic of the will….
In this respect, the Virgin Mary… deserves all the honors the Catholic Church bestows upon her.”
Here’s another short essay I wrote for The Junto on the first volume of Eric Hobsbawm’s monumental historical synthesis, The Age of Revolution:
[I]t is Hobsbawm’s four-volume history of the modern world, in its progress through Revolution, Capital, Empire, and Extremes—not quite a full sweep from the Bastille to Mountain Dew, although in another sense, exactly that—that remains his major scholarly achievement.
During the Second World War, the young Trotskyist editor and future New York Intellectual Irving Howe was dispatched to a desolate army barracks on the Aleutian Islands. There he spent two hours a day at routine paperwork, and the rest of his time fraternizing with other bored soldiers and reading about whatever he could get his hands on (the Maoris, Matthew Arnold, the Bolshevik revolution, apparently). All in all, you’d have to say, it wasn’t the worst way to pass the three or four most savage years in recorded human history.
In his autobiography, Howe recalls the occasion when the vagaries of Army bureaucracy produced, as if by magic, the possibility of a dynamic American literary collision in the far North Pacific. But it never happened:
"About a year after I arrived in Alaska there moved into the end room of the barrack, usually reserved for the highest ranking noncom, a white-haired, leathery sergeant who was obviously older than the rest of us. He talked very little but had an elaborate courteous manner—startlingly, even comically different from anything usually seen in the army. I recognized him as Dashiell Hammett, whose books I admired more than his politics. Not yet knowing that famous people can be as shy as young ones, I hesitated to approach him. We did talk two or three times, mostly on indifferent topics like army routine and the journalism he was writing for the army. I suspect he would have welcomed a stronger approach, but this may be the sheerest imagining, as I, approaching old age, have come to understand how the shyness of the young can be as deadly a barrier as the aloofness of the well-known. At once hopelessly withdrawn and visibly kind, Hammett had a touch of the natural aristocracy I had rarely seen before. Enigmatic, sometimes drunk, inspiring respect for reasons hard to name, he slipped away as quietly as he had come—a connection missed, a friend not made—and I settled back into our common routine.”
It’s fitting, of course, that campus interviews for academic jobs generally take place among the coldest late January days of the year. Once again, this frigid ritual is upon us, and and in honor of the interrogations everywhere, I’ll pass along this tale from Irving Howe’s autobiography, A Margin of Hope. The year was 1952, and Howe was invited to campus to interview for a position in the English Department at Saint Lawrence College:
"I was then taken to ‘the gauntlet,’ a series of interviews with faculty members. Greenest of the green at this ritual, I wondered why some greeted me with endless questions, while others smiled politely and let me pass. A few hours later, depressed and exhausted, I reached the climax of the gauntlet: Mark Slonim, professor of Russian, éminence grise of the college. By then all I could think of was that he spoke English rather like Gregory Ratoff in Ninotchka.
“Un vat vill you teach for us, Mr. Howe?”
(Without hesitation, by now a gauntlet veteran.) “The political novel.”
(Gravely.) “Dot will require a team.”
“Yes, a literary critic and a sociologist.”
“No, no, a team!”
(Ratoff wants an bigger team? Why not?) “We can add an anthropologist and maybe even a scientist.”
(By now he is red in the face, exploding.) “A team! A team!”
(General confusion, embarrassed gestures, as suddenly it occurs to me, idiot I am, that he means a theme. I slink away.)
A few weeks later I received a note regretting that Sarah Lawrence would not be able to use my services.”