A giant step, but for whom?

I had the feeling this now passing year, 2019, that celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the American landing on the moon were underwhelming.  The BBC showed a  documentary by director Robert Stone which in its first two parts featured President John F Kennedy wanting to beat the Russians in the space race. I base my comments here on what that slow-moving film, rich in archive material, but without critical analysis from the present day, showed. The commentary by Sergei Khrushchev, son of then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, took the story to 1962, by which time Alan B. Shepherd had caught up with Yuri Gagarin by surviving the journey into space – the two great journeys from 1961 — and John Glenn had orbited the moon. In September 1963 Kennedy was dead and in 1964 Khrushchev was ousted as Soviet Communist Party General Secretary.  According to Sergei Krushchev the great humanitarian mission accompanying the scientific achievement was now over. As it happens I think Khrushchev junion was right (although perhaps for the wrong reason of trying to glorify his father). Since the mid-sixties our space age bequest has largely been the scientific advances it brought, some sought-after, some accidental. Think GPS, think MRI scans for a start. Meanwhile the humanist vision slipped quietly away.

In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination Lyndon Johnson, already deeply involved in the space project as Vice-President, held steady on the American side. The Apollo 11 expedition of July 1969, the event the 2019 anniversary has been celebrating, was conceived on his watch. The United Sates sent up a three-man team, two of whom walked on the distant silvery globe that hitherto only poets had gazed upon in awe. ‘This stark lonely world…[with] a beauty all of its own…[it’s very pretty out here,’ astronaut Neil Armstrong relayed to earth. Raising the star-spangled banner, he and fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin radioed back that ‘we came in peace for all mankind.’  The sentiment was echoed by President Richard Nixon on the ground: ‘All the people on earth are truly one’ and ‘the world has never been closer to unity’.  Cut to a documentary which director Al Reinart began in 1976 and finally released in 1989, Apollo 11 — for All Mankind, which has to be viewed alongside Stone’s.  Reinart’s narrator told us that ‘man had touched his destiny…and must continue to reach out.’ ‘It is time for man to break free of his provincial planet… and enter reality.’

Fifty years on we’ve lost a grip on that word ‘mankind’ and who would ever talk about humanity’s destiny, except in negative, planet-wrecking terms? In English there seems to be a gender issue with the very word. Even Queen Elizabeth II, who took Armstrong’s historic utterance — ‘one small step for a man, one giant stride for mankind’ — as the theme for her Christmas 2019 message, felt the need to add: ‘or, indeed, womankind.’ The literalness of objections to the ‘man’ in mankind is evidently irritating.  In, say, German — die Menschheit -or Russian — chelovechestvo the problem just isn’t there. The ‘man’ in question is a collective noun, like Mensch or chelovek. But we have the problem in English and we’re stuck with it, because language, not the existence of a silver orb in the sky presiding over our dark nights, dictates our reality.

In fact, however, there is an even greater difficulty with the concept ‘mankind’ and that applies whichever dictionary you use. The very desire for ‘unity’ that it expressed fifty years ago was central to the humanist rhetoric of the 1960s, on both sides of the Cold War. Post-1989 we talk differently. Unity now seems imperialist. Who is doing the unifying, after all, round what central point? Post-1989 we’re post-humanists, and diversity our goal. I’m not totally comfortable with this, but I’m describing what has happened in my lifetime.

Dame Onora O’Neill recently told a philosophy meeting in London that ‘what we really mean by diversity is fairness.’ Well yes and no. Why not use the word fairness then, if that is the ultimate goal of a progressive society? Lexicologically  the term diversity has two opposites. One indeed is unity, which suggests we’ve turned, in the West, volte-face, actually in as little as thirty years. The other antonym of diversity is uniformity. Now there’s the rub. It seems to me that the dropping out of the cultural picture of both unity and uniformity  are entailed when we idealize ‘diversity’ and that we should work harder to separate the two.  To call for diversity as fairness is to insist on equality in difference. That shouldn’t preclude unity, the unity of mankind.  But it does, because our insistence on equality in difference is suspcious of the uniformity once required by a dominant class or culture or ideology.

At heart the unity/diversity issue is the problem we have with the Enlightenment. Mankind as envisaged by Locke or Hume or Kant or Diderot was united in a quest for scientific knowledge and social progress in a cosmopolitan spirit. We worry today that this was a Western project, that it wasn’t socially and racially inclusive, and had very few women as its spokespeople.

A moonman returning home today after taking a university humanities degree on earth might therefore find the plaque that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins left behind beside the lunar shores of the Sea of Tranquillity a strange relic, with its reference to ‘all mankind’.

Were the earthlings passing through an era of extreme optimism or extreme arrogance when they embarked on their lunar adventure?

Stream Part 1 of Stone’s Chasing the Moon and you will hear pundits of the day speculating: ‘I was thinking what a wonderful animal we are…’ ‘[We have reached] a new stage in the evolution of the species.’

But what we’ve ended up with is a ‘two cultures’ divide on the merits of the space race. Science has benefited enormously while the humanities have gone awry. There’s a good unexpected moment in Stone’s film where protesters objecting to Alan Shepherd’s 1961 venture arrive at Cape Canaveral (not yet renamed Cape Kennedy), some of them by horse and cart. Black activists calmly state their objection to a venture costing 2% of GDP, and to the very idea of expanding America’s hold on a wider universe when so much inequality remains — of human making — on earth. The idea of heading skywards to make a new start, leaving behind all the horrible consequences of human error, seemed to those visionary protesters morally quite wrong.

They were an almost inaudible voice fifty years ago, but as we see now, they have so changed our self-perception that the very idea of ‘mankind’ is hedged around with apologetic uncertainty.

Posted in Cold War, Current Affairs, Film, Philosophy and Philosophers, postmodernism, Writing | Tagged , ,

Le Carre’s Agent in a New Field

What a genius John Le Carre has for turning out highly readable and perfectly plotted novels! Now into his eighties with Agent Running in The Field he shows no signs of flagging. It’s true there’s something old bufferish about the first chapter. MI6 aka The Office man Nat is back in a Britain where no one has a surname any more. At his badminton club in south London, where he’s top of the league, newcomer Ed challenges this stuffy fellow, vaguely purporting to be a businessman, to a series of matches. I might have let it go there, but then Nat began to explain his ‘recruitment to the secret flag’ and once more I was hooked.

Le Carre’s oeuvre has alongside its formal literary merits, and its author’s love of many languages, and the nuances of idiom and intonation, four great preoccupations for me. One is his love of Germany. Read the early novels for loving evocations of small German towns and their ways, and read your way through classical German literature with George Smiley. Second comes Le Carre’s particularly lethal version of office politics. Every novelist needs to give us pages of routine, doors we regularly pass through, faces we know, and people we thought we knew until they did us down or vanished and he does it so well. Third is a fascination with Russia. The Cold War has been central to Le Carre’s life, as it has to mine. Around 1979 I wrote an article complaining that he didn’t know Russia very well: that it wasn’t just the big bad bogeyman as seen through Western eyes. But then who did know Russia, in those days? The latest novel contains a short passing tribute to a powerful and complex country, although one of whose political ways we should always be wary.

Fourth is a moral urgency. This is the feature of his work that’s sometimes hard to place. In narratives that turn on professional mendacity, manipulation and betrayal, no secret service agent is innocent. The greatest of German moral philosophers, perhaps of moral philosophers of all time, Immanuel Kant, said: use no other person as a means. Treat every person as an end in himself, herself. But this decency is impossible in Le Carre’s world. His spies let down their friends and lie to their partners. The last sentence of this latest tale runs, as if the author were making a lifetime confession to one such friend: ‘I had wanted to tell him I was a decent man, but it was too late.’

Step in the right kind of political views to make the right gesture. Those views are left liberal for Le Carre, despite the lingering cultural conservatism you might expect of an Englishman educated post-war to serve and belong to an elite, and who once taught German at Eton. Le Carre is incensed by the indecency and cruelty of Big Pharma, for which see The Constant Gardener.  He took up the deep ambiguities of other countries’ involvement in unhappy and unfair relations between Israel and Palestine in The Little Drummer Girl. The British establishment, though he abhores the hypocrisy and the lies, continues to fascinate him. He is deeply suspicious of the interests of big business, many of them lurking in that establishment. Through the Cold War it was basically on the right side, but now where does it stand? Le Carre feels Brexit, and those mechanisms of government supporting it, looking to strengthen ties with Donald Trump’s America and lessen them with Europe,  to be such a vicious cause, that he makes badminton-playing Ed, an agent frankly running amok in the field, a rare decent man who wants to rescue his country from this latest betrayal. This now is the cause to be fought for, even if it means passing information to unintended recipients. Even if it entails being almost a holy fool. Certainly a fool for love of a certain hope for one’s country. it has to be done, where there are judges who think Germany is still Nazi, and basically worse than Russia. Even if one has no hope of winning. Read the novel. I don’t want to spoil the plot.

I suppose that for all Le Carre’s lifetime, as mine, Britain has been in decline after its glorious but hard-won victory in the Second World War. An old Russia hand who has  been working abroad remarks to Nat: ‘First thing you notice every time you come home: nothing works, everything’s a lash-up. Same feeling we used to have in Moscow, if you remember, back in those days.’

I do remember and I can see it. The queues. The overstretched services. Urban grimness. Wrecked and distorted private lives. Miserable health.  I lived in Russia in 1978-79. I travelled from Leningrad to Novosibirsk, Moscow to Astrakhan before life outside the capital had a chance to change. There are similarities. The Soviet Union was ahead of us by fifty years, as well as fifty years behind.  Something of that cruel and chaotic mass society lay in waiting.

I would only add though that in Agent Running in the Field that this is a wealthy man talking, who, like many, though a dwindling number, of middle-class people, can buy his way out of the worst; and who has also forgotten about the basic freedoms in Britain, which are still intact. It’s a good country to live in, the way Soviet Russia never was.

Agent Running in the Field a complex novel then, the complexity visible the moment you begin to compare it with Le Carre’s work of a lifetime. It also has a remarkably slippery title. Who is doing the running? A senior figure who ‘runs’ agents in the field? Or a man running about wanting to do good but ultimately trapped in a space that only seems unbounded. That the title should be syntactically so loose may or may not be deliberate on the author’s part. Le Carre is also rich enough as a literary author  to invite critical reading between the lines.  


Posted in Britain Today, Cold War, novels, Writing | Tagged , , ,

A European View of Jeremy Corbyn

I don’t normally blog about politics but in the wake of the general election of December 2019 I can’t resist this. It’s the view of the liberal German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Boris Johnson couldn’t have had an easier opponent to beat, says commentator Stefan Cornelius. ‘The British had no choice’, he writes today, Friday 13 December, and it certainly felt like that.

‘Jeremy Corbyn actually guaranteed the Tory victory. He will enter the history of the Labour Party as a nightmare MP and Johnson must be eternally grateful to him. Corbyn’s mixture of authoritarian worker leadership with lots of chauvinism, nationalism and anti-semitism made the flesh creep of every voter from the enlightened middle.’
German readers can check out the original German here.

Stefan Cornelius, pictured on the website sueddfeutsche.de

Why is it no British commentator would dare describe in such true and powerful terms the Labour leader, still ungraciously hanging on to his position? I suspect we’re bamboozled into thinking that because he’s on the political left that must entail some moral virtue. There can’t be fundamental nastiness there, can there?

Of course the chauvinism and the nationalism have been part of Prime Minister Johnson’s spiel too. As a country the soon to be disunited United Kingdom is in a grave existential mess. Johnson, a wit and a brain, is a bit of a joker all the same, which means his concepts are flexible.

He has the grudging support of so many who find the populist rhetoric insufferable because he is pragmatic, and it’s one of those British things: we’re superficial but we’re pragmatic. We like role-playing and dressing up and being one of the tribe, but we distrust ideology.

Brexiteers make their feelings felt

Is it endearing?  I don’t think so. Everyone knows how the Conservatives got the old mining towns of the northeast to vote for them. They encouraged the belief that the EU, not the complexities of the post-industrial West, and the end of Empire, were to blame for the damage that global competition has done to the northeast in the last twenty years.

They forgot to mention the regeneration funds that the EU poured into other needy areas, like parts of Wales and Cornwall.

The Tories wisely kept Johnson’s unelected firebrand adviser out of public view in the last weeks before the poll.  I saw him on the Tube recently, beanie pulled down low over his eyes, yearning to be recognized. I’d like to hear Stefan Cornelius’s view of Dominic Cummings.

They also told Jacob Rees-Mogg, the daft Old Etonian fop who opined that the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire should have been quicker to think for themselves, and who last September branded as ‘a constitutional coup’ the judgement of the Supreme Court on Johnson’s strategic but wrongful suspension of parliament, to shut up and stay out of sight. He did. He’s a lapdog at heart.

So now we’re stuck with them, yes, Herr Cornelius, for lack of any alternative. Some decent senior figures in the party comes to mind: Tom Tugendhat, Tobias Ellwood. May they do good, while we mourn all the talent and commitment to public service that this terrible crisis has driven out of British public life: Dominic Grieve, Chuka Umunna, David Gauke and Anna Soubry among them.

And one last positive thought for the near future: Tory renegade Rory Stewart will stand as a candidate for the London mayorship next year. If he wins Boris will have a real opponent and one who, like Johnson himself in his time as mayor, will seem to be waiting in the wings for a future premiership opportunity.

Posted in 2019 election, Britain Today, British politics, Current Affairs, German press, Who are you? | Tagged , , , ,

Letter to Nietzsche

Edvard Munch: Nietzsche

The letter below was commissioned as part of an initiative this year to mark 175 years since the writer and philosopher, classicist and composer Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken, in the German province of Saxony. The editors, Elmar Schenkel and Fayçal Hamouda asked ‘friends and enemies, admirers, therapists, sceptics, artists, writers and critics’ from every continent to contribute ‘poetic statements, political judgements, biographical observations, fictions and confessions’ to their volume which appeared, late in 2019, as 101 Briefe an Friedrich Nietzsche. This is the letter as I wrote it in English to a man who changed my life as a writer when I published Nietzsche in Turin in 1996.

The original cover of my 1996 book on Nietzsche. The aim was to get away from the stereotyped image of the moustachioed madman and show him as a more sympathetic figure. The old image crept back into later and foreign editions, alas.

Suffolk, England, May 15, 2019


Dear Friend,

I’ve been walking with you along this wild coast. Glaciers once flattened the lowlands here, as they did the gravelly uplands high above Sils Maria, where you used to walk. I joined you there many years ago and we talked, though you would have preferred to be alone.

You once said that man is an animal whose nature is unfinished. Who knows then what is to come for humanity? Your point exactly. It’s a frightening question for those of us looking back from the twenty-first century, and forwards, but I think you meant it joyfully: as much an invitation as an observation. Also you were being provocative. One of your chosen roles was to provoke a society, and a world, in which the vitality of Christianity had stagnated, and no one had the spiritual vision to respond to Darwin and say yes, we have evolved, but still we have a hand in our destiny. We can live well. Of course you called your last book Ecce Homo. Today, from my vantage point, this title reminds me of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. Your errant Übermensch has wandered far in the century and more since you died. Today he stalks an abused planet. But, in your way you had hope. Post-Christian hope. That’s right. That’s what we need.

Der Mensch ist etwas, was überwunden werden muß. Many of us feel in middle life that we have tried, but no one else can see what we overcame. We’ve come so far along the path that the beginning is out of sight to all others. And yet what we have made ourselves, in an effort of self-overcoming, is what we are. We had hopes, and some of them paid off.

You helped me become what I am. I’m a writer who works with texts in the German language. A traveller. An inventor of my path. But let’s just say for the moment a writer. (I’m thinking how evasive you were yourself in Ecce Homo, as to who you were. You were of everything the greatest exemplar, but then always already moving on.) Everywhere I go today language has been simplified. Vocabularies have shrunk. Grammar has no muscle. People forever speak borrowed lines. The force of style is lost. Irony skipped over. Here I’m not going to ask you for guidance over what to do with the great sadness I feel. Rainer Maria Rilke, one of your descendants, another latecomer, knew best when he told a young poet: still, still, do not feel contempt. We have a great poem in English, written in your lifetime, by Matthew Arnold, that speaks of the flow tide of a great culture receding. Is that part of what we must go through to emerge stronger?

You felt contempt. You felt you had the powerful remnants of an entire complaisant church to clear away, so that humanity might take a new path into the future. Your message was liberation. Look what humanity can become. Look at how we could live on this planet, if we had the energy and the courage. Yes, yes. That’s right. But look at what we did become, in the meantime.

You were also able to laugh, at and with all of us. Your laughter is still good. In an age when people look for leaders and prophets – any age, that is – you were also right to undo your words as you went along. Like Penelope weaving, and unweaving, waiting for Odysseus to come home.

And you loved beauty.

By the way I’ve never understood what you meant by ‘eternal return’ if we’re supposed to be overcoming our weaknesses and looking to the future. Do you mean to suggest some vibrant, dialectical relation between our sense of futility and our willingness to try? That would be cruel.

Perhaps it was just an aspect of your anti-Christianity, that message of eternal non-delivery. Do you know there’s actually a famous academic who tried to work out what you meant mathematically? I agree. Such an approach to you is absurd.

I’m afraid you confirmed me as an outsider. That way I could understand your joys and fears. Still that was years ago, and fate and health and love have been kinder to me than they were to you. Give me time, Lou! You cried, when you had your one chance. I need time to get used to being with another human being again. I always remember your forlorn plea, that you might still take a wife, and how your jealous sister worked against you.

How dangerous you have been, and how inimitable! When we read you we have to remember how all that talk of self-overcoming and renewed strength could serve massive evil, even if in solitary individuals it could quietly strengthen their resolve to be this person, and not that; and to try to achieve their goals, and not lose heart.

Here on the wild North Sea coast, with the savage unfeeling grey waves churning beside me, the wet pebbles gleaming beneath my feet, and the brine-washed wrecks of trees creating fantastic antler-like forms against the blue sky, I like very much a new-old idea of you I read the other day. I mean new because it was freshly voiced; old because I had long ago taken from you an idea of personal ecology. It was the idea that we must save ourselves, and then the planet will be saved, and what was meant was we really must decide, with your help, the kind of animal we want to be.

Walk on, dear friend. Give each of us the encouragement we need.


Posted in German Literature, Nietzsche in Turin, Philosophy and Philosophers, Who are you?, Writing | Tagged , , ,

Van Gogh in Kent: the inspiration he took forward from his days in England

Van Gogh brings us so much happiness, although much of his life was tormented. He suffered like so many artists from the difficulty of finding a place in society and thus of keeping himself alive. In his early adult years in England however he showed all the qualities that would sustain a foreshortened lifetime. His love of nature,  the alternating comfort and discomfort of religious belief, the dignity and harshness of physical work, and quality of human love etched themselves into his creative soul.

Before he moved to Kent, Vincent aged 23, had worked in London for the art dealers Goupil et fils, where he had a family introduction. The job as a salesman didn’t suit him and he didn’t handle customers well. But he knew English and that landed him a teaching job in Ramsgate, unpaid but with board and lodging. He arrived in that lovely old port on England’s south east coast, from Holland, on 17 April 1876 and wrote to his brother Theo four days later from his new surroundings. [Letter 078, of 21 April 1876] You can see the Blue Plaque today on No 6 Royal Road, from where he drew the view. The tall, classic English Victorian mansion stood on a slight rise in the residential middle-class heart of the town and looked down to the cliff and the sea beyond. Vincent’s parents back in Neunen in Holland hoped this would be the foundation of a successful new career path for their difficult son.

In the Ramsgate sketch you can immediately see how lyrical was his perception of the created world. The curving sweep of the empty road is almost loving, with the vertical street lamps drawing in attention to the centre of the composition. In later work these verticals will often be trees, especially cypress trees, or spires, or towers, or factory chimneys.

But it’s even more in the letters of that spring and early summer of 1876 that Vincent’s sense of artistic form and his early palette are already evident.

Here he is writing to Theo on 31 May 1876:

Have I already written to you about the storm I saw recently? The sea was yellowish, especially close to the beach: a streak of light on the horizon, and above this, tremendously huge dark grey clouds from which one saw the rain coming down in slanting streaks…

This was the palette for a couple of early paintings that will stand out as landmarks in his career: The Potato-Eaters (1885) and Boots with Laces (1886).

Looking inland and back again to the sea, Vincent went on:

On the right, fields of young green wheat, and, in the distance, the town with its towers, mills, slate roofs and houses …I also saw the sea last Sunday night, everything was dark grey, but day was beginning to break on the horizon…In the distance the light of the lighthouse, the guardship etc.

From this paragraph written when he was 22 a whole series of later paintings seems to emerge, from Outskirts of Paris (1886), with its start-up factories and smokestacks to Wheatfield with Crows ( 1890) in the south of France.

That same night I looked out of the window of my room onto the roofs of the houses one sees from there and the tops of the elms, dark against the night sky. Above those roofs, one single star, but a nice big friendly one. And I thought of us all… and the words and feeling came to me: ‘Keep me from being a son that causeth shame…Thou art love, beareth all things.

He might have been looking up at another future canvas, Starry Night (1889).

The young teacher mused:

Many a boy will never forget the view from that window. You should have seen it this week, when we had rainy days, especially in the twilight when the street-lamps are being lit and their light is reflected in the wet street.

The Kent letters were sketches in words. Their themes include roads, and all kinds of sources of light, and the starry night, and things that are broken or faded or as he will say ‘things over which life has passed’. One day he’ll linger over blousy sunflowers in a vase, beyond what common judgement would say was their ‘best’. In Ramsgate he homed in on a broken floor.

Another extraordinary place is the room with the rotten floor, where there are only six basins at which they wash themselves, with only a feeble light falling onto the washstand through a window with broken panes. It’s quite a melancholy sight, to be sure. How I’d like to spend or have spent a winter with them, to know what it’s like.

I want to dwell on his lifelong painterly fondness for broken, decaying things (and which he would pass on to future artists, right up to Anselm Kiefer in our own day.) Van Gogh would emphasize something about the materiality of objects which it seemed no one had noticed before, namely, that they didn’t need to be perfect to have meaning. The murky light of Mr Stokes’s school washrooms was indeed hardly a testament to beauty and happiness, but then nor were the factories where the weavers he would encounter in a few years’ time would work in miserable light. In the future too there would be many sketches and paintings of derelict property.

If he taught his pupils anything, we might hope van Gogh  taught them this praise-filled attentiveness. His father was a Protestant pastor and surely he acquired this devotion in childhood. The Ramsgate letters have a warm and open sympathy for the world as he finds it. Existence is friendly. Despite the evidence of suffering, hinted at through material decrepitude, there is a divine mover at work.

Here he is describing a walk with those pupils:

Now let me tell you about a walk we took yesterday. It was to an inlet in the sea, and the road to it led through the fields of young wheat and along hedgerows of hawthorn etc. When we got there we had on our left a high, steep wall of sand and stone, as high as a two-storey house, on top of which stood old, gnarled hawthorn bushes. Their black or grey lichen-covered stems and branches had all been bent to the same side by the wind, also a few elder bushes. The ground we walked on was completely covered with large grey stones, chalk and shells. To the right the sea, as calm as a pond, reflecting the delicate grey sky where the sun was setting. It was ebb tide and the water was very low.

[from a letter of 28 April 1876]

Yet Vincent couldn’t conform to the moral code, or, in the end, accept the literal belief of his father, and that was his agony. The troubles in his nature moved him on from Ramsgate after only two months.

Still what we can see was what a great painter of himself he was, already in words that mingled the faith he had been taught with the feelings he thought were true for him:

Although I have not been trained for the church, perhaps my past life of travelling, living in various countries, associating with a variety of people, rich and poor, religious and not religious, working at a variety of jobs, days of manual labour between days of office work, perhaps also my speaking various languages will compensate in part for my lack of formal training. But what I should prefer to give as my reason for commending myself to you…is…the Love of God and humankind.

[Letter of 17 June, 1876 to Theo]

The text was intended as his CV for his next job, but it was more a fragment of spiritual autobiography than a job application. He talks about how manual labour demands his attention; how a Christian faith sustains him, even as he spends his time wandering here and there. There is a dynamism in the writing which expresses a restlessness of soul, and that dynamism will one day appear in the painting too. Not yet a painter, he keeps on the move and writes letters. The walk from Ramsgate to London, at three miles an hour, via the dockyards at Chatham, with a few hours’ sleep under the hedgerows, is, in its way, at least to us readers, an epiphany.

London, the largest city in Europe, was overwhelming. Vincent’s sense was that cities, with their troublesome industry and new, often uncomfortable and distressing ways of bringing people together, needed meaning bestowed upon them.  It was as if they needed divine blessing and this was something his art, or, for the time being, his eye, translated into words, could provide. He would feel it first with London and then with Paris:

Many a worker in a factory or shop has had a remarkable, pure, pious youth. But city life often takes away “the early dew of morning”, yet the yearning for the “old, old story” remains, the bottom of one’s heart remains the bottom of one’s heart.’ Follows a reference to George Eliot describing in one of her books the life of the factory workers and calling it ‘God’s Kingdom upon Earth.

[letter of 12 May 1876]

The young van Gogh may have been, as his sister Anna said, ‘groggy with piety’, but that would be his art’s great gain, as he captured some of the pains of industrialization.

After Ramsgate he went to teach in Isleworth, on the southwest edge of London today, beside the Thames. But then his parents recalled him to Holland at the end of the year, anxious that his life was not on track. What followed  were difficult years of moving about the Low Countries, sketching and finally painting. His interest in manual labour led him to stay a year with the miners in the then coal-mining district of the Borinage, in Belgium, from 1879-1880. He took up a ‘position’, as he called it, though it was hardly that, as a lay preacher who cared for the sick and hungry and poor.

The palette and the preoccupations of these years, as I have argued in my book A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West, were fully incorporated in the 1886 painting A Pair of Shoes, aka Boots with Laces. This painting can be seen as itself a kind of self-portrait, matching the self-description in the Ramsgate letter of June 1876. In it we find the walking that was his daily practice, the boots he walked in, the suffering of the miners, the Christian interest in light and the transcendence of suffering, and the yellow and black palette of the storm. Even as the dim Dutch palette, the fondness for grey that he several times expressed in the Ramsgate letters, prepares to give way to the bright palette  he discovers the south of France, all his main themes seem to be condensed in the colourways of this 1886 canvas. He will paint more shoes and more roads in the few years he has left, from brighter, drier resting-places in the south of France. But he never forgot the Borinage, he wrote, and we might feel he never forgot grey, damp Ramsgate either.

On his sympathy with the labouring class, we need to remember that Van Gogh was born in 1853 into a world which Marx decried as immiserated by capitalism. The same vista of pain, squalor and exploitation horrified Engels, in his 1844 study of working-class London and Manchester.  The painter too noticed the spread of the industrial landscape and working-class distress, and tried to redeem them with art and faith. Like Marx he felt the nineteenth century was so strained by progress it was likely to go out with a big bang. This is in one of the later letters. Anthony Blunt once said that van Gogh was a founder member of a school of true working-class art.

This may be true. I will name some of the painters of the working class whom he inspires in a moment. Yet it must be said van Gogh lacks all political sense. He is sympathetic to individuals because he is solitary himself and has time to notice and care for them. His little groups of people are not organised by an idea of class solidarity. They occur  in restaurants or cafes or brothels or in small groups collaborating for work or leaving church.

In fact his own life was difficult because his relationship to other human beings was so oblique.

It was something Vincent felt already in the Ramsgate year about himself:

If there should be no human being that you can love enough, love the town in which you dwell…I love Paris and London, though I am a child of the pinewoods and of the beach at Ramsgate.

[Letter to Theo, autumn 1876 ]

Think of the deserted Ramsgate street he sketched. When he paints workers and labourers they are more isolated one from another than bonded. In Paris he’ll notice people strolling in the park. They will be solitary individuals or distant pairs and clusters, fond but remote objects for the painter to reach.

He arrived in Paris at the mid-point of his career.  At first the painting  Outskirts of Paris seems no great distance from the Vincent we first found sketching in Ramsgate. But  Road with Cypress and Star and Starry Night take us into a new realm. He began to translate old themes into spectacular colour and into biomorphic forms that bordered on the delirious.

Before illness descended on him he could see a kind of romance in industrialization which for me points forward to the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. While painting Russian villages at the turn into the twentieth century Malevich found the same poignancy there arising out of the muted conflict between permanence and change, nature and industry, that Van Gogh had done in his experience of the Lowlands, and rural northern France, twenty and forty years earlier. Malevich’s 1928 Haymaking has the hallmarks of a homage to the earlier painter. It’s not quite the same van Gogh who  inspires twentieth-century English social painters like L.S. Lowry and Norman Cornish. But it’s another role for him, with one foot in modernism and another in realism, with a northern palette and a one closer to the Mediterranean, that van Gogh can also inspire, as if directly from Ramsgate,   Lowry’s Returning from Work (1929) and Cornish’s Two Miners on Pit Road (1980s?).

Vincent always loved houses. We can capture yet one more span of his career if we set alongside each other his sketch of Royal Crescent in Ramsgate, from 1876, with his famous oil painting of The Yellow House in Arles of 1888.  Though this last is best-known to us pastel- coloured against a deep blue sky there is an extraordinary unity between the little Ramsgate drawing  and a pen and ink sketch of his Arles home. Not finding human objects for his affections, Vincent directs his love towards towns, and houses, and roads, and the way of things. That’s where the kindliness of his street scenes comes from, and it’s how he comes to shape the townscape with affection, always emphasizing the uniqueness of the houses and their living, ongoing quality. The buildings are as if ready to grow and adapt and lean and sympathize. This is the urban counterpart to the passionate reciprocity of his feelings that he derived from nature.

Illness intensified his feelings for buildings and street scenes and nature beyond realism. By coincidence a van Gogh groggy with colour burst upon the scene of European painting just as other painters opened up new pathways. The Fauves in France and the Cubo-Futurists in Russia and the spectacular German Expressionists can therefore seem like his immediate descendants, and many of them, especially in Germany, derived great inspiration his work.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Dark Blue Turban (Helene with Dark Blue Turban), 1910,

This article was originally given as a talk to the Canterbury Festival on October 22, 2015. It was a lovely occasion, in a great and historic city.

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Naipaul’s Journey into Darkness

In V.S. Naipaul’s novel In a Free State the intensity of his descriptions of landscape, and of the forcefield of competing human existences, is staggering. Has there been a better winner of the Booker Prize, the best-known and most lucrative annual award for fiction in English, since this formally innovative work won in 1971?  Apparently at the time some of the judges had to be persuaded that ‘a novel with two supporting narratives’ was a novel at all, but perhaps that really was the moment we moved on from what Saul Bellow called the ‘tinkling teacup’ kind of fiction beloved in England.

Naipaul’s supporting narratives are, like the central story, also journeys, and they help to open and close that core venture with glimpses of other travellers in other parts of the world. A tramp is bullied on a ferry to Piraeus. Ragged and dirty Egyptian children, when they beg from tourists in Luxor, are driven away by a man with a whip. A moral point lingers in both tales but then dissipates, as the narrator, only ever a spectator, moves on. In fact there are four such narratives, only tales two and three are longer and more complete. Both follow on the brief account of cruel and petty hostility on board ship, and both take up the theme of the outsider at greater length. In Washington a man of Indian origin frees himself from a state of spiritual slavery by marrying a local woman, but the problem in his soul, of where to belong, and how to achieve being ‘One Among Many’ with dignity, is not solved. ‘Tell Me Who to Kill’ is narrated by a protagonist whose sanity, probably already threatened, is fatally worsened by his life in London as an immigrant. Clothes in all these cases are soiled, as people without money or means, or proper homes, live grimy existences, those lives occasionally relieved by bursts of good fortune or whimsical, extravagant spending. The links with the main narrative are occasionally more powerfully signalled in the imagery, as when the tramp on the Greek ferry is baited ‘like in a tiger-hunt’ in India. Meanwhile the range of nationalities – German, Lebanese, Egyptian, English, Indian, American, Mexican, Caribbean, Italian – contributes to a definition of the human that remains forever out of reach. ‘In cafés, shabbier than I remembered, Greek and Lebanese businessmen in suits read the local French and English newspapers and talked with sullen excitement about the deals that might be made in Rhodesian tobacco, now that it was outlawed.’ This is just one among innumerable Naipaul sentences that if you extract it from whichever narrative seems like a story in its own right, albeit one we will never be told, as its morally elusive content reaches back into the novel that is just now drawing to a close, while simultaneously leading it to its end, which only by chance happens in Cairo. ‘Seventeen months later these men, or men like them were to know total defeat in the desert; and news photographs taken from helicopters flying down low were to show them lost, trying to walk back home, casting long shadows on the sand.’ In every case the binding thread winds its oblique course, and the detail is arresting.

Bobby and Linda, two people previously barely acquainted, drive ‘home’ across an unnamed African state, recently independent from Britain. It is now in the throws of a coup. The story mesmerizes in the same way the shorter narratives do, and, like every sentence Naipaul writes, is part of a mosaic. The parts fit together by analogy and the resulting picture at once finished and unfinishable. More pieces, more anecdotes, related to this and that, can always be added. Here is a human-inhabited jigsaw in which the sky and the earth and the ways of men just go on and on.

The brutal physicality, the stink of others, is a Naipaul preoccupation, even when he is in polite society. That has something to do, in Bobby and Linda’s case, with the African heat, and the discomfort of a long intimate car journey on uneven roads, and the rush of adrenalin as dangers come and go. Perhaps his gay dislike of her imperfect womanliness, coupled with suppressed memories of his own phsyical degradation in tentative advances to lovers, also plays its part. Another preoccupation is the blight of race, perpetually real, not to be airbrushed from the human picture, and life-threatening, obliquely in racist 1950s London, but now directly in tribal Africa.

In this story, as in all of Naipaul, culture is truly pathetic, the result of people wanting to bring a little dignity, and pride and order into their lives, or use their cultural inheritance to cover up the want of those essential goods, because actual lives are discontinuous and starved of affection and unfulfilled.

The threat of regression hovers heavy in the air, presses against the windscreen, lurks even when the landscape is beautiful. Everyone knows the threat is there, and that it is also a political threat in a land newly independent from its colonial masters, torn between the authority of president and king. The expatriates, sensitive to the whirr of helicopters, used to roadblocks, can still persuade themselves nothing is untoward. They have their traditions and defences from the old country.  They have their stone buildings. They drive imported cars. Such solidities help to hold them psychologically together, except that cars have to be serviced, and compounds called ‘home’ may have to be defended.

Being far from home, if home means anything, is the major Naipaulean theme. It mingles with the secret disappointments of friendship and marriage. In pursuit of the idea of home lives take shape, but that very shape is like a mirage that once appeared in younger days, and has now dissolved. Mirage is another of his ideas. It tends to mean exclusion from love, that is, little for the heart and not much in the way of genital satisfaction either.

‘At last they were at the foot of the cliff and on the floor of the valley. The sun was getting high; the land was scrub and open; it became warm in the car. Linda rolled down her window a crack. At the other side of the valley the escarpment was blurred; colour there was insubstantial, like an illusion of light and distance. They were headed for that escarpment for the high plateau; and the road before them was straight.’ That’s factual description, and perhaps the landscape ought to be enticing; but it’s oppressive, in terms of its light and heat and dust, and even its straight lines. Every now and again human figures  move into the edge of the picture, and out again, the extraordinary geometry of the African landscape forming a backdrop to the crudeness and the unexpectedness of human conflict. For Naipaul we’re in a world of untutored minds, of cruelty and brutality, to which the remaining colonialists, with their lingering manners and traditions and education, but also their character flaws, perhaps above all their extraordinary self-deception, or just a feeling they don’t actually have anywhere else to go, are vulnerable.

Naipaul’s theme is the the heartache, the disorientation, the grasping for elusive values – of people caught in between, though they are not, in themselves, especially nice people, not especially worthy of our moral attention, with their pettiness and vanity.

It’s a lesson in high art, how he achieves the objectivity he does. We’ve no doubt the world is like that, heavy, even cluttered with people and objects, moving here and there, not unlike, even in the towns of England, the ‘Africans who had come in from the forest and had used the awkward, angular objects they had found, walls, windows, furniture, to re-create the shelter of the round forest hut… In fact this resort had been created by people who thought they had come to Africa to stay, and looked in a resort for a version of things of home: a park, a pier, a waterside promenade. Now…the resort no longer had a function.’ Naipaul’s editor at his British publishing house Andre Deutsch remembered how often he would tell her he was a damaged man. But his writerly genius was to get the damage out there, through structural and thematic analogy, so no reader need be confined within his rickety soul. Analogy and a few similes, but no memorable metaphors and especially no use of symbol, means that the narratives, resolutely un-transcendent, just travel on, in ever widening circles, not perhaps meaning anything, just like the lives of those caught up in them. Across the landscapes, natural and human, people communicate in variants of language, in pidgin, putting names to people and things that strike others as bizarre-sounding, or frightening, or clumsy or ridiculous.

There’s an evident squaring up to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this great book. Naipaul has Bobby dismiss it as a bad book, and has Linda agree. But that’s just patter, a bit of leftover society banter, between them. ‘You’ve been reading too much Conrad. I hate that book, don’t you?’ (p.160, Picador edition) Linda and Bobby are not thinking. Or perhaps Bobby is being evasive. They don’t know what Naipaul and we know, that this is the grandest comparison that could be made in the whole of modern literature in English, on behalf of In a Free State, that it resembles Heart of Darkness. If you read the Naipaul first you have to return to the Conrad, and vice versa, to see how the world has moved on. Both are stories of the white man in colonial Africa. Both show how the vast presence of that brooding country forces its visitors on to a moral journey which is soul-destroying and unintelligible. Both stories, of 1899 and 1971, use the institutions of London and the consumer goods of Europe as near-memory and a moral axis. But there’s nothing in the way of boxes of spilled rivets, or abandoned English books and magazines, or a bottle of German Riesling, can find its proper function in these alien environments caught between past and future. Here are primeval worlds not susceptible to any Western idea of progress. The ‘natives’ are superstitious, the visitors ethically astray and time doesn’t matter and there is no God.

Naipaul wrote an essay ‘On Conradian Darkness’ in 1974, in the novel’s wake.

And I found that Conrad—sixty years before, in the time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me. Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering, as in Nostromo, a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves, where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action…carried with in the moral degradation of the idea.” Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.

The critic Martin Seymour-Smith pinpointed almost fifty years ago, as his unique weakness, the ‘lack of an affirmative message’ in Naipaul. One way to interpret that remark might be, on rereading Heart of Darkness, to note how the seaman who tells it, Marlow, hangs on to moral hope by lying to the fiance of the dead Mr Kurtz. Not horror but love, said Conrad, must prevail. And yet he said it none too strongly, none too convincingly – a matter of two lines in a book of a hundred pages — and Naipaul couldn’t manage it all: not in his fiction and perhaps not in his life either. Naipaul had comedic talent, and descriptive genius, and a deeply unsatisfactory, deeply honest moral intensity which found nothing to attach itself to in actual human behaviour, nor any lasting compensation in nature. Naipaul was the quintessential moral struggler, almost without poetry for the heart, but the creator of the most magnificent and true sentences. Quite marvellous.



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Armando Iannucci The Death of Stalin: how do you make comedy out of tragedy?

Armando Iannucci’s film The Death of Stalin (2017) graced The New York Times’ best-of-the-year list last December for good reason. It raised the question of how you treat comically a story of moral depravity on a vast scale. It reminded me of that daring venture, Roberto Benigni’s film La vita e bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997). How could a director make light of the Holocaust? Any such aesthetic enterprise must come with an ethical warning. Makers and critics alike are likely to feel vertigo at the inadequacy of language. Yet if you accept that classical tragedy, at least, is a matter of talking heads, whereas comedy focuses on the full-length man or woman then perhaps criticism can get a toehold on ventures like Benigni’s and Iannucci’s. They were different from each other, of course, and I’ll mostly be talking about Iannucci here.

We humans are all more vulnerable captured standing there with our physical affectations and defects. In a head-only shot we’re likely to be more dignified and give the impression of ethical reflectiveness, but in the taller view our drooping shoulders and receding chins, or our mounds of insentient blubber, spilling forth as fraught obscenities on lascivious lips, give us away. I’m thinking in the latter case of the magnificent actor Simon Russell Beale playing Beria in  The Death of Stalin, and, as a study in weakness, Jeffrey Tambor playing fellow Politburo member Georgy Malenkov.

One way into the comedy of that savage Soviet situation may have been the idea of the puppet show: funny for children but menacing ever since Heinrich von Kleist wrote his famous essay on it in 1810. The Soviet system reduced men to puppets. Actually our present-day bureaucracies do much the same, if we’re not careful. Some of the funniest moments in Iannucci’s film substitute contemporary evasiveness, glib patter, scatological jokes and boardroom manipulation for whatever crude dialogue passed, in the year 1953, between bitter rivals.

The way Stalin’s henchmen change their loyalties and their views with diabolic lightness and grace is terribly well done by Ianucci. Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov is a half-brained zealot but also a leopard who can change his spots in an instant, while all the while presenting himself as a loving husband and an affable friend.We just have to laugh bitterly at the way human beings are.

La vita e bella took a different root to make us smile with tears in our eyes because it was from the most tender first-person point of view. It was about wanting to hide the most appalling cruelty and keep life magical for a young child. The Death of Stalin by contrast was a snapshot of an inhumane, decrepid, corrupt culture which was laughable from the start because it didn’t recognize itself. There were no mirrors in those grandiose Moscow palaces, only flags and portraits, gilded trinkets and hollow baubles. The self-aggrandizing propaganda was as ridiculous as it was obscene, drawing the eyes of the people and the apparatchiks themselves away from the basement cells where men were being tortured and shot and women and children raped. They knew what was happening but persuaded themselves it was normal life, and not even grim, just a jokey Soviet version of what Hannah Arendt meant by banal evil. Even half-knowledge, that sly creeping up of truth on bare flesh, like one of Dostoevsky’s insects, a token of all that is metaphysically abject, never really creeps up on them. That is the real content of Ianucci’s ‘comedy’, leaving us with a film that can’t be taken seriously enough.

I usually write about writers and artists who are no longer with us. I had to remind myself I could actually ask the very much still vital Ianucci a burning question, namely did some of his inspiration not come from a long article that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on March 4, 2016? One act of googling later, however, and I realised how difficult it is to get through to the stars. Celebrities might just as well be astral, for all that we can reach them. But seriously, Armando, if you ever get to read this, I can’t see how Sheila Fitzpatrick’s On Stalin’s Team (Princeton, NJ, 2015) and Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (4th Estate, 2015), as reviewed by Rachel Polonsky, cannot have given you the idea. Polonsky quotes Fitzpatrick as saying that ‘there was a book to write about Soviet high politics that put political science models aside and focused on individuals and their interactions.’ Here directly was the full-length, character-driven approach being recommended to the dramatist, who would know he could use his material in quite a different way from the historian. Fitzpatrick by the way, for so long regarded as a maverick by historians of Russia, is but now justly admired for having a rare capacity to get to the heart of the matter.

,Just one more quote from Polonsky on Fitzpatrick’s method then: ‘She traces the co-operation over three decades of the more or less constant group of men around Stalin…together they collectivized Soviet agriculture, purged the Bolshevik Party, unleashed mass terror on whole sections of the population (including their own friends and family members…For years their family and social lives were intertwined in Kremlin apartments and bucolic dachas outside Moscow; they danced, played and drank together in ritual occasions that became ever more grotesque as Stalin’s loneliness and paranoia intensified…’ I don’t know whether that would work as the legendary one-sentence pitch to a Hollywood mogul or a global publisher. But what an opening for a master dramatist on screen!

I watched the film again recently, in a nod to the NYT’s choice, and I loved the way it played up the Soviet Union’s rivalry with a 1930s United States of mobsters and gangsters. The accents were all the better for being more New York than Russian, with the exception of the anglophone Beale, like mid-century British novelist Anthony Powell’s odious Widmerpool in Dance to the Music of Time, but reinvented in the Kremlin. The episode around Stalin’s sudden death and the fight to be his successor is framed both ends with a Mozart recital by the pianist Maria Yudina. It’s a brilliant device. It reminds us of the pathos of Russian cultural highmindedness, as the beauty of classical music is celebrated against a background of routine state-sponsored carnage. For me it was a moment to both laugh and cry when the concert organizers had to resort to a little – fortunately harmless – coercion themselves to satisfy a whim of Stalin’s. The essence of Russian culture is  tragicomic. At a key point in the film the ‘Russian People’, at first held back from their great surge towards Moscow to mourn their dead leader, and then allowed, chaotically, to board trains, give Iannucci the chance to direct his own answer to Eisenstein’s October. The viewer registers a surge in the director’s heart-felt affection for the afflicted, childlike millions waving their red flags, the passion and the incoherence of it all, except as food for art.

I gulped at the wit of men used to guarding their speech against being overheard. This from a scene in the basement of Lubyanka prison: ‘Don’t worry about him. His ears are full of blood anyway.’ As ever more names are chosen for execution an alternative title might have been ‘New Lists- The Horror Movie’. When Red Army leader Marshal Zhukov (‘I fucked Hitler, I can fuck anyone’) appears half-way through as a Superman American comic book hero on the half-way decent, reformist Khrushchev’s side it’s a gorgeous moment. When Beria becomes ‘the pig for the pot’ it’s a moment of visceral satisfaction, though you have to wonder at the way his lately greedy flesh is rendered and the charred remains are shovelled into a truck.

The aesthetics of angels mixed with the pyjama-clad slapstick that Beale and Palin, and Steve Buscemi as as Khrushchev, and Jason Isaacs’ medal-breasted Zhukov, play so brilliantly are the heart of this comedy. But it is of course also the story of the tragedy of a nation. A tragic figure is certainly Andrea Riseborough’s Svetlana, daughter of the late man of steel. She’s like a mythical heroine lost in a maze of butchered feelings and suppressed fear but, in a modern touch, trying to appear sophisticated, grown-up and equal to the political deviants all around her.  No surprise then that The Death of Stalin was banned from being shown in present-day Russia, a country that still doesn’t dare properly look itself in the mirror.


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