The Arc of Utopia in the anniversary year of Russia 1917

Not much enthusiasm has been directed towards the Russian Revolution in this year of its centenary, 2017. At least that’s the case in the British press. Before the fall of Communism in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 of course that wasn’t the case. Successive British post-war governments emulated the command economy. Nor was the competition between the superpowers all a matter of nuclear weapons. Far Left culture guru Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution (1961), a loved book many times reprinted and most recently in 2011, took the ideological minutiae of socialist realism and loyalty to the Party immensely seriously, and his text contained recommendations for the transformation of British society. Penguin Books published whole pocket volumes on Soviet Education (1968), and a translation of the old Bolshevik Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s ABC of Communism (1969).

Into the 1970s the Brits worried the Soviets had ‘a significant and distinctive model of a political and economic system’ that warranted a considerable expansion of Soviet studies in British universities (See: The British Study of Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Hayward et al. (Oxford, 2003, p.361) Now all that’s in the past. As a former British ambassador to Moscow wrote in the press a few months ago, anyone who admires that great shift in Russian twentieth-century society is a flat-earther who just can’t accept that our planet is round. But what a strange way to assess a vision for global humanity, to assume that it can be right or wrong like a mathematical calculation! What a complete ditching of the possibilities of imagination!

The Revolution took a severe humanitarian toll. Its casualties endured through generations and are unquantifiable, including all those who died in Russia’s 1919-1921 Civil War, on both sides, and in between; all those who died in labour camps subsequently, or were otherwise victims of the political police, right into the 1980s, when dissidents in all the Moscow-led East Bloc countries were still suffering arrest and the wilful harming of their family lives. To approach that unquantifiable figure you’d need to focus on the terrible show trials in Stalin’s Russia, and in Communist Czechoslovakia after the putsch in 1948. The violence with which the system was imposed was like a series of parallel civil wars, across Russia and in the subjugated East Bloc countries that just went on and on. Would they have been better off, in sheer human terms, without Communism? Or, better, without Russian domination? Surely. Even when the right-wing (Poland) and even fascist regimes (Hungary, Romania) of the interwar years are brought into the equation? Surely.

But it’s equally impossible to deny that Communism expanding West from the Soviet Union also had millions of faithful; believers in a more egalitarian and welfare-based future for expanding mass societies. In Czechoslovakia they elected a Communist government.  And there are enough people, elderly today, in Berlin, in Prague, in Moscow, and innumerable other former Communist cities and towns and villages who remember that dream of equality fondly. It was socially a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’, and unlike the coalition-led bunkum of post-2010 austerity in Britain, working for a better society through modesty and cooperation meant something. Although there was small-scale corruption and meanness everywhere – most Communist citizens felt it their right, their duty even, to steal from the all-owning State – – social cooperation rather than individualistic competition was more than a flat-earth illusion. And echoes of it used to reach us in Britain as late as the 1970s. Not the resentful materialism of our trade unions flexing their industrial muscle is what I remember, but a certain deference to communitarian ideals: a kind of ‘Let the Bus Go First’ principle that was wiped out in the Thatcherite 1980s, when, vis à vis the East Bloc, the West was simply winning the war.

But let me come back to those victims. When I first started visiting Russia in the early 1970s and the Communist bloc from 1980 to its end, in fact the murderous decades were over. Still that regime didn’t want its people to flourish; it denied them educational opportunities if they didn’t tow the political line; they weren’t allowed to travel freely; they lived in poor conditions, with bad diets and primitive medicine, compared with the West. Still that shouldn’t be understood as a critique based on consumerist superiority. It was on my visits to the East Bloc that I realized that for me Communism wasn’t the issue. I didn’t so much care what was or wasn’t in the shops. I minded about lives that were stifled, about talents that were blocked, and in that sense people’s humanity denied. I was a Romantic individualist who had read the Frankfurt School, and particularly Herbert Marcuse, whose spiritual attacks on Western consumerism had helped inspire but also confuse the issues that came to a head in the West with the student protests of 1968 . I wasn’t anti-capitalist, I wasn’t anti-communist. (See my book In the Communist Mirror, 1990) I was in my mid-twenties, sizing up what life could do to thwart peoples’ hopes and dreams. I found those Communist regimes antipathetic and immoral because they destroyed a vision of humanity that was once beautiful.

Lesley Chamberlain In the Communist Mirror (1990)

The sub-title of Arc of Utopia The Beautiful Story of the Russian Revolution is in one sense of course deeply ironic. Civil war is the worst kind of war. Suffering is not beautiful. Murder has no aesthetic appeal. But what I was reaching back to, to tell my story, was the origin of that vision of humanity as I knew it from German eighteenth-century philosophy.  From Kant and the German Enlightenment, die Aufklärung, there was a dream of universal unity and moral decency. Kant envisaged a cosmopolitan world that would uphold the rights of man recently fought for in neighbouring revoltionary France. He imagined every individual would use his newly gained political freedom in tandem with his metaphysical freedom to do the right thing, according to some imagined moral law that was also reflected in works of high art. For Kant the harmony and grace of the work of art classically conceived exuded and exemplified the freely chosen moral order that would inform the future progressive society, in which all individuals would be free to do their duty and become fully themselves, through the realization of their talents. This latter kind of freedom, after that moral law idea inherited from Christianity was observed, was really a matter of indivuals freeing themselves from religious superstition – always one of the most useful tools of political dictatorship – and finding the scope of their lives through the application of reason. Nowadays the tendency is to look back at the Enlightenment and say that reason was just another religion. In which case I would say, judge all ‘religions’ by their human outcome. Do they make people kinder and wiser and more creative and less bellicose? For me Kant had the right recipe by any name. In another time he would of course have written he/she, not just he.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)


The generation of German philosophers after Kant took his ideas and ran with them. The German Romantics were already less measured, less modest and less grounded in social reality than Kant. They (Schelling) reinvested a dark poetic extremism into the vision of Oneness and Harmony. Or, like Hegel, the converse feeling that philosophy could – and eventually would inevitably — entirely elucidate the future good society was so strong that Reason became a potential dictator. That’s why people would one day say that the Russian Revolution, which built on the German heritage of a hundred years earlier, was the West’s idea of Enlightenment taken to a typically Russian extreme. In fact Carl Schmitt said it, that Russia was ‘this extremist brother took the European nineteenth century at its word.’ [1] I agree with him wholeheartedly. (Schmitt of course was another dubious character politically and there’s no getting away from them in the extreme histories of both fascism and communism. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand what was happening in his time. His observation was brilliant.)

How did the German legacy reach Russia? This topic has fascinated me all my life. Between 1790-96 Schelling and Hegel were co-seminarists, studying theology in the German university town of Tübingen, and trying to balance their enthusiasms for theoretical doctrine with what was now the legacy of France from 1789. They planted a tree to honour that moment of freedom, and when I first imagined telling this story I thought of the ‘127 Years of Yearning’ that spanned the period from 1790 in Tübingen to October 1917 in Petrograd. Something of that yearning I’ve fondly read into the facial expression of the soldier on the cover of Arc of Utopia. The idea would be that he has come upon a beautiful work of art, radiating those Kantian properties of freedom and harmony, and what he saw was part of the moment of revolution. It is a kind of fictional story in itself. The soldiers in reality were rough and drunk – when they drank the cellars of the Winter Palace dry Lenin had to impose a statutory ban on the consumption of alcohol – but what I was imagining was a certain journey in the history of ideas coming to fruition.

The in-between stages of the journey meant the ideas were modified, passed on and transformed by Karl Marx (rewriting Hegel) and by such great Russian political activists as the anarchist Bakunin, the religious idealist Dostoevsky and the quasi-Kantian Marxist Plekhanov, among the first in Russia to take the philosophical message to the factory gates. How Lenin harnessed this Romantic revolutionary legacy and reshaped it lies outside the confines of Arc of Utopia.  The arc that took off in 1790 touches the earth again in October 1917.

Nevertheless, I build into that moment the fact that there was not one revolution in Russia but three: 1905, through the duration of the whole year and into the next, February 1917 and October 1917.  The three-in-one revolution was a continuing struggle against the tsarist autocracy that had ruled the country for nearly three hundred years. In that time it had never properly dealt with serfdom, and the blight of its legacy since statutory abolition in 1861. It was a cruel and arbitrary system of government which held the country together through censorship of Western ideas and ‘administrative exile’ to Siberia for any potential troublemakers who might try to organize others to think differently. When the censorship was relaxed in 1906 and the country given a constitution, there was a cultural explosion that was a revolution in its own right, and went on recurring. The poet Mayakovsky dreamt of Fourth and Fifth Internationals of the Spirit, as the political process went bad after 1917. Suddenly, say 1895 – 1929, and with that huge upsurge 1905-1922,  poetry, painting, philosophy, drama and street art came alive in a way Russia had never seen before; and the style was radically modern and post-bourgeois, in a way that would captivate the more settled West for a century to come.

The Arc of Utopia lands in that moment, because what began as an eighteenth-century political vision embodied in the classical work of art now found its twentieth-century  counterpart in works of art that were no longer just symbols of unity and harmony as notions in the mind but actively campaigned for social and political change. The readiness of artists like the painter Kasimir Malevich and that great lyricist Mayakovsky to invent new languages to suit a new social reality were finally Russia’s delayed artistic-philosophical answer to the French Revolution.

Kazimir Malevich Taking in the Harvest (1911)

Kazimir Malevich Suprematism (1915)

I don’t believe that looking back from 2017 we should separate the art from the political ambition of the moment. It’s possible, with Boris Groys[2], to see something inherently totalitarian and indeed Stalinist about the art that broke out of its chains after 1905 and continued until it was forcibly subdued by the state-imposed doctrine of socialist realism (which more or less coincided with Mayakovsky’s suicide and Malevich’s re-turn to figurative painting). In the century after Kant’s death art showed it had many other possibilities beyond perpetuating an ideal of classical moderation.

But what I have chosen to do in Arc of Utopia is cut off the moment in 1917 itself, so that we can just focus on that explosive event, as it happened, 127 years on.  For me it was modern Russia’s greatest moment of self-definition, after the reign of Peter the Great. At last that vast country, and its people, were free to express what they felt about the stifled European heritage and what they felt about themselves, and their answer to it. That answer turned out to be a genuine turn towards the egalitarian and the social, genuinely critical of the West, but a vision which could never be sustained without traditional autocratic control from above. Coupled with the need to industrialize and educate at an accelerated rate, to have Russia catch up with the West and emerge as a modern country in its own right, it led both forward and back, to a Russia which finally accepted the liberty, equality and fraternity of the West in 1789, and now set about reworking that legacy for enduring Russian political conditions. As I say, those conditions seemed to require rigid state control and, just around the corner from Communist internationalism bombastic Russian nationalism. In Russia it would be a message to do with the national spirit that would help make tight political control from above, and an excess of politically directed social organization, popular, because that was a perceived quality of Russianness, as it emerged in post-Petrine experience.

Boris Kustodiev The Bolshevik (1920)

I’ve puzzled over why British commentators have been so half-hearted about Russia 1917 where thirty years ago they would have been at least intellectually respectful. I think the change that has come over the West since the end of the Cold War has been most marked in the way it has branded the Enlightenment legacy negative. The Enlightenment was about humanity conceived in terms of unity, with that unity and humanity somehow contained in the very nature of reason, as our preeminent human faculty. Now under pressure of diversity we disbelieve in one humanity; and we also reject reason, persuaded as we are that it is ‘just another religion. Meanwhile many academics seem to buy the argument, most ironically for me, of the Frankfurt School, that Reason, latterly awarded a capital letter to show how much power it exercised over people’s minds, also in the West, amounted to totalitarianism in itself; so how could we praise Enlightenment’s outcome in a better organized, more humane Russia, any more than we might praise the outcome of its vision of mechanized rationality in Nazi Germany. (This topic for another day…)  I don’t like moments in contemporary intellectual history where everyone seems to switch direction in the same moment. That smacks of a new ideology to me, rather than anything truly understood. There is meanwhile still so much to understand about Russia, for better, for worse, in its rich, radical and terrible experience of 1917.


I’ve also been puzzled by contemporary Russia’s feeling towards its revolutionary heritage, in this ideologically pressurized centenary year. As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick explains, Vladimir Putin’s regime is caught in an awkward place, because it can’t associate with the 1991 moment that destroyed the Soviet Union, nor does it want to associate with what the Bolshevik revolution became. Putin’s regime has spent nearly twenty years inventing its own nomenclature for a now postmodern Russia which openly and joyfully recognizes its tsarist and Orthodox Christian roots but also evidently owes a debt to Soviet structures of social and political control. Putin is a bombastic nationalist who has dropped the mantle of Communist internationalism; and yet he’s also the leader of a country that owes its rapid modernization and its scientific prestige to the forced decades that fuelled the Soviet powerhouse; meanwhile fraternity for him, never mind liberty, has been to give Russia’s 200,000 million citizens relative social and economic stability, after the turbulence of the 1990s. The Romanovs took the throne of Russia after The Time of Troubles. Russia has a history of liking stability, and continuity, and actually of keeping revolution out.

Finally, there’s something embarrassingly similar in both British and Russian post-Soviet attitudes to October 1917.  They both would prefer not to talk about it, to pretend it didn’t happen, for all that it reveals about their own changes of heart; their own ideological fudges; things that happen in us all at a far subtler level than assessing the evidence for whether the earth is flat or round.

[1] Quoted in Tony Judt, Past Imperfect French Intelletuals 1944-1956 [1992] (New York University Press, 2011), p.165.

[2] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism [Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin], (Princeton, 1992)

Posted in Arc of Utopia - my latest book, Art History, Britain Today, Cold War, Philosophy and Philosophers, Russia, Russian Revolution 1917 | Tagged , , , , ,

The Seventh Function of Language

Laurent Binet, author of the remarkable novel (in French), The Seventh Function of Language, seems succinctly to describe his technique on p.333 of the English edition: ‘one fanatics gently’. But is that English? Is the original, ‘on forcène doucement’, French? ‘The subject seems like it ought to be French, but when Bayard turns to Simon, his partner makes a gesture that suggests he has no clue either.’ Superintendent Bayard is the policeman assigned to probe the death of master linguist and critic Roland Barthes, run over by a laundry van in Paris on 25 March, 1980. His co-opted helpmate is  young graduate student Simon Herzog, just beginning a university teaching career as a specialist in the latest theories of language that have gripped the French intelligentsia.  The pair’s baffled inquiry into a possible murder takes them from the intellectual circles of the Left Bank to the political intrigues of the Quai d’Orsai, where the Gaullist President Giscard d’Estaing faces an imminent challenge from the socialist Francois Mitterrand. It sends them hot foot over the border into a revolutionary-minded Italy and eventually across the Atlantic to Cornell University in New York state, where outside the little town of Ithaca they attend, as well as an orgy and a ferocious dog attack, a star-studded conference mockingly entitled ‘Shift into Overdrive in the Linguistic Turn’.

‘Gently’ isn’t exactly the way this rollicking, rumbunctious novel proceeds. Binet is a sort of Rabelais of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés intellectual scene, powering his fictitious characters along on a tide of fierce professional ambition and over-the-top carnality. Even the common-sensical policeman ends up having three-way sex with a prosthesis. On the other hand there’s always something loving about satire that works, and this tearing apart of ‘germanopritin’ affectations circa 1980 is nothing if not affectionate. Still what shall we make of the invented verb ‘forcener’ that a fictional character called Philippe Sollers uses as the departure point of his rhetorical tour-de-force in a linguistic duel held under the auspices of the secretive Logos Club in Bologna? As Sollers begins, ‘a wave of perplexity moves through the 175 feet of the room. The non-francophone spectators check that their simultaneous translation machine is tuned to the right channel.’ Sollers/Binet have fun: ‘Forcène…forcène…Fort….Scène…Fors…Seine…Faure (Félix Faure)… Cène’. Former French President Félix Faure ‘died of a blowjob and a heart attack’. ‘Cène’ suggests ashes. Or should the chain of associations read: ‘La force. Et le scène. La force sur scène.’ This riff is productive for a literary theorist of the day (who has of course read Marx and Freud too) because it brings in ‘power’ and ‘the stage’.  Actually to my mind ‘forcener’ (invented from the adjective forcené meaning fanatic) best of all simply echoes the everyday Italian: ‘forsé no’. ‘Perhaps not’.  My (freely imagined but why not) reading of the 45-year-old Laurent Binet is that he perhapsnotted gently, but spectacularly, about a French intellectual generation that shook the world.

Laurent Binet (b.1972)

Was Barthes not murdered for a document he had in his pocket concerning the seventh and perhaps ultimate function of language, namely its magic power to persuade? Binet told  Huff Post France in an interview published on 23 October 2015 that he was inspired to make his satire a detective story by the late Umberto Eco’s 1980 bestseller The Name of the Rose. Eco, an academic linguistician, broke new ground with his fictional debut. Like his French counterparts Eco owed a debt to the Russian philologist Roman Jakobson, founder of what became the discipline of semiology that so gripped a later generation. Semiology was about reading the world as an endless complexity of systems of signs, and signs, when what they point to is uncertain, when they are potentially meaningless, have the status of clues for any inquirer who thinks they might yet come to mean something, if he/she is brilliant, or diligent enough, to pursue the inquiry. So the police procedural links with the academic passions of Barthes, and also those of the arch-posthumanist Michel Foucault, and of the one-time Maoist Sollers and his Bulgarian wife Julia Kristeva, and the inventor of deconstruction Jacques Derrida, never really at home in the germanoprintin milieu. Binet, evidently with his heart in the right place, gives the gentlest and most heroic of roles to Derrida in the first of a series of denouements to the action, as it unfolds at Cornell.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

The real counterparts of a number of Binet’s characters, including a very unlovably portrayed Sollers and Kristeva, together with French philosophy’s lasting pin-up boy Bernard-Henri Lévy, are still alive, and one feels they might have considered suing, had they been born and bred Anglo-Saxon. But in fact that would have made fools of these sophisticated thinkers — ‘fanatics’, let’s say, overdue for a dose of ‘perhapsnotting’ — because it would have forced them into declaring they didn’t understand the difference between fact and fiction. The text itself takes up the philosophical problem of the ontological status of fictional characters, In what way do they ‘exist’?  Surely ‘I exist, Madame Bovary does not’. Well, yes and no. Binet maximizes the ontological ambiguity by having one Morris J. Zapp give a paper at the Cornell conference: ‘Fishing for supplement in a deconstructive world’. When the sleuths can’t quite understand what’s being said they seek a sort of simultaneous translation from a clever academic based in Birmingham, England, sitting next to them in the audience. Morris J. Zapp was in fact — in fact? — a character invented by professor, and novelist, David Lodge, famous for his trilogy of hilarious academic satires staring with Changing Places (1975).  Lodge, at the time, was, like Binet today, both someone who deeply appreciated contemporary linguistic theory and a novelist gifted enough to be able to laugh at the absurd academic practices, and dodgy private lives, that grew out of it.

David Lodge (b.1935)

Binet told Huffpost France :’I treated all my characters, real, alive or dead, fictional or non-fictional, as characters.  In the process of creation, I didn’t have Saint-Germain in mind. Saint-Germain is a complicated microcosm where everyone knows everyone else and which everyone finds important and where there are numerous alliances and emnities. My publisher left me great freedom and I’m grateful for that. It’s interesting to observe the reactions, diverse and contradictory, sometimes in regard to the same character; some people think I’ve caricatured this or that one too much while others think I’ve treated them with too much consideration. No doubt that’s just as it should be. As Kundera said, the novel is a place of ambiguity. A roman a thèse  [in which the real is barely masked] is a contradiction in terms. ‘ (This is my translation. You can check out the occasionally garbled original here.)

Another Anglo-Saxon character in the novel is the American philosopher John Searle, the Francophile in life but Anglo-Saxon analytical practitioner in philosophy who had a famous and bitter quarrel with Derrida and lost (although deluded American colleagues still think he won.) Read how the fate of Searle, ‘with the mentality of a cop’ (a piece of abuse Binet took from Derrida, if I remember rightly) works out in this prize-winning novel first published in France on 2015, the year of the centenary of Barthes’ untimely death. Bar a very few mistakes (‘phrase’ in French is not ‘phrase’ in English) the English translation by Sam Taylor makes for lively, gutsy reading. The result is a stylish, brainy Euro-romp through the year 1980 that also includes car-chases, scheming politicians, Italian anarchists and Bulgarian and Russian secret-service types. I loved it. Meanwhile I wrote about Searle and Derrida in my 2014 book A Shoe Story.

Posted in A Shoe Story, French intellectuals, French literature, Literature in Translation, novels, Philosophy and Philosophers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

A German Idealist on Globalization – and what he might have to say to an anti-Brexiteer


Rüdiger Safranski is one of the best-known philosophers in contemporary Germany. Together with his many prizes, the highly rated television programme, Philosophisches Quartett, ‘The Philosophical Quarter’, he has presented with Peter Sloterdijk, since 2002, has secured his name. In the anglophone world we know him more as a biographer than a philosopher. His monographs on Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche and Heidegger, plus studies of German Romanticism, and of Schiller or the Invention of German Idealism, haven’t all been translated into English, but there can hardly be an anglophone reader interested in the topic who doesn’t know the English version of Safranski’s Ein Meister Aus Deutschland Heidegger und seine Zeit. I quote the German title here because its inspiration, an eerie quote, ‘A Master from Germany’, from a poem about Heidegger by Paul Celan, didn’t travel well into English. The book we know is rather Martin Heidegger Between Good and Evil, an evident companion  volume to Safranski’s Nietzsche A Biography of his Thinking.  It’s Safranski’s work on Goethe and Schiller meanwhile that is his ultimate anchor. It situates him as a connoisseur  of the greatest literary-philosophical era in German history, the time from 1749, the year of Goethe’s birth, to 1939, the date when Hitler destroyed an intellectual and artistic culture that had been the wonder and envy of less cerebral nations; and shows him wanting to rescue its astonishing creative individualism and perpetuate it.

Safranski has not only deeply immersed himself in a philosophical world that for forty years after the second world war, and in an anglo-american-led climate of analytic neo-positivism was regarded as deeply unattractive by most contemporary thinkers. He is also capable of thinking outside the box. To compare Heidegger in the early 1920s with the anarchic art European movement Dada, its hilarious mindset so scarred by the first world war that it disdained all the great cultural traditions that had upheld the West since the Renaissance, was to my mind a masterstroke. Well aware of Heidegger’s fatal attraction to Nazism, Safranski can still interpret a deeply German philosopher in the Romantic tradition without fear.

Born in 1945, Safranski was still in time to learn in person from the last living German Idealist, Theodor Adorno.  From 1965-1972 he was a student in Frankfurt am Main some years after Adorno returned from his wartime American exile, and then in West Berlin.  His  doctoral dissertation was concerned with working-class literary culture, which suggests to me he never entered a post-humanist phase, unlike his French counterparts, in the 1980s and after. Perhaps his most curious book is an essay of 2003 entitled Wieviel Globalisierung verträgt der Mensch? It was rendered into English as How Much Globalization Can We Bear? in 2006 and is a robust defence of German Idealist values in a new global age. As his publishers describe the project: ‘He suggests that the era ofglobalization should not be thought of as that epoch in world history in which all human beings will see themselves in the same, indistinct situation. There will always be, Sanfranski argues, some need for understanding one’s own situation by drawing boundaries and conceptualizing  “otherness” and individuality.’

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a German literary scholar of Safranski’s persuasions should see globalization as the risk of overstepping the human mark, of anxiously wondering whether there isn’t ‘too much or too much false globalization’ (p.13 of the German edition, my translation) such that we feel, as a species, uncomfortable and ‘wonder whether we are organizing ourselves in the right way any more’ (ob man sich überhaupt noch in der richtigen Veranstaltung befindet). He calls it an anthropological question, but it’s hard not to see it as metaphysical, as subsequent chapters quoting from Plato and Rousseu, Kant and Hegel demonstrate. In this context globalization,  which risks losing something sacred about human nature, begins to look like a Faustian question.  What for Safranski is threatened is what we make out of ourselves. What can we know? What can we build? How far should we push it? (p.10)

The international order of the latter half of the twentieth century, the global institutions that diminish the risk of war and defend human rights and boycott tyranny are the political good news, although, in the fifteen years since Safranski wrote his book, it’s clear that the backlash against ‘bad’ globalization has incited a new generation of populist agitators to attack the justification for just that good global order in the minds of their dissatisfied national publics. A major outcome of globalization was a new kind of inequality we were mentally ill-equipped to deal with, he wrote back in 2003. He seems to have got the history right even before it climaxed in populist rebellion. As globalization as a set of ideas tried to tackle vast differences in economic development across the globe (p.20), he argued, it tended to suppress those differences, thereby turning itself into an ideology. Economic neo-liberalism, anti-nationalism and global ecological awareness made the world outlook of the West as it entered the twenty-first century more of an aggressive assertion than a wonderful offering. What came out of the wave of ecological right-thinking was that ‘those who come last must bear the burden’. In 2003 he addressed that thought to developing countries being asked to bear the burden of ecological taxation. As we read him now we can extend that sentiment to cover whole Western populations coming to feel ‘left behind’ in their own countries: a feeling that they, the local working classes undermined and displaced by global economic activity, have been relegated to a third-class existence despite their first-world geography.

One of the great achievements of globalization has been its inherent anti-nationalism. It’s why European populations in the not so distant past, and still at Safranski’s time of writing, so enthusiastically espoused the European Union. Anti-nationalism had such strong moral reasoning behind it after 1945, in Europe, and especially in Germany.  But the great and growing differences in wealth and prosperity thrown up by globalization began to wreak havoc in Europe with the mass inward migrations  of 2015-2016.  As I write Britain, apparently not bound by moral anti-nationalism, is leaving the European Union to seek another form of globalization more favourable to its desire to trade among independent nations rather than from within an economic bloc. Britain wants to revert to being a world leader in an international marketplace where it can also set its own accompanying ethical-political rules.

Could anything Safranski argued fifteen years ago make the British decision seem right, or at least explain it to those of us in despair at leaving Europe? One thing he might have noticed is how neo-liberalism fitted the anglo-american glove so well because its prototype was the British Empire. In a way Britain never changed; or rather, it did its best to refloat Europe on the neo-liberal tide. I came across this example recently. Nineteenth-century Britons in India, on coming across the beautiful hand-woven patterns of Punjabi textiles, sent samples home to be copied by English factories. These mass-produced fabrics were then re-exported to India, where they destroyed local markets. The Brits aren’t anti-global. They just want globalism on their own robust terms, destroying other people’s localities if necessary, while protecting their own.

But British exceptionalism was never in Safranski’s purview, and his concerns for the future of human nature seem exceptionally German, or at least Continental, compared with a typical British point of view still based, after more than two centuries, on Adam Smith’s moral justification of self-interest. (I know Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments was more nuanced than his Wealth of Nations, but even so.) I have to try to sort this European/British distinction out for myself, as a Brit whose moral compass was created many years ago by precisely the German writers and philosophers Safranski has rediscovered for my German and English generations. His questions seem real enough to me. What kind of people are we turning ourselves into? What spiritual capacities for happiness are we stifling when we live in a real-time experience of everywhere and nowhere courtesy of globalization’s marriage with the internet?  Globalism, he writes on p.73, narrows us. He means that neo-liberalism and its attendant economic blitzes on less prosperous, less innovative regions of the world, combined with a culture over which technology, rather than human interaction reigns, thins out our personalities. Somewhere in there is also a worry I very much share, about our human relationship with nature, at the mysterious interface between our bodily and spiritual existence, being neglected if not totally ignored in the present day. It’s undoubtedly a moral lesson Safranski’s delivering, one that carries a Faustian warning not to stray too far from what we can humanly, as natural creatures, take the measure of; a warning not to let our technological prowess take over the moral substance of our lives. It’s also a lesson drawn from the Romantic heart of German literature, about the uninspiring character of materialism as a world outlook and the damage done to the human heart by the falsehoods embedded in progress.

He writes (in my translation from his German text):

‘In the nineteenth century forests were the place of the good, the beautiful and the true for some, while for others they were hiding-places for eerineness and mystery. But we should also think about the forests of nostalgia, the forests of the image and the symbol. [They] have been, from the forest tales of German Romanticism to Heidegger’s ‘forest paths’ a poetic-philosophical resource. The whole is a story of the long dismantling of mythical potential, of loss of magic and of the grubbing-up of trees, and of the growth of a desert. The world goes to the net and in the uniformity of globalization is trapped in a net. What disappears here is the external correspondence of the inner transcendence of the human being, a transcendence without metaphysical construction. In the impenetrability of nature outside us – for which the metaphor of the forest stands – we experience that we are also nature and a mystery to ourselves. The forests reflect back to us our own strangeness, which also plays a part in our relationship to ourselves. Whoever is prepared to expose themselves to this strangeness retains contact with the mystery of life.’

But it’s not only Germans who were once and are still  ‘searching for real reality’ – auf der Suche nach der wirklichen Wirklichkeit. (pp. 94-95) Henry David Thoreau in On Walden Pond was too.

It’s difficult to believe that Safranski’s idea of the human was not originally a metaphysical construct that has been passed down through centuries of Protestant belief. That was always the character of German Idealism. A fellow blogger and Safranski enthusiast focuses on a quote in How Much Globalization… from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796), where Safranski takes over Goethe’s ideal for the individual of  ‘eine regelmäßige Selbsttätigkeit.’ The phrase points towards  self-directedness or autonomy. ‘And a new sense of autonomy is exactly what Safranski prescribes for us,’ he writes. ‘We need new ways to filter the global stream of information, a new immune system to be able to function in the face of all these global processes.’

Safranski hopes for a better outcome for the mass of humanity in the twenty-first century than life in front of a screen or otherwise self-harming. Self-knowledge, and the ability to liberate oneself from the otherwise overwhelming technological exigencies of the day, needs to return to the heart of education, if the detrimental aspects of globalization are to be resisted. An education which tells its students that learning is the key to economic success is insufficient, and, to take up Safranski’s implicit metaphor, even Mephistophelian.  Education needs to show us how to construct a self, a rich inner life, a way of being a person through the amount of world we can transform into our own humanity.  He has a marvellous quote from the early nineteenth-century German educator Wilhelm von Humboldt: ‘Whatsoever man, when he is dying, can say to himself, “I have grasped as much world as I could, and transformed it into my humanity”- he has achieved his goal.’

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

To be a person is not just to have an identity, and least of all a encrypted internet identity, or a flow of infinitely reproducible tweets and digital images. But this is me speaking now, finding where I can agree with the conservative but European Safranski, while still needing to engage with my own country and its post-Brexit future. This historic trading nation to which I belong by birth, selfish, self-possessed and powerful, and which insists on taking the utilitarian and materialistic path, chopping down quite a few German Romantic trees on its way, has taught me to be a little more sceptical than I once was about the nature of the human soul. I’m more inclined to see personhood with Hume as a bundle of impressions than a mysterious entity containing a divine spark. And yet all my work revolves around the ideas that Safranski still believes in without inhibition, and I’m grateful for his reminder.

Posted in Britain Today, Current Affairs, Europe, German Literature, Philosophy and Philosophers, Things German, Who are you? | Tagged , , , , ,

Wolfgang Tillmans and his Fragile alter ego

Though reviewers speak blithely of its beauty and the curators wax lyrical over the artist’s sense of the social and the communal, none of these qualities appear to the fore in Wolfgang Tillmans’s 2017 exhibition at Tate Modern. It’s not a retrospective but a series of installations, each room curated by the German-born photographer who in his teens named his creative alter ego ‘Fragile’. The curators tell us that’s also what we see in the work. Certainly the artist’s own anxieties do most of the speaking. Homosexuality is a large theme that would prefer to go by no name, but then advertises itself crudely in some of the images on show, while other images call for clubs where people can feel secure in their sexual identity. It’s not that any of this is objectionable, but that it isn’t to my mind artistic. It’s a personal crusade, expressed with a large degree of torment.

Thus not pleasure, not beauty, but deep unease emanated from these images. Room one, with a photograph juxtaposing a few remaining packets of asparagus in an industrial display unit with a display of printer ink in different-coloured plastic bottles, immediately assailed its viewers, wanting to drag them as fellow sufferers. It did its best to undo any comfort at being in the world that you or I might have managed to achieve. It was pure techno-misery. From there, for me, in room after room, none of the images gave any sense of home, or society, or community. A photograph of an anonymous group of men playing draughts on a hot Shanghai evening neither staked a claim for the artist’s belonging to them, nor to their belonging to each other. The proudly robed owner of some car or other, somewhere, was nothing more than photography’s equivalent of literature’s exotic cardboard cut-out. Tillmans’s outsiderdom was remorseless.

I would empathize with him, if only he could transfer some displaced human emotion into his work to help me get there. Instead he leads an ‘inner life’ that consists of introspecting the photographic process. He uses his body to intervene in the technical process. Or he takes apart a broken colour photocopier and displays it as if just like that it, this neutered pile of junk, has to mean something or interest us. The equivalent introspection of his own body is hinted at: at buttocks and testicles photographed close-up and as if on a slab. There’s also a photograph of male genitals after a sex change: a vagina-equivalent constructed on an operating table. Photography seems to be performing here not so much as art but as unkind witness. What it sees, and relays, might be the view of a doctor performing such an operation, if he or she were a robot. The extreme adherence to what is physically and functionally the case, German Sachlichkeit, may or may not be linked to Fragile’s fear of getting hurt.

There was one image, one alone, that stopped me in my tracks. It was a small photograph of the artist’s studio, what looked like a desk, with a couple of coloured canvasses leaning against it. The light was shaded in a friendly, atmospheric, inviting way. The room was orderly without being uptight. And what I felt immediately was the artist at peace with his art, at peace because of his art, a feeling many of us know, even if what we produce, to try to keep our inner life in balance, and express our  desires in some outgoing, creative form, is something less. It’s a lovely image, worthy of more than the banal and misjudged curatorial comment that it’s quite different from other artists’ studios in history. Really? Anyway, it’s worth all the rest of this show combined.

Most critics won’t agree with me, though Michael Glover in the Independent got it right, perhaps a tad unkindly, when he said that Tillmans wasn’t half as good as he thought he was. The fact is that many of the ideas surrounding this show, ideas that it wants to speak, are facile: sixth-form protests against this or that imagined status quo; invitations to exercise imagination which fall flat, because many of us ordinary mortals have already had such thoughts for ourselves.

Also it seems to me there’s a crucial dimension missing from commentary on this show, namely and that is Tillmans’ German heritage. He came to Britain in 1990, aged, 22, to study at the St Martins School of Art, but even so, we surely have to see him as part of that long line of German artists, from Josef Beuys through Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer still deeply scarred by the German past and, particularly in the case of Beuys, by the petty bourgeois normality of the first twenty-five to thirty years of post-war West German society that tried to forget all about it. Unlike Beuys Tillmans has no humour; unlike Richter he does not love his medium; unlike Kiefer he lacks all trace of the Romantic heritage, and has no sense of the mystical. Kiefer, reader of Heidegger, student of van Gogh, would have made so much more of that dismantled photocopier over which so much artistic use had passed before it shorted itself into a heap of junk. No, what binds Tillmans to the terrible German past seems to me to be the received memory of what the Nazis did to homosexuals and what they forebade in art. Those two painful historical facts justify the world Tillmans creates in his own art today, of gay loneliness and carnal isolation and techno-misery. As viewers he defies us to dislike his art, because that might seem to link us with the monsters that went before. I have to say I felt almost menaced by the ugliness and the pain Tillmans put on show, and I could have done with a braver, more distanced commentary than what Tate Modern’s accompanying booklet gave me to read.

Posted in Art History, Things German | Tagged , , ,

The Royal Academy’s show Revolution and the historic meaning of the 1932 Russian Artists’ exhibition

The Russian Revolution as seen through the history of its paintings and artefacts has delighted and confused visitors to London’s Royal Academy this early Spring. Despite many works by the much loved and admired Kazimir Malevich, and magnificent photographs by Alexander Rodchenko and others, what made the February 2017 show gripping was the historical moment, revealed in everything from apartment design to porcelain. Here, suddenly, in October 1917, was a modernist blueprint to change Russia, and indeed, the world.

Modernism expressed the rationalist impulse behind the revolution, to drive out the old myths and make life more efficient with new technology. The Marxist view of industrial capitalism as precisely what gave the new broom its power to sweep led to an exhilerating and gritty partnership between art and technology, poetry and the factory-floor. These unlikely partnerships reflected a total rethink. Magnificent in their intellectual and artistic scope, they divided the dynamic twentieth century from the feudal (in Russia) nineteenth.

Just for a moment imagine yourself living through the revolution as a purely aesthetic experience. In a different arrangement of the RA’s marvellous assembly of artefacts you might have hung Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Dynamic Suprematist Supremus’ (1915) on the wall of your functionalist apartment designed by El Lissitsky (1922), with curtains made of Andrey Golubev’s intricate red and white ‘Spinner’ fabric (1930).

malevich-suprematism el-lissitsky-apartment lnn1k3yftfl63pexzu2a

Such a scenario reminds us that the applied modernist revolution begun a century ago has stayed with us ever since, consistently in Continental Europe since the sister-age of Bauhaus in Germany, and intermittently in Britain, whenever native tradition has not been resurgent. The globalism of the last quarter-century has cleared a bigger space for modernism in the UK than ever before and maybe it accounts for the crowds surging into the RA to inspect its Russian beginnings. Many Londoners, indeed many urban-dwellers anywhere, would be delighted to live in an El Lissitsky-style flat today: the horizontal space beautifully organized, the furniture fitted to the flow of the room, with grand views of the city from generous double-aspect windows. They might be gratified too, to learn that in the grand scheme of modernist design history English socialism and American industrialism complemented that Russian impulse that became Soviet. Just look at that ‘Spinner’ pattern of Golubev’s. The repeating production line celebrated Fordism, or how to extract maximum efficiency from worker and machine. The basic motif, a woman seated in front of the four spindles of a ring spinning machine, was an industrial icon given an art nouveau styling. The English socialist and designer William Morris would have admired Golubev’s achievement, had he lived to see art move from nature to industry to derive its furnishing patterns.

The Russian revolutionary moment looks so impressive and so intense to us because its artists were combining European modernism and remnants of Symbolism, while reacting to the scientific revolutions after Darwin and Einstein, and the leap forward in technological capacity, and doing it all with that totalizing passion. The impact of Russia’s long delayed industrialization, packing into thirty-forty years what in Britain had taken a hundred to do, was a shocking stimulus. Add to that the removal of censorship from the arts after the first revolution of 1905, fruitful enough to generate Russia’s ‘Silver Age’ in painting, and poetry, and philosophy. It was no longer the heyday of the novel. Painting that was an imitation of nature or a direct reflection of society was outmoded not only by aesthetic fashion. Social realism had sat comfortably within tsarist and Russian Orthodox tradition. All the while Art in the grandest sense went on mattering immensely in Russian society. And so began the experiments with language and film, amongst other media, that you can see reflected at various points in the RA exhibition, albeit in an unfocused way that leaves you piecing together the significance yourself.

The art was total but if anything the politics was more dazzling, because, the devil take the hindmost, chort vosmi, it was direct and highly organised and ferociously fixed on its goal. The revolution axed the tsarist Russian past almost at one swipe. Bolshevik rule meant a radically different iconography and ethos, such that today, contemplating  porcelain left over from tsarist factories, but now decorated with Suprematist motifs in place of the Romanovs, we can almost feel that transformative breeze, and be grateful for it, as well as apprehensive that so much happened so fast, and, as we know, not with a humane outcome. The Bolshevik Revolution was so dangerous, and so ruthless, because ties with the past were completely severed. Just those old stocks of china clay could be carried over into the new world. Despite the irresistible enthusiasm and the tantalizing theory behind the artistic side of the story, once called, by the Futurist poet linguist Roman Jakobson ‘aesthetic Bolshevism’, moreover, there were already hints, visible to the writer Maxim Gorky and others, that the people would be kept in order, just as they had been by the tsars. Artists were people too, and the art an artist made was his or her  political ‘position’ and could be life-threatening. It’s significant that in the RA’s extensive show of social and domestic and political tools and celebrations, there is pride, and bravado, and humanist ambition, but nothing suggests peaceful, egalitarian coexistence. There is a kind of democracy, symbolized by the crowd; but the crowd is watched over by the Leader.

brodsky-lenin Three startling paintings tell the story of where Russia stands in the time of revolution, and as much as eight years after. Isaak Brodsky’s ‘Lenin and Manifestation’ (1919) shows the Bolshevik leader like God presiding from above, in what would otherwise be clouds, but is here more like a vast red flag or a theatre curtain, pulled back to reveal a crowd of demonstrators below. Its title is singularly ineptly translated, but the relationship with the people is clear. Lenin, an avuncular, lower-middle-class figure in his Sunday best, sits before an empty sheet of paper as the people gather, full of expectation. Their ranks include military figures to the fore and Breughelesque peasants towards the centre who seem more intent on having a good time. In the background rises a solitary factory chimney, token of the enormous work ahead still to industrialize Russia. From Lenin’s hand will issue an idea to guide the people and their new system. But nothing yet has been written on the paper.

kustodievBoris Kustodiev’s ‘Bolshevik’ (1920), used as the RA show’s lead image, sets up the same dramatic contrast between the people and their fate, this time under the boots of a fanatical giant, the bogatyr of Russian fairy stories, marching through the city with his red flag. This Bolshevik is at once a folk hero and a terrorist.

bb6f66947107a049ddb80c65a0cc6f1eKliment Redko’s ‘Revolt’ (1925) was one of those works which, no sooner painted, found its way into a cupboard of prohibited art, but, in this case, more fortunately, soon moved on into the safekeeping of collector George Costakis. Costakis was a Greek born in Moscow who, while he lived there and worked as a Canadian diplomat, assembled a marvellous collection of avant-garde art, half of which he was forced to give to the Soviet state when he left Russia in 1977. That is the year that Moscow’s Tretyakov State Russian gallery acquired the Redko. ‘Revolt’ imposed on a grid of Moscow streets a red star of fire, with roadblocks off-centre and violent incidents taking place in their murky light. The inclusion of later outcasts of the revolution like Trotsky meant it could never be shown in public in Soviet times, but surely that was not its only negative message. Except for the leader, surrounded by a white aura, and his henchmen, in various and diminishing sizes, the Russian people are tiny in this large and dramatic painting. They are almost stick figures, as they perform a kind of military drill while making music and showing off their industries. The light catches the brass instruments and the bayonets and the leader’s halo. Less well drilled, likely to cause random violence, are the armed citizens off-centre. Hundreds of anonymous unlit windows stare blindly out on to the proceedings.

The Russian Revolution was, in the philosophy driving it from various angles, in the spiritual hopes it drew together, and in the art that exploded with it at first almost coincidentally, and then, for a time, sympathetically, a fabulous combination of Enlightenment and Romanticism. The effect was to make the literal nuts and bolts and generators of Rodchenko’s industrial photographs as affecting as love stories.alexander-rodchenko-gears-web


You could feel that love too in Malevich’s cubo-futurist paintings of peasants binding their sheaves of corn, and his famous woman with pales, although these works from 1912 are not in this show.

Taking in the Harvest

Taking in the Harvest

The Woodcutter

The Woodcutter

The same artist’s ‘Black Square’ however immediately inspired aversion on the Bolshevik side, and has been equated by critics ever since with a spiritual point zero. As if the artist, who painted the first version in 1915, were issuing a warning to Russia, or falling victim to his own utopian doubts, or both. The art critic Jonathan Jones once compared this painting to a moment of utter nihilism in Dostoevsky (The Guardian, 28 August, 2013.) It was ‘an icon of emptiness’ that could destroy a person’s ‘faith in history, progress and art.’


It didn’t help inject sense and meaning into this exhibition to hang a late version of ‘Black Square’ high above the heads of visitors, alongside the much more wittily intended ‘Red Square’, in a room crammed with Malevich works just as they were shown in the Revolution’s art show tolerant of modernism, in 1932. That imitation of history told no story at all.

The story was, nevertheless, that as Soviet totalitarianism was consolidated under Stalin this was a deliberate political shutting-down of an unwanted, historically uncertain future as it had been reflected in avant-garde Russian art. Instead a protected present was invented on the basis of the safely contained past, and with it returned to state-sponsored prominence, perforce, a safe low-brow taste, of the kind Lenin’s Petrograd henchman Grigory Zinoviev, loathed by Gorky, had been insisting on since 1918. Lenin himself was thoroughly implicated in the rejection that year of a cubo-futurist statue of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, created in response to his call for pieces of Monumental Art to decorate the new state, and then thrown out. (It’s shown here, right, with Boris Korolev’s partnering cubofuturist Karl Marx on the left.) Another work submitted for that call, Vera Muchina’s projected machine-gun like sculpture of the Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov, is included in the present London exhibition. All this was far too formalist to be the new normal.21

Mikhail Nesterov’s double portrait of  ‘The Philosophers’ (1917) was something else. It was a token of the kind of symbolic Russian realism that would be welcomed back, if not with a religious content in future. At least Nesterov’s Russian intellectuals were old-fashioned human beings depicted in three dimensions. Nesterov would go on to a successful though tortured career as a Soviet painter, required to paint portraits of heroes. download-4The deliberate switch as Stalin tightened his grip on Russia meant that the only modestly distinguished painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin could be give a whole room of his own at the 1932 show. This wasn’t politically engaged pro-Communist work, but at least it wasn’t harmful.  Petrov-Vodkin’s boy on a horse soaring agonizingly skywards was indeed beautiful, the stuff of children’s stories and folk dreams, but it was rightly called ‘The Fantasy’ (1925). Perhaps it was already a symbol of what had already been lost.k5oeglqn5x0dqknuqc8p

I would have liked to know more about that 1932 show, ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’ and I think some more ample explanation of its ethos would have given the present London show the coherence it was left chasing after in the eyes of critics. Here is what Vassily Rakitin has to say in ‘The Avant-Garde and the Art of the Stalinist Era’ (in The Culture of the Stalin Period, ed. Hans Gunther, Hamburg, 1990, pp.178 ff.): ‘The decisive turning point in the attitude to the avant-garde had already occurred in 1933. The anniversary art exhibition “Artists of the RSFSR: 15 Years” first opened not in Moscow but in Leningrad on 17 November 1932. Its layout – its curator was N.Punin – was organised by groupings and directions. That is, it tried to give a realistic picture of artistic life. In 1933 the exhibition travelled to Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, where it opened on 27 June, and here the entire exhibit was markedly and fundamentally changed. It was no longer an objective showing of what had been done in 15 years. Its subject became the battle for the establishment of the new thematic realism. The space allotted to ‘left’ art was sharply reduced, and it was displayed as a negative example in a separate hall. According to one of the curators, G. Kaganskaya, this hall was immediately dubbed ‘the black room’. I remember that at that time ‘left’ works were usually hung in museums with negative explanatory plaques of the type: An Example of Art in the Age of Imperialism.’ It was this show, together with a book On Formalism in Painting, published by art criticism’s Generalissimo of the day, Osip Beskin, in 1934, that, by outlawing so-called formalism in art, ‘determined the selection of works for exhibitions, the system of government orders and prizes, and the character of museum expositions’ henceforth. Rakitin added: ‘In 1936 all “left” art was taken from the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum and put into reserves.’

How much one needed to have this spelled out. The London 2017 show confirmed that anarchist-modernist spirit that set the Revolution ablaze artistically was abruptly extinguished, but we needed to know how, and in what larger context. A couple of sentences in the accompanying booklet were not enough.

In one way the 1932 show was eerily prescient of the Nazis’ Decadent Art Show of 1937. It laid down a political marker for art in a totalitarian society. In another it was uniquely Russian. The Russians always did (and do) things there own way, however superficially tempting it is to compare the two abyssmal totalitarian systems of the first half of the twentieth century. Though in both cases murderous consequences might follow, the Nazis first chased modernist painters underground with thuggish laughter, while Stalin, the latest Russian autocrat, forged a series of new official definitions as a warning. I think the difference comes down to the fact that the twentieth-century Russian autocrats did think of themselves, however warped that seems to us, as democrats, albeit of a devastatingly cruel Russian kind. Their task was to serve the people and warn it against itself, when political order risked getting out of hand. Just like the banished philosophers of 1922, who were warned by Lenin personally to leave the country rather than remain in a country where they would have no place, 41q3qepdb-l-_sx324_bo1204203200_so the last remaining modernist, Malevich, was warned that the 1932 show at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad would be his last exhibition. He knew what was coming. He had been revisiting his cubo-futurist peasants and painting them with blank faces for some years now. When he magnificently reimagined Nikolai Punin, curator of the 1932 show, as a Renaissance maecenas, after himself being advised to return to portrait painting, he showed how a persecuted modernist artist might find a new home in historicism with a subtle

This RA exhibition assembled such interesting artefacts, but more attention to the ideas that drove these artists’s ambitions, and fates, and the fate of their country would have given us a better idea of what the Revolution was. It was far more complex than its chronology.


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‘Mozart and Salieri’ from Alexander Pushkin to Peter Shaffer

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

When Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature and still its greatest figure, mooted a tragedy called ‘Mozart and Salieri’ an article had recently appeared in the German music press. The rumour was that Antonio Salieri, a minor composer dead in 1825, had confessed to lethally poisoning Mozart out of envy for his genius. Envy so interested Pushkin he branded the word on an envelope containing a draft of the play. [1]  But it was also poison, the very idea of poison, and Salieri’s relationship with God, that gripped him at a deeper level.

He had withdrawn to his country estate of Mikhailovskoe, in Western Russia, in the autumn of 1826. His enormous creative power at the age of 27, as both poet and dramatist, was stifled in a province of a repressive Empire. Don Juan and Jesus, Paul I of Russia and Romulus and Remus were items on list of ten possible dramatizations ahead. But the times were not propitious. Mikhailovskoe, 120 km south of Pskov, was were he was obliged to retreat in the bitter times following the Uprising of  December 14, 1825. When Russia’s first revolution failed at the hands of loyal tsarist troops, five of its leaders, known to Pushkin, drawn from fellow aristocratic circles, were hanged and many others exiled. They had wanted, instead of the imperial ukaz, a constitution and rule of law.

A Romantic view of Pushkin inspired

A Romantic view of Pushkin inspired

Pushkin was deft at handling the authorities. He communicated directly with the tsar. He challenged the bureaucrats who tried to censor his work. But ultimately his soul was defeated. Sometimes lyric poetry can be the most political of all, as Adorno observed, precisely because it is entirely silent about politics.[2] We have in what Pushkin wrote about love astonishing evidence of his political desperation.

One celebrated lyric ‘Bound for the shores of your distant home you were leaving an alien land…’  took farewell of a woman, a foreigner, who left Russia, a woman whom he could never visit, and she didn’t love him anyway, and then she died abroad. That 1830 poem had its roots in another, written in 1826, and which in his diaries Pushkin expressly linked to his Decembrist grief. [3] Failed love for a foreigner, or, in an earlier version of the poem, simply the phenomenon of a Russian friend fleeing abroad, underscored the dispicable and forelorn state of Russia, something  ‘The Upas Tree’, a poem of 1828, (‘Anchar’ in Russian), took up directly. In those verses Pushkin even named the tsar, by his office, as the evil-doer who blighted his own land. That direct reference had to go, but the censor allowed ‘prince’ in its place.

In 1830, in the wake of his Decembrist unhappiness and his sense of Russia as a lone pestilential tree ‘no bird flies towards, no tiger goes near’, Pushkin then wrote ‘Mozart and Salieri’.

This very short play is the other great reference to poison in Pushkin’s oeuvre. It raises the question how a human being can want to foul life itself. Tsar Nicholas I, who followed the weakly liberal Alexander I, and began his reign by executing the Decembrists, seemed to Pushkin like the bringer of plague, and like the plague Salieri had wished on the life of Mozart. It takes meanness and mediocrity to want to stifle genius, and to suppress art. The suppression of his art was how Pushkin most acutely felt the poison of Imperial Russia.

Did he identify himself with Mozart? Surely he did. Critics have often observed of his love of high society that Mozart’s music could easily have bubbled its way through Eugene Onegin (1826), at least in the happier scenes of that unique verse novel. Pushkin borrowed from Da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni when he took up the Don Juan theme. It was also in 1830 that he was writing ‘The Stone Guest’. But the other ‘Little Tragedy’ of that year  was ‘Mozart and Salieri’, or, one might say, ‘The Poisoning of Art’ – my subtitle, not Pushkin’s.

The deadness of tsarist Russia included the miserable, backward, artistically cramped state of Russian theatre, also oppressed by censorship. Perhaps that’s why those dramas Pushkin had in mind, from Don Juan to Jesus, remained unexpanded, or were not written at all. It was as if he could hardly bring himself to make the effort, despite the brilliance of his ideas.  ‘Mozart and Salieri’ was highly condensed. A mere two scenes over ten pages separated Salieri’s declaration of envy from Mozart’s despatch. Still the work was astonishingly rich in dramatic potential. [4]

There was no scene-setting and there were no subsidiary characters, just Salieri the also-ran composer, who hated Mozart because he was a genius. Did the British playwright Peter Shaffer ever refer to Pushkin’s work as the stimulus for his enormously successful play Amadeus, a century and a half later? If so I haven’t found the reference. But it’s a pity for audiences of  the 1979 play, revived at London’s National Theatre in autumn 2016, not to know of the Pushkin connection. For a comparison helps to tease out the meaning of the drama, its glory and its potential weaknesses. The problem, already in the Pushkin script, is that the story has two conflicts at its heart: one between Salieri and Mozart, and one between Salieri and God. Both need dramatic resolution.

Peter Shaffer (1926-2016)

Peter Shaffer (1926-2016)

Pushkin’s Salieri makes it clear from his opening lines that God has let him down. God has tricked him into leading a pious life. He asked God to make him an Artist in return for a lifetime of service, and God’s reward was to show him Mozart, who made him know he was mediocre. Mozart’s art was effortless and irreverent, forever out of reach, like that loved foreigner who ran from her would-be Russian lover. God threw the painful truth  in Salieri’s face. In response Salieri said he ‘envied’ Mozart. Indeed. He envied him as God’s prodigy. But otherwise he hated him, as the ultimate threat to his own existence. If Mozart exists, Salieri’s own life is impossible. (Readers of Dostoevsky will already catch an echo of ‘if no God exists everything is permitted’, the great theme of The Brothers Karamazov half a century later.)

One of the miracles of Pushkin is that he set down, in embryo, so much of the substance of nineteenth-century Russian literature to come, from those ball scenes in Eugene Onegin that look ahead to Tolstoy, to the metaphysical rebellion against God, which became, in Dostoevsky’s hands, a theme no other literature could equal. The critic Vissarion Belinsky, a little younger than Pushkin, first referred to it as ‘returning the ticket’ to God, and what Belinsky felt, and what Pushkin and Dostoevsky gave their characters to say, was that given the state of the world – and perhaps particularly the state of Russia — God could not be just. No, Salieri, God is not just. But how can you incarnate that injustice yourself, as a destroyer of Art?  In Pushkin’s play it is in fact Salieri who is the main character, getting his revenge on God by ‘blocking’ his chosen voice, Mozart’s beautiful music.

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

Pushkin enjoyed many dramatic and lyrical influences, from Schiller to Byron and Coleridge. He was working on ‘a continuation of Goethe’s Faust’ even as he had ‘Mozart and Salieri’ on his desk.[5] There was an early poem of Goethe’s, ‘Prometheus’, which spat at the deity: Und dein nicht zu achten/ Wie ich! (‘And someone like me, who will not respect your kind’ is a pale English translation.)  And then there was Faust himself.

Perhaps that’s why Pushkin in ‘a moment of literary mystification’ labelled his play as ‘translated from the German…’ [6] Faust made a pact, not with God, but with Mephistopheles, to give him total knowledge. Goethe’s play too was about a gifted man, but also a study in unearthly presumption. Except that where Faust failed, and had to be pardoned, ultimately be God, Mozart, succeeded and needed no punishment. He was God’s emissary from the start. God accepts no bargains. He doesn’t care for any of us, as Salieri moans. But he makes his choices.

Shaffer’s 1979 play surely grew out of the Pushkin text. It too opens with Salieri’s rejection of this cruel God who sends Mozart to torment Salieri. It too ends with Salieri aiding and abetting Mozart’s destruction. Pushkin also makes use of Mozart’s uxoriousness, his joking, his love of food and drink, and his healthy indifference to his music being played crudely. In ‘Mozart and Salieri’ a blind fiddler is trying to earn himself a coin by playing voi qui sapete from Act III of the Marriage of Figaro. Mozart rewards him with a coin, but Salieri feels the music is being degraded. Pushkin’s aimiable, bubbling Mozart already suffers from insomnia and has a premonition of darkness to come. The man in black calls on him. Already unwell he fears being poisoned. The actual figments in the mind of Pushkin’s Mozart don’t carry over into Amadeus, but they’re interesting because they’re fears that come from within the making of art, as if that process might hold terrible surprises yet. Pushkin’s Mozart has heard a story that Beaumarchais, author of the play The Marriage of Figaro, killed a man. Also that that Michaelangelo poisoned someone. Pushkin’s Mozart switches between acknowledgement of the ways of the artist, and fear of being their victim. But then he rejects the suspicion, crying out to Salieri: surely villainy and genius don’t go together; by which time Salieri, having administered the poison, knows, about himself, that he is a villain.

There was no music scripted in Pushkin’s miniature drama apart from the blind fiddler’s rendering of voi qui sapete. By contrast the greater part of Shaffer’s play was a reminder to Salieri, and to us, the audience, of just how perfect Mozart’s music was. Inevitably the music threatened to eclipse the subtleties of the verbal drama; in the 2016 NT revival of Amadeus, directed by Michael Longhurst the musicians were even co-opted as actors.

In Pushkin Salieri’s rebellion against God was announced in a thundering opening monologue whose logic was then acted out in the will to poison Mozart. In Shaffer it had to embrace a much longer and more elaborate play. Shaffer’s successful move was to have old Salieri, dying from his first moment on stage, confess his guilt to a priest. The 2016 revival however cut the priest and had Salieri railing at the sky, placing an enormous burden on the actor, and on the willingness of the audience to believe in his spiritual agony. Shaffer’s chain of intimate scenes worked far better, not least because the mediocre priest was shocked, as we needed him to be, by Salieri’s Promethean rantings; but also rendered impotent by them.

The revival, a tribute to Shaffer, who died earlier in 2016, stressed Mozart’s financial poverty, in order to beef him up as a character; and it made a terrible mistake in not allowing the extraordinary intimacy between Mozart and Salieri to flourish, as Shaffer wrote it. As Mozart lay dying, his only friend appeared to be Salieri, who volunteered to write down the last bars of music still in Mozart’s head. Behind that manoeuvre lay the hope, which another Mozart contemporary, not Salieri, had entertained, to pass this music off as his own. Shaffer consummated his fictional Salieri’s evil by adding this final flourish to it.

Milos Forman’s 1984 film of Amadeus was made in collaboration with Shaffer and like Shaffer’s stage play of five years earlier it was staggeringly successful. It turned Pushkin’s condensed ‘Little Tragedy’ into a splendiferous costume drama. It rejoiced in Mozart’s delirious happiness in his own music. To film it in Prague, in the intact eighteenth-century streets and the Tyl Theatre, where the real Mozart had conducted, was deeply personal for Forman, a Czechoslovak exile.

Milos Forman (1932-      )

Milos Forman (1932- )

Shaffer, overcome with emotion when he first entered the Tyl Theatre, could hardly have been unhappy with Forman’s fidelity to his script.

Indeed only Mozart scholars were distressed at the combined impact of play and film. H. C.Robbins Landon wrote his engaging 1791: Mozart’s Last Year  2nd edition, (London, 1989) to point out that Wolfgang Amadeus was not a salacious buffoon, and that he died of a virus after years of poor health, not of poison administered by Salieri.

But Robbins Landon might have read Pushkin, and the Shaffer text, before he condemned them. He might have allowed himself to be persuaded that this was not, originally, a play about Mozart, but one involving him in another man’s quarrel with God; that Shaffer’s Salieri was actually accusing himself of having poisoned Mozart’s life, not his body. Meanwhile Shaffer and Forman won many many new admirers for Mozart’s music worldwide.41jt33rfkpl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Sadly, in this story of ‘Mozart and Salieri’ the 2016 revival of Amadeus at London’s National Theatre muffled the true human and metaphysical drama, while pushing the music towards sensational. We don’t live in poisoned times, but we are not subtle.

[1] A.S. Pushkin, Poln’noe sobranie Sochinenii v desyati tomakh [PSS], (Leningrad, 1978), v.V, p.511.

[2] Quoted in David Weir,  Anarchy and Culture The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism, (Amhert, 1997), p.165.

[3] PSS, (Leningrad, 1978), v.II, p.384.

[4] Cf. Robert Reid,  Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri: Themes, Character, Sociology, (Leiden, 1995)

[5] PSS, V, p.511.

[6] PSS, V, p.511.

Posted in Film, Literature in Translation, Music, Pushkin, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Adorno, the Frankfurt School and the Soul of Europe

No one who has read Theodore Adorno would have been surprised by last summer’s Charlie Hebdo cartoon when Amatrice, an Italian town otherwise known for its pasta sauce, suffered a fatal earthquake. The French magazine with its satirical pasta shapes covered with blood and sticking plaster suggested we consume disasters like we consume spaghetti. That’s exactly what Adorno meant by the Culture Industry: getting things in the wrong moral register, for lack of a spiritual norm to refer to.


In the last fifty years an easy way to refer to Adorno’s attacks on capitalism has been to evoke, more generally, the Frankfurt School. When the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was set up in 1923, sociology taking over from philosophy as the leading humanities discipline after the disastrous First World War and the collapse of the German Empire, Adorno was on board. His friend and collaborator Max Horkheimer was briefly director from 1930 until both were forced to emigrate. Adorno and Horkheimer became famous in their US exile, and subsequently in Britain, as the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which, first-time round, in German, they wrote in 1944 and quietly published in 1947. In it there they hammered away at the American commercial culture they found so shocking, after high-minded pre-war Germany. But their other target was totalitarianism, Hitler’s dictatorship.  They linked both these undesirable phenomena, one shallow, the other evil, with uses of reason, and technology, that exploited people’s souls, for want of a better word, rather than respected them. Of course that link has remained controversial.

I’d like to explain where it came from. The Frankfurt School didn’t depend on classical Marxism for its reasoning, but it was nevertheless deeply affected by Marx and Hegel. It used the high culture of German Idealism, and the dialectic of Hegel and Marx, and the Freudian unconscious, to try to unseat twentieth-century positivism, and what it saw as the capitalist attack on individual discrimination. By positivism I mean an excessive dependence on narrow rationality to define human truths. Individual discrimination meanwhile was the worry that capitalism put too many deceptions and obstacles in the way of the experiencing subject for anyone to be sure their knowledge of the world was true. Herbert Marcuse, one of the later Frankfurt school teachers, for instance worried that the recording industry obscures the true experience of music. But then what is that ‘true’ experience? Of course you can feel the old power of Idealist metaphysics here, surfacing to try deal with the sudden acceleration of technological progress in the twentieth century. For the German Idealists, Kant to Hegel, what we are is what we know, and perhaps even more important, how we know it; moreover how we know the world has a moral component. For its appreciative critics as for its detractors, this German epistemology – the extraordinary Idealist science of knowledge – was the last of the grand marriages between philosophy and Christianity that were perpetuated the Continental rationalist tradition. It was Idealism, still a set of metaphysical beliefs, that confirmed for the Frankfurt School that there was a truth of experience worth worrying about. They suspected capitalism was a conspiracy against that truth, in order to make money.

Cruder than the Frankfurt School, but the same message

Cruder than the Frankfurt School, but the same message

Attacking commercialism in the Frankfurt-School spirit

Attacking commercialism in the Frankfurt-School spirit


Adorno espoused a Marxism that suited this outlook but which was neither Moscow-inspired nor particularly concerned with the working-class.  I’ll say it again. He minded capitalism’s intrusion into the quality of our experience. I’ve always found that claim plausible. Think of it as philosophy’s equivalent of protesting that a huge ugly building ruins your view of nature, or unavoidable aural pap wipes out the Beethoven in your head. Both Horkheimer and Adorno felt the West needed rescuing from this terrible eclipse of integrity from culture. What people do now is flee to their chosen wildernesses, leaving the city, which they also love, and love to hate, to sort itself out. But Adorno and Horkheimer, with a touch of doomsday passion brought on by the excesses of the Hitler age, and the shock of their exile in the US, felt that individuals, and society, needed more guidance in the form of philosophical-sociological critique.

Their colleague the Freudian social critic Erich Fromm meanwhile wondered whether love itself had not become commodified in the twentieth-century rush to homogenize human feeling and sell it back to a mass market as a standard product. As a variation on the theme, two other great German-Jewish thinkers of the period, Marcuse, and the post-Freudian Wilhelm Reich who was not strictly of the Frankfurt School but related to them through his interest, like Fromm’s, imagined sexual liberation might liberate us from consumerist uniformity. Marcuse envisaged a critical society running free, enjoying by choice the high art of the past and unhibited free love. While Reich as an alternative German therapist in exile was persecuted by the US authorities, Marcuse as a university professor in California became the guru of radical counter-culture in the 1960s.

Wilhelm Reich under arrest. He died in prison in 1957.

Wilhelm Reich under arrest. He died in prison in 1957.

The Frankfurt School, better-known in the US than in Britain, has since been famously blamed, in large part, for ‘the closing of the American mind’. What a coup that was, to sideline, in the 1980s, the only force that would have sustained an American Left capable of taking on the big corporations in spiritual terms; capable of asking, what are you doing turning the mass of Americans into Nietzschean herd-people! It happened in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and in its wake subsequent generations of American intellectuals were quite at home with consumerism, and even imagined they could turn it into a moral project in itself. The journalist David Brooks gave the cultural appeasers a name: they were the bohemian bourgeoisie, a new bourgeoisie for the 1990s, intellectuals who liked shopping.  Derek Jameson, who remained devoted to Continental Philosophy, and its awkward critique of capitalism, was a rare exception.

What came to Britain from the Frankfurt School was not so much liberation  – we were liberated but not from this source and this form —  but Critical Theory.  Critical Theory hit British shores in the 1960s as a faint and quickly rejected influence on the New Left. The cultural materialism of Raymond Williams was a kind of parallel, and a shadow, born of a world more concerned with a defence of the working class, antipathetic towards the British Establishment and worried about –end-of-Empire. Art critic John Berger’s take on Walter Benjamin meant that Critical Theory would cause faint waves in obscure corners of art history. But in a recent book, Grand Hotel Abyss The Lives of the Frankfurt School (Verso, 2016), journalist Stuart Jeffries found that the Frankfurt School never really put down roots of influence, and that no one really cares today.  grand-hotel-abyss

The Frankfurt School were accused of being philosophical tourists in the disaster zone that 1930s Europe became. And yet it seems to me that these ‘philosophical tourists’ have many merits which would allow them to be rescued. Today for instance they are a way to understand why and how Europe, intellectual Europe, differs in its traditions from the British, and not only as a result of that tired explanation, its different experience of the twentieth century at war. The difference between Europe and Britain is something many of us want to ponder, as we have an isolationist and mercantile Brexit thrust upon us. What is striking to me is that Brexit is entirely lacking in moral imagination.

In the beginning two German-Jewish generations clashed to produce a furious reaction against material affluence. The late nineteenth-century fathers were businessmen who had got rich in the boom that followed German unification. Adorno’s father was in the wine trade; Horkheimer (who struggled far more with the paternal inheritance) was the son of a textile-factory owner. Their friend the critical writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin was born to a Berlin banker and antiques dealer. The commercial fathers defined a new bourgeoisie, but now their sons were intellectuals who worried about spiritual displacement.

Every time I refer to the spirit or the soul, as a reasonable, educated inhabitant of the twenty-first century, and even more as a native of a down-to-earth materialist country like the UK, I feel have to explain myself. But I can, and I will. ‘Spiritual displacement’ for instance meant to the last, critical inheritors of Idealism in the 1920s and 1930s, that the power of new money and the might of industry was destroying their nineteenth-century cultural church and its philosophical underpinnings. They were losing what they loved, and humanity was dwindling, as would be exemplified, in their view, by the German people’s frightful seduction by Hitler. While they studied Marxism as a potential antidote, they never really found an answer as to how to stem the tide except to teach Critical Theory, a form of intellectual resistance through the creation of concepts that could name and shame capitalism’s manipulative devices. They were sociologists, after all. Later, ironically, by the likes of Bloom, they would be accused of trying to annihilate the old culture themselves.  bloom-american-mind

The Institute came into being in Frankfurt am Main in 1923 to ask why a German Communist Revolution had not succeeded. That was its greatest Marxist credential. As soon as Hitler came to power, the Nazis pounced on this explicitly Marxist and Jewish hotbed, with Horkheimer crossing the Atlantic in 1934 and Adorno following in 1938. Fromm and Marcuse rejoined them. Only Benjamin never made it, out of indecision, fear and misfortune, and ended up killing himself in the south of France rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis.

Horkheimer, always the more moderate and conservative of the two, had already been toning down the Marxist image in Germany, and now he and Adorno airbrushed the M-word from their texts, not to offend their hosts and sponsors at Columbia University in new York, where the Institute was accommodated away from home. Thus while Dialectic of Enlightenment was fiercely anti-commercial, it really ached with personal disappointment.  The authors’ furious and melancholy sally skewered the Kantian ethics and Hegelian Idealism that had let them down, and now, in their absence was misleading the German people. Philosophy seemed complicit in reducing the Germans to a passive nation enamoured of authority.  But yes, the personal disappointment also extended to the New World’s mass-cultural happy-go-lucky optimism. How could they find themselves a place there? As Hannah Arendt, another bemused German-Jewish exile in New York, observed: only a culture with a strong dash of pessimism can expect to be taken seriously. (Bloom, shame on him, would name this wonderful thinker as one of America’s worst cultural imports.)

Adorno and Horkheimer’s offensive against the German heritage deepened into a devastating attack on Reason, or the heritage of the Enlightenment, and this became the badge of their Cultural Theory. Reason was at fault because in the world-colonizing instrumental form it took it led to the domination of nature, and thus paved the way, despite Enlightenment’s emancipatory programme, for the industrial annihilation of human beings.

As I say, it still is puzzling to many, how Adorno and Horkheimer could refer, in the same breath as they condemned Hitler and Stalin, the Shoah and the Great Terror, to commercial totalitarianism in the US, all as an extension of the negative legacy of the Enlightenment. But in fact the equation was based on a horror of social comformity, wherever and in whatever form. To Horkeimer born in 1895, and Adorno in 1903, the new technologies of wireless and film, offshoots of the astonishing progress made by science in the fifty years surrounding their births, and the growth of mass spectacle, were a deep threat to individual discrimination. Their friend in the Frankfurt they left behind, the journalist Siegfried Kracauer, wrote a timely essay on ‘The Culture of Mass Ornament’, which also cut between the Tiller Girls Dance Troupe and the aesthetics of totalitarianism on show at the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. How did people lose their resistance to mass manipulation? Did they ever have it? Hidden deep in the mindset of Adorno was a belief in the self-reliance of individual judgement, in fact a cornerstone of the Enlightement’s own faith in mankind. But instrumental reason had nevertheless betrayed the Enlightment and led the modern world astray.

In my view Critical Theory was always puzzling because it was an extremely attentuated form of the old Kantian Subjective Idealism it was attacking and mourning at the same time. By the time of his death Benjamin was so bereft at the loss of faith in Kantian reason he was looking to Judaism for a new anchor. Adorno meanwhile maintained his angry stance. (One of his later books was subtitled ‘Reflections out of a Damaged Life’).  If the surface response of Critical Theory was, as Stuart Jeffries says in his Grand Hotel Abyss, ‘I’m not playing along,’ the hurt went deeper.

Adorno and Horkheimer wrote extensively of the seductiveness of authority; of how willingly, on the German example, people gave up their freedom to discriminate and protest. And they did this because, implicitly, they felt that if the Kantian tradition in critical subjectivity had not failed, Hitler wouldn’t have happened. But mass seduction and authoritarianism were not problems exclusive to Germany. And so these high-minded Germans turned from attacking Nazism to attacking Hollywood, because they felt that only the old values of individual discrimination nourished by a knowledge of high art and true love created enough resistance to mass manipulation. Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving (1956) of how much the capacity for true unsentimental love, erotic, filial and communal, mattered to the spiritual integrity of a society.fromm

If the Germannesss of all this is so obscure to British minds – a topic which I return to over and over, whatever the writer or philosopher in question — perhaps what needs to be said, simply, is that it hinges on a morality of perception which was always closely related to theology. How must I know the world in order to be a good person? If it is ever to be practised it relies on voluntary abstention and avoidance of whatever gets in the way of the better vision for humanity. Anything else would be political repression.

And so we come back to liberal Europe today, its very liberality in crisis, but its staunch supporters insisting on that moral-theological choice despite mercantile pressures. It’s a Europe that long ago assimilated the better aspects of Marxism in its concern with working conditions and general welfare, and through its French contribution particularly has retained a wariness of US commercialism, and of the UK’s trade before culture economic tradition, otherwise known as the anglo-Saxon model. In this Europe, outstandingly in Germany, where British politicians visit and gasp, it’s also the case that high culture still matters, in a way that Adorno, in fact perhaps best-known today as a music critic, would recognize. Adorno, who wrote on Beethoven and Schubert, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and himself studied with Alban Berg, was no rebel from a world in which his mother had been an opera singer and he might have been a concert pianist. High culture was his upbringing.

In 1949 Adorno returned to what had become West Germany. The Frankfurt School was reinstated in the city of its birth and he and Horkheimer were restored to positions of academic celebrity. But their attitudes didn’t change. Adorno pursued an extreme pessimism, returning in different forms again and again to what caused German Idealism to fail. He saw it as his duty to resist the scientific positivism which was at once Anglo-Saxon in its roots and dominant in the post-war West, and to favour an approach which took greater notice of what was non-rational and extraneous and didn’t fit the paradigms. Adorno argued that the prevalent style of science arose out of the form of society that made it happen, and that in the process, the way science functioned in a capitalist society, critical challenge to the status quo was blocked. The Marxist-style argument was not convincing, though once again the run-in with what science was after, and the (im)possibility of the true society making it happen, reached back to what Adorno never called, but clearly was, theology for a secular age.

I’m struck by how Stuart Jeffries summed up the value of the Frankfurt School just a year ago. ‘Art has become impossible thanks to the impoverishment that it sought to honour. Instead we are left with the easily consumable products of the culture industry …the spirit of utopia is expendable in the online industry for which, among others Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are responsible, and which gives us more of the same, develops algorithms the better to chain us to our taste, and makes us desire our own domination…[It is] a customized culture, one that abolishes serendipity, makes a mockery of dignity and turns human liberation into a terrifying prospect…’

The difficulty for anyone on the Left is to go along with Adorno’s lament for a Western high culture that crumbled under pressure of greater liberty and equality, and then was entirely colonized by digitzed markets.  But the difficulty of seeing how new generations can possibly resist market domination of their private experience makes Jeffries wonder whether alongside the problem of physical evil, on which Marx built his case to protect the material wellbeing of the worker, there was not always also metaphysical evil to contend with. How to protect and nurture the human soul is a question almost never discussed today, because for a start you would have to believe in it. But you could meanwhile admire Adorno, who tried to restate a concern for the soul, and you could mourn the European ideal, of which the Frankfurt School was a building block.

Posted in A Shoe Story, Art History, Britain Today, Europe, Frankfurt School, German Literature, Philosophy and Philosophers, Things German | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments