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 message.download-5

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

Derrida: A very short defence

The critic Terry Eagleton recently published a review in The Times Literary Supplement (9 June 2016) in which he noted the passing of poststructuralism as an event without mourners. This was my response with regard to his observations on Jacques Derrida, the philosopher-performer who was so vilified in British academic circles during his lifetime and was barely granted a gracious obituary when he died in 2004.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Eagleton made much of the connection between the 1968 student revolts in Paris and the way  Derrida’s deconstruction burst on to the literary-philosophical scene in an attempt finally to cripple the power of the traditional humanities, with their core belief in universal meaning and continuity. ‘Libertarian pessimism’, Eagleton labelled Derrida’s contribution, with hindsight, and that seemed to me just right to describe this much-maligned thinker’s engagement with the dwindling power of the Logos in the second half of the twentieth century.

But is the best context to understand Derrida really the last- gasp French Marxism that took to the streets of Paris in 1968? Derrida was never a Marxist and never saw eye-to-eye with the  leftist radicals like Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers grouped around the journal Tel Quel.

It’s only when we remember  that that last gasp include a sigh of misery on the part of the philosophers that the Soviet version of Communism had proved such a disappointment that we begin to get a handle on Derrida’s essentially anti-totalitarian position. He opposed any notion of fixed values and meanings that could be used as instruments of political and cultural repression, and this went for the great cultural goods in literature and art and music which he had in desperation to protest he loved as much as anyone else. He only wanted to announce, as a philosopher, that he saw the danger of false normalities and narrowings, even in the free world.

French culture is, or was, as everyone knows, dominated by philosophy, and where Marx was/is regarded preeminently as a philosopher, the endlessly repeated question was how totalitarianism happened, since, for his supporters at least, Marx was open-ended. Derrida was certainly part of that response, in tandem, for instance, with Paul Ricoeur, one of his shrewdest and most appreciative critics.

For those horrified where Marxism had ended up, Marx’s philosophical predecessor Hegel had to be tackled. This was a Hegel who with Kant could be regarded as the father of Continental Philosophy, but whose dialectic had led, as it seemed, to the wretched closed system of the East Bloc, and the attendant punishments there for anyone who stepped out of line.

G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831)

G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Consider this parallel. After the Second World War Germany, West Germany as was, spent the next forty years trying to master its erroneous past, in a self-lacerating cultural process known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Something similar happened in French philosophy after the veneer of Soviet Communism was peeled away. The question arose: where did we go wrong, for our ideals of humanitarian progress to end in the Gulag?

Derrida’s self-deconstructing performances whereby the dominant ideas of a culture were rendered undecidable were not pointless in that intellectually damaged France, wondering about the Marxist-Leninism to which it had been committed for so long. Still less was Derrida’s method frivolous with regard to the other Europe, the East Bloc, which still was ideologically imprisoned world for most of his lifetime. Derrida knew real totalitarian conditions well through his Czech-born wife and his involvement in Czechoslovakia.

Nor was the affinity between Soviet totalitarianism and its Nazi equivalent ever far from Derrida’s mind. As a Jew he had been sent home from school in Nazi-occupied Algiers.

When the Jewish pied-noir arrived in mainland France he found he was marginal for different reasons, and that too must have been an incentive to want to undo establishment hierarchies that didn’t welcome in the stranger. For the provincial lad whose voice was too loud Freud was an obvious source of deconstruction. Heidegger was a second tool, for there were bourgeois norms, bound up with classical metaphysics, to be ridiculed too.

It was when Derrida became an industry that the humanities really began to suffer from the Derrida effect. Anyone who has ever sat through a lecture cum performance by a Derridean hanger-on will not be surprised or perturbed by post-structuralism’s demise.

But as one has to say in the case of so many thinkers, what follows in their name is not exactly their fault. Derrida was one man’s resistance to a twentieth-century Western fate. He pioneered a kind of intellectual slapstick and made sure he couldn’t be duplicated.

In fact, and this has to be a great irony, because it places centre-stage those who rejected him in Britain, Derrida’s libertarian spirit has quietly migrated to British philosophy without the historical baggage. I heard one philosopher recently use the word ‘normative’ thirty times in thirty minutes, presumably to tell us that norms are bad.

It’s true that the post-structuralist dislike of norms has helped the neo-liberal economy expand and the possibilities of a unifying culture shrink. But don’t blame that on Derrida! Blame it on the aforementioned neo-liberal type of philosopher-parrot with no sense of European history!

I’ve blogged here about Derrida before, and also written about him in my latest book, A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West.

Posted in A Shoe Story, Europe, Philosophy and Philosophers | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tony Blair: Idealist, Liberal or just Confused?



...or liberal?

…or liberal?

People fell in love with Tony Blair when he was elected Labour Prime Minister in May 1997.  Ten years later they hated him. Parliament had been lied to over the Iraq war. There never were convincing reasons to believe Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that could hit the UK in forty minutes.

Blair has tried to ignore his unpopularity. To the present day he persists in commenting on the British political scene. People aren’t interested and the media barely do their duty by a passé VIP. No other major public figure since King Edward VIII in 1936 has been so effectively ostracized,  astonishingly in Blair’s case by the people’s will alone.

In Edinburgh in 2006 I was staying in a hotel with Blair’s old public school Fettes visible from the window. No one on the hotel staff had a kind word for a man who might a few years earlier have helped to keep their rooms full. A biography published in 2016 continued to heap up the charges of mendacity, coupled with a feeling, if you were a Labour stalwart, that the heart of the party had been betrayed. The writer Robert Harris, once a friend, was so incensed that in 2008 he published a novel, The Ghost, in which Blair’s fictional double, a corrupt socialite hiding behind an international reputation for goodwill, met a violent end. The evidence that since leaving office the once socialist Blair has also made a great deal of money out of his worldwide political celebrity has finally trashed his reputation as a decent man.

No doubt he feels hurt. No doubt his wealth is some compensation.

I never voted for him because I couldn’t bear his populism. Who respects a prime minister who only ever listens to pop music? Besides, I’m a Europhile ‘wet’ Tory, with a Green conscience, stuck in the very era, the early 1990s, that Blair surpassed. (The ‘wets’ were the gentler Conservatives sacked by Margaret Thatcher.)

So this isn’t a political defence or even a personal one. It’s just a way of opening up the question. Mendacity is a strong charge. But even in those more kindly disposed to Blair, or even impartial, there is a feeling of a strange incompatibility of ideas in his then outlook. Former Tory ‘Wet’, last Commissioner of Hong Kong and presently Chancellor of the University of Oxford Chris Patten observed, while reviewing a biography of  Henry Kissinger, that the American statesman whose foreign policy views dominated the Cold War wasn’t the pragmatist the world took him for. Often he was guided by ideals. He asked, in passing, was not some similar confusion at stake over Tony Blair? ‘As Tony Blair’s career demonstrated, it is even possible, if confusing, sometimes to be motivated by both sentiments at the same time.’[1]

To that one might say that a whole era was confused, and to glance at Blair’s career is to see it plainly.

It’s problematic to bring in the word ‘liberal’ but it can’t be avoided. It belonged to the age: of Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK, in a world morally uplifted by the demise of Soviet Communism.  The London-based magazine of ideas Prospect was one of its chief mouthpieces.

Just to take an example from domestic politics first. In 2008 the then head of the Demos thinktank Richard Reeves stretched the definition of ‘liberal’ to a new degree of elasticity by suggesting liberals should interfere in problem families and promote ‘good character’ but not oppose the government’s support for casinos. (Prospect August 31 2008)

Wasn’t there, isn’t there, some terrible confusion here?

What these two arguments have in common is that they are both utilitarian. In the first case, society needs protection from minority antisocial elements. Treating them as the victims of their social circumstances hasn’t worked. The state is left with no option but to intervene, whatever that entails. In the second, the utilitarian argument is applied to the freedom of business to make what profit it can from what a socialist would see as the weakness or vulnerability of certain sections of the population, but what a right-liberal would simply see as offering choice. Neither of these arguments seems particularly appealing to me, taken singly, but fudged together and called liberal they become a source of real pain. They further show how by the mid-2000s the word liberal had become almost meaningless in British discourse, except as a kind of password among like-minded friends. Those ‘liberals’ didn’t want to be bossy, but they also didn’t want society to fall apart. (A whole book could be written on how ‘rules’ were made, to look tough, but not implemented, not to hassle anyone, in the Blair era.) The same ‘liberals’ had a social conscience, but with socialism so deeply out of fashion they didn’t dare oppose themselves to the market.

The period up to the financial crash of 2008 looks to have been marked by a distinct bifurcation of the word liberal. There were left-liberals whose platform was social equality and right-liberals who talked about freedom and democracy but mainly proclaimed the freedom to spend money. Then there were the fudge-it liberals, call them proponents of The Third Way, who held both views at the same time.

All this might have been merely irritating if the test of whatever liberalism was hadn’t come with the Iraq War. To intervene in a problem country, or not? To be seen to be doing so on moral grounds while taking a casino-style punt on making a financial profit, or not?

One conclusion about Tony Blair might be that he thought he was a liberal, and the definition as managed by his friends and intellectual sympathizers was so elastic he was fully justified in his self-assessment. It meant he could do anything in the name of freedom and democracy, just like his US counterpart George W. Bush.

But there’s something else.

Here is one of my favourite stories in the history of ideas. A century ago there was a British philosopher who spent his entire life trying to work out what made people moral. At the end of his span he discovered the answer was that nothing necessarily did. No rational or emotional argument sufficed. He hesitated whether to incorporate this conclusion in his life’s work, and decided not to. The fragility of morality was not something, even if true, that he wanted to make public.

Did the great Victorian moral philosopher Henry Sidgewick do the right thing?

Henry Sidgwick 1838-1900

Henry Sidgwick 1838-1900

Bernard Williams, the greatest moral liberal in British philosophy of the twentieth century, was scathing. Henry Sidgwick, he said, had a’Government House’ mentality which was itself mendacious, because it placed ‘moral truth’ in the hands of the few, and held back the actual ‘truth’ from the many. It was a kind of imperialism of the mind, suited to a heirarchical, unequal country. It meant esoteric knowledge for the initiated and exoteric pap for the plebs.

Bernard Williams 1929-2003

Bernard Williams 1929-2003

But Williams’ contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre, a lifelong Communist and latter-day Communitarian, found that Sidgewick’s failure to find a fundamental source in human nature for morality was a tragedy.

Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre

If Williams was a liberal, and MacIntyre an idealist, whose side would you have been on? There was something definitive about these positions.

And yet in each case there was more to say about them. For Williams’s liberalism rested on a mixture of uncertainty and hope as to how human beings could arrange their affairs in a spirit of mutual tolerance, openness and non-interference, while MacIntyre, who had recently exchanged his Marxism for Roman Catholicism, believed in a guiding idea to shape the communal life. The fact that these positions appear to be irreconcilable opposites, and yet both aspire to a left-wing politics, may help us understand how confusion over what was liberal was put to the test of war in 2003.

The factor present in the Blair era but which went unspoken was MacIntyre-ish idealism. Idealist is just as unserviceable a word as liberal. But let’s say idealists are people who have a certain idea of what they want society to be like. Idea in the sense of an ideal pattern they’ve dreamed up in their heads, usually conforming to a vision of reason or of the good life. Idealists, said Patten, are ‘those whose ideals shape and infuse their actions.’ In these senses idealism contains a strong element of social construction, quite likes rules and is generally opposed to deregulation and laissez-faire. It’s a mentality that can come from the left – old-style socialism was idealist in this sense, or from the old-style paternalist right. But what idealism is not is liberal, neither economically nor socially.

What would you say? That Tony Blair went to war in Iraq because of a moral idea? I think so. Like a liberal government intervening in problem families for the sake of promoting good character, there he was, eventually allowing Saddam’s head to be used as a football, in the name of freedom and democracy. Unfortunately the idea was in its first assumption of justified interventionism shaky. Also the moral content it supposed itself to be carrying was empty. Deregulation and laissez-faire couldn’t give any guidance on how to live. They just made money for the post-war invasion of foreign contractors seeking a profit from rebuilding.

Freedom was another awkward word, and behind it lurked exactly the liberal/idealist dichotomy that in my view characterized the Blair era unbeknown to it. Negative freedom is leaving people to do their own thing. That is liberal. That is a la Bernard Williams and Isaiah Berlin. Positive freedom is putting ideals out there and encouraging others to aspire to them. That is idealist. That is MacIntyre. And yet it was the liberals in Blair’s sense who were interventionist in foreign policy, and yet in the name of an ideal.

In fact this same tension between letting people get on with their own lives and giving them an idea how to go about it lies at the heart of Britain’s current problems with Europe, and Europe’s own with the so-called anglo-saxon market model. The French ideal for two centuries has been to build society on certain secular, rationally determined principles. That rationalism includes a vision of how humanity ought to be, and unchecked liberalism puts a strain on the vision. The same is true of contemporary Germany. It’s why Chancellor Angela Merkel, nominally on the political right, seems to belong in British terms to the caring left. The EU is the ultimate moral-political idea of her time, and Francois Hollande’s. Brits are encouraged to think about whether to stay in or leave the EU purely in selfish economic terms, but the result of the June 23 2016 referendum will also be about their intellectual and moral future.

So it wasn’t just a confusion of the Blair era. In British domestic politics the liberal/idealist distinction – at least as I’ve set it out here – continues to polarize all of us. Economic liberals love choice. Idealists hate it as the supreme evasion of government and market responsibility. Idealists like the Welfare State. Liberals don’t, to judge by those militant Americans, incomprehensible in Europe, who blocked President Obama’s Health Care bill. Education equally tears us apart. On Grammar Schools, say, what once seemed an instrument of the good life stopped serving its purpose and academies were introduced, but they are suspected of being half a government Idea and half a market opportunity. Idealists on the left in education keep searching for a new political Idea acceptable to them ie. non-selective, and refuse to leave the market to sort things out. But they, the teachers, very often exercise a conservative effect.

New Labour, Blair’s party, rose and fell on the strength of getting rid of its idealism, the old Labour idea of defending the workers against the market.

Blair rose and fell because he was an idealist who thought he was a liberal. I wonder what he calls himself now?

For myself I’ll settle for idealist.

[1] Niall Furguson Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist reviewed in the Financial Times Sept 18, 2015


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

Shakespeare and Wagner or Turning the Bard Inward

What is it links Shakespeare and Wagner?

shakespeare image wagner

Almost a hundred years ago Edgar Istel  examined how Wagner borrowed from Measure for Measure to create his early opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)and set out how Wagner read Shakespeare and returned to him throughout his life. [1]  But the real Wagner/Shakespeare story it seems to me is much more interesting than a conventional historical approach can reveal. Essentially it takes us through two ages of philosophy. We need to compare a certain overlap between Descartes and Shakespeare, and another, three hundred years later, between Husserl and Wagner. It will help us see exactly what Wagner was doing with his Shakespeare.

Descartes (1596-1650) would have been six when Hamlet was first performed in London, and he never referred to Shakespeare. The Bard is much more often compared with the sceptical Montaigne (1533-1592) But when the philosopher Bernard Williams called Descartes ‘the soliloquizer of The Meditations’ he was not wrong, for Hamlet was full of  cognitive doubt. [2] In that 1641 text Descartes dared challenge God and the moral order by asking a set of forensic questions. Like the character Hamlet Descartes opened up a new universe of subjectivity which risked being godless.

With Hamlet Shakespeare was interested in how a world including England was poised to change with Luther’s Protestantism.  In Wittenberg Martin Luther, professor of theology from 1508, had nailed his decrees of protest against Rome to the church door in 1517. At The Diet of Worms in 1521 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V outlawed him as a heretic. Both of these signifiers became key functions in the 1610 play: Wittenberg played a role right from the first two scenes of Act I and the Diet of Worms was a joke in Act IV scene iii, closely followed by ‘The present death of Hamlet. Do it England…’

Luther and Descartes agreed, more or less, that only the individual can say whether the experience in our heads corresponds to what is actually real and true of whatever world we are part of. Luther’s Christianity eschewed the authority of the Church in favour of  personal faith alone: fide sola.

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was shown to be the instrument of the new Wittenberg inwardness.  It had turned him into an acute agent of moral conscience/consciousness, with his ‘globe’ ‘distracted’ (I:v). He spoke ‘I’ in a new way.  Moreover, because of his emotional character, and what had happened in his life, he was about to show how the new faith, with its insufficient guarantees of certainty, could drive a susceptible man to madness.

Now we can follow Hamlet’s torment from outside, as a study in subjectivity, and as a dramatic reflection of the Cartesian doubt, which the Romantics did.

But as a twentieth-century critic suggested around fifty years ago now, under a different kind of philosophical guidance we can also immerse ourselves in Hamlet’s consciousness, and perhaps have a rather different philosophical-artistic experience. ‘It is no longer a question of pretending that Hamlet is real so that we may become interested in his adventures. Instead we make ourselves present to Hamlet’s world so that it may touch us and flow into us. Feeling has depth…and does not proceed without fervour…There is even love…the expectation of a conversion by the attention we pay to the other…in the aesthetic attitude.’ [3]



It is the phenomenological approach to Hamlet, I want to suggest, is what helps us see the Shakespeare-Wagner relationship in a new light.

With his phenomenology Husserl took the Cartesian cogito – the I think, I am – in a new direction by asking not what it was to know, but what it was to be conscious. When  the mind is awake, even semi-awake, it has thoughts, and fantasies, references to past, future and nowhere and never, which all get drawn into the experience of now. Intentionality is what Husserl calls everything filling our consciousness at one moment; and what he wants to pin down is all the wishing and hoping and fearing and promising and speculating and fantasizing and regretting that engulf us. Husserl’s phenomenology is about what grammar calls the subjunctive mood.  Wagner set that to music.

In fact Husserl thought that his work was like that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an extraordinary lyric poet and one of Wagner’s immediate operatic successors, but the parallel with Wagner works much more powerfully.  Wagner himself once brilliantly defined his approach: ‘As the drama does not describe human personages but lets them present themselves directly, music in its motifs immediately brings before us the character of world-phenomena in their most intimate seity. The movement, configuration and variation of these motifs are…not simply related to the drama, but the drama presenting the idea can in reality only fully be comprehended through the movements, shapes and changes of these motifs of the music…Hence if we gather together the complex of the cosmos of Shakespeare’s shapes…and compare it with the cosmos of Beethoven’s motifs…one must become aware that the one microcosm is fully the equivalent of the other…’[4]

Wagner admired Shakespeare’s grandeur and range. He paid him the ultimate compliment of calling him ‘The Second Creator’.


But where the composer’s originality began he became Shakespeare’s rival. He made two crucial autobiographical statements which show the path he took. The first was that  he actually became a composer  to equal Shakespeare. The second, intricately related to the first, was that Shakespeare originated the music-drama.

In truth Wagner wanted to be Shakespeare. He summed up why late in his life: ‘Shakespeare, the great mimetic talent, could not fulfil all the roles he created. The composer, however, may realise all aspects of music and may be at one with the executant musician.’[5]

And so he drew Shakespeare’s world of epic grandeur and Hamletian interiority into his own religion of art, where he transformed it. Consider only the leitmotiv by which he approached his Shakespearean-style  heroes and heroines, warriors and lovers, from inside their emotions, and represented those interiorities of longing, loving, hating, promising with a new musico-dramatic device. The leitmotiv has been described as ‘an all-embracing amalgam of sound, feeling and experience, the little phrase is a single unified thing, in ordinary terms “a moment in time”.’ [6]


One of his biographers has suggested the ‘Total Work of Art’, Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, was simply a formula to use all of Wagner’s talents.[7] But I suggest rather it was a homage to Shakespeare, stoked by Wagner’s desire for his audience to submit to a rival total experience.

Meanwhile the philosophers we have referred to make it clear that Wagner was striving to convey consciousness, not subjectivity, and that was what made him post-Romantic and Early Modernist, if we want to stick even more labels on his achievement.


[1] Margaret Inwood The Influence of Shakespeare on Richard Wagner (1999).

[2] Bernard Williams Descartes The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978,1990) 68.

[3] Mikel Dufrenne The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1953) tr. Edward S. Casey (1973) 405-406.

[4] Edgar Istel Wagner and Shakespeare (1922)

[5] Roger Paulin The Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany 1682-1914 (2003), 429.

[6] Malcolm Bowie Proust Among the Stars (1988) 109

[7] Brian Magee Aspects of Wagner (1968) 84

(The above a shortened version of a talk given to Kingston University Shakespeare Seminar on Jan 8, 2015.)


Posted in english literature, German Literature, Music, Philosophy and Philosophers, Theatre, Things German | Tagged , , , , , , , ,