Friday, 1 March 2019


Saunders Lewis, unacknowledged and tainted depths, Maurice Barres



I read Maurice Barrès' 1904 novel Leurs figures, which turned up in a second-hand bookshop in Nottingham. The title refer to the shocked faces of French deputies on hearing a speech which threatened to break the Panama scandal – 150 deputies had accepted bribes, so the sense of guilt and fear was dramatic.

Leurs figures is dedicated to Edouard Drumont. An internet encyclopaedia says that Drumont's La France juive became “France's largest bestseller since Joseph-Ernest Renan's La vie de Jésus (1863)”. Drumont was the first person who became a full-time anti-Semite, thus leaving behind a long but insecure career as a journalist. If you see Marcel Ophuls' documentary Le chagrin et la pitié, it has a clip from a Nazi newsreel of 1940 which shows Nazi troops in front of the building housing Drumont's Anti-Semitic Institute and saluting it – this is where I first heard of Drumont. Hitler had great respect for him – he pioneered anti-Semitism as a “modern fake science”, moving it on from sermons by Catholic friars about “the murderers of Christ”. He removed the theological basis from the myth, even though it was completely theological for almost all of its career.

The Panama Canal was started in 1881, but not completed until 1914. The French project failed completely, which is why the Americans took over. The French version ran out of capital – the labour force kept dying of yellow fever, so the schedule kept slipping and slipping. The Canal Company had paid off a lot of journalists and deputies to get the initial capital offer approved and taken up, and went in with this to get more injections of capital (nine stock issues) to get past the delays due to the terrain and the mosquitoes. Eventually, paying people blackmail so they wouldn't reveal the bribery to the public was taking up more of the capital than digging and draining. Work was stopped in 1889, leading to bankruptcy, affecting very numerous share-holders (perhaps 800,000 of them). The parliamentary scandal followed in 1892. (Work in Panama resumed in 1904.) Barrès' novel blames two Jewish characters, one (Reinach) a go-between for bribes and one (Herz) very obscure but apparently blackmailing the go-between. He gives much less blame to the 150 corrupt deputies – this is where it gets odd, all the people who took bribes were French but he only makes out the two Jewish characters (recent immigrants from Germany) to be villains. He repeatedly attacks the parliamentary system – he doesn’t say what he wants instead, but since Barrès was a boulangiste deputy it is probable that he wanted a dictatorship by a “charismatic leader”, with plebiscites to link him to the popular will. The nation is like an army, following its great Leader. This would also have involved “la revanche”, a war against Germany to take back Alsace-Lorraine. If you put all this together, it does sound like a slate Hitler could use – fascism didn't exist in 1904 (publication date of Leurs figures) but Barrès and his allies had put the whole programme together in theoretical form.
The Panama thing was taken as proving that a parliamentary system was fundamentally flawed, an argument accepted by a range of opinion in France, right up to the 1950s probably. When Pétain abolished democracy, a lot of people breathed a sigh of relief, because they didn't want to be ruled by politicians. Why a dictatorship would involve less bribery, I don't know. You hate the press, you hate elected deputies – this argument worked for Hitler in 1933. 


My interest in Barrès is partly because he was Saunders Lewis' favourite writer, and I read (part-read) a book about the links between Fascism and Plaid Cymru which irritated me because its approach was so stupid, it didn't ask any sensible questions and so came up with no answers. (It was Richard Wyn Jones' book 'Y Blaid Ffasgaidd Yng Nghymru'.) It compared Lewis' writing to German and Italian Fascism and came up with no matches, but Lewis was a francophile and the only meaningful search is to compare him with the French Far Right of his youth– mainly Maurras and Barrès. To recall, Lewis was leader of Plaid Cymru from 1926 to 1939 but had to resign because the party's left wing found him too associated to the European Far Right, which was increasingly in the news during the Thirties and less attractive than it had been in 1926 (when the Plaid was formed). Wyn Jones seems to be completely a hostage to Welsh nationalism, his conclusions are not credible because he has avoided looking at any relevant evidence. I think the Left of the Plaid were right and it's unfair to them to air-brush Lewis' clerico-Fascist sympathies out of history. A quick search has found two websites which do explore the Lewis-Barrès links in a more open-minded way.


It is quite hard to find people who write about Welsh nationalism without being taken hostage and simply trying to efface the truth. If Drumont was the founder of modern anti-Semitism, how do you get over the Lewis-Barrès-Drumont link without finding that Lewis was an anti-Semite? At the very least, you have to discuss this. At the risk of duplication, let me quote Tim Williams' on-line account of Lewis, which I think makes all the necessary points:

>>I took the same view in a piece I wrote on Lewis for the Jewish Chronicle in the early 90s (‘Judge a hero by his heroes’) which led me to incur considerable verbal violence. Have a look at the absurd attack on me by the then editor of Planet, entitled ‘Tim Williams, Saunders Lewis and the Jewish Chronicle’ where I was berated for pointing out Lewis’s anti-semitism and affection for Franco, Salazar and Petain, his denunciations of the French Resistance and support for Vichy. Plaid’s view of Mussolini was also benign especially after his Concordat with the Vatican. Their take on Hitler varied throughout 30s largely because of his obvious paganism though his anti-Bolshevism was clearly welcome. However, Y Ddraig Goch couldn’t hide its excitement when Hitler mentioned Plaid and the burning of the bombing school at the Nuremburg Rally in 1938  – ‘Hitler knows that Wales is a nation!’ screamed the party’s paper and nothing he did so outraged Plaid or Lewis that they felt compelled to join the European resistance to him.
Plaid’s neutralism throughout the Second World War, meaning their acceptance of a Nazi-dominated Europe as a consequence, has always been difficult to explain away and offended many of their own supporters (and leaders: Ambrose Bebb amongst them). It was no accident and didn’t stem from Christian pacifism but from their own nationalist opposition to Britain, which they saw as a greater threat to Wales than Hitler, and their anti-Communism. The Party paper as the thirties closed cited Jewish influence over the British media as a source of the drive to war as Jones must know but to which he does not refer.<<
(URL as above)

I can see that nationalists would be happy if this wasn't true, or failing that if Tim Williams wouldn't recall it to conscience and memory. If you read Lewis' works, it's clear that he has a whole world of assumptions, or maybe knowledge, behind him, which he never explains because it is so familiar to him. Welsh readers may have assumed that this mountain he is standing on was either worked out by Lewis or is objective truth, but I don't think it is either of those things. I think it comes from the right-wing thought of Paris, circa 1900 to 1925. It is difficult to say anything intelligent about Saunders Lewis without a proper grasp of that extensive area of thought – something few people have, because their ideas were wrong at the time, obsolete today, and influential on people like Hitler and the Vichy ministers. Barrès never joined Action française and was much more subtle and less fanatical than Charles Maurras – it's no good just folding Barrès within the Action française category. Likely, though, that he was the main source of ideas for Maurras. He wasn't a Fascist because no-one born in 1864 was, it was a slightly later development.

In Leurs figures, the go-between is Jacques Reinach – a fixer, someone who enabled the public issue of the Panama project to go ahead, a great feat if you take that canal (linking two hemispheres, as the caption goes) as one of the great achievements. He kills himself as the details of the bribes are about to come out, and Barrès makes a great play of how he was dug up, weeks later, to seek traces of poison – details of his guts spilling, of the smell coming out of the coffin after being opened, etc. Would these details have been included if he wasn’t Jewish? I doubt it. Aspects of the novel are like a Hollywood film –the two villains look repulsive, lack human feelings, are depersonalised. This is a rehearsal for much more thorough anti-Semitism and must be based on excited reading of Drumont's propaganda – linking to the dedication to Drumont, who was a Far Right deputy along with Barrès, at a time when the novel was being composed. Depressingly, it is a very good novel– Barrès was a great novelist but this isn't a great novel, evidently, it is more like a gripping TV series about a political scandal, say “Washington behind Closed Doors”. The description of the atmosphere, the conversations, the logistics involved in bribing 150 legislative leaders of a great country is brilliant and has presumably never been excelled. No credit is given to Reinach for fine feelings leading to suicide, such as guilt, empathy, wish to atone, or desire to protect his friends. Suicide is not a selfish act, so we normally attribute such feelings to someone in his position, especially when they have such great psychological talents and intelligence. But Barrès does not attribute such sentiments to a Jew.
A few weeks after reading the novel, I am much more aware of its anti-Semitism. Let me start by saying that I believe in an instinctive aversion to illness, in parallel to how apes react – reports of chimpanzees killing a band member who was visibly disabled (with polio, I think). This serves to protect the group against infection. Evidently, if you describe a character, in visual art or fiction, as ill, in certain terms, the reaction is aversion, and this can be manipulated to sweep away compassion. In Leurs figures, there is extensive description of how ill Reinach looks. This serves to express his state of mind in the few days leading up to his suicide. It speeds up the plot by suggesting both that he is ill and that a crisis is coming, in the course of which we will get to hear what really happened. This narrative function disguises the fact, obvious on later reflection, that we are reading a description of a Jewish character as physically repulsive and ill. This raises the aversion reaction. Bizarrely, it is the evidence that he is the villain - illness displaying moral infection. This image is combined with the so-called Feindschema or “schema of the Enemy”, where we only perceive the bad and aggressive traits of someone. Leurs figures is a profoundly anti-Semitic novel and this is only disguised by Barrès' literary gifts and the “documentary” function which means that the two characters concerned really were Jewish (and Reinach really did poison himself). If Reinach is described as “a rat behind the wainscot”, this simultaneously dehumanises him and defines him as a threat and a source of infection, even if it also evokes his state of panic (and his “behind the scenes” role in arranging certain deals). How can this not be anti-Semitic?
I don't think you can eliminate caricature, dehumanisation, and the “enemy schema” from political art. This doesn’t bestow a “get out of jail free card” on anti-Semitism; it makes me question the means of art, rather than excusing base malice.
I think it's reasonable to think that Lewis' idea of nationalism came from Barrès. There is the stress on “énergie nationale”  Lewis never resorts to sociology, in talking about the decline of the Welsh language, but always deals in terms of an energy, a national energy to be channelled by young idealists in an exalted mood, where Redemption can come despite all the facts and all the ordinary people who have decided to speak English. This national mission takes precedent over ideas of bringing social equality or of increasing national wealth, which Lewis saw as uninteresting and unworthy goals. Barrès was always preoccupied by the return of the German-speaking areas annexed by Germany in 1871, and Lewis took this over as his image of a political mission, to retrieve Wales from English domination. Barrès writes a lot about Lorraine (where he came from) as a bulwark against the east, the last rampart of classicism – Lewis also cast Wales as a relic of the Roman Empire, its poetry retaining classical Latin values in ways not always obvious to anyone except Lewis, the Norman overlords acting as channels for wonderful Franco-Latin culture. Barrès has a touching idea of Lorraine (this is a broad and vague concept but he meant French-speaking Lorraine, departments of Meurthe and Moselle, which was still French after 1871) as the home of douceur and natural life, as expounded in a very moving passage, a letter from one of the characters, over 30 or so pages at the end of Leurs figures. It is hardly in doubt that Lewis applied this image to Wales, and it is also clear that Lewis could not actually write convincingly about traditional Wales or the life of the people. There is no sociological component, almost no realistic feature, in Barrès' description of Lorraine, which serves as a foil both to his “Babylonian” idea of Parisian corruption and to his idea of the Prussian yoke (starting just a few miles away and taking in Metz and Thionville, as well as Alsace), so rhetorically necessary and not based on real life. Basing politics on unrealistic views of nationality was clearly Lewis' greatest fault. His views of economics were shallow, but it is not a great stretch to say that he saw the Welsh economy as being at the mercy of the English, and that they play the role which Barrès allots to the Jews (and the Germans) in his account of the Panama affair. So, it was clearly the fault of the English if Wales were not an idyllic pastoral land run by lords and priests (both patronising culture), and getting rid of the English would surely restore this state of affairs in short order. It seems that Lewis did not approve of trade at all.
I guess that Lewis saw his injection of French culture into Wales as making him like a Norman overlord of the 13th century, speaking French and raising Eastern Wales into the light of Mediterranean civilisation. I think he was also influenced by Action française, which took up most of Barrès' ideas. So if we see him inspiring the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, which bypassed electoral politics and popular support, and favoured action and shock tactics by fanatics, that sounds pretty much like Action française- which never put up any candidates. The idea that the mass of the population can be wrong, and exalted and illegal bands of enthusiasts can legitimately take political decisions for them, sounds like Maurras and Action française. The idea that a writer needs a “square mile”, or milltir sgwar, that the purpose of literature is to describe the blameless lives of local people who never travel more than five miles, in contrast to urban people who are to blame for everything, has eaten its way quite deeply into Welsh writing, but presumably is copied from a strand of French culture, conservative and anti-republican. It may be a passing fad. I can't point to any specific passage where Lewis describes the English, but the idea that history can be accounted for in terms of racial conflict and that there is a “national enemy” (for Barrès, the Prussians, obviously) seems ludicrous and is presumably copied from Barrès and his allies. Lewis' view of English people has almost no objective content at all. It does have a strong literary content, forming villains to animate plots. Is it a straight copy of Barrès' methods?

I said the Left of the Plaid threw Lewis out, but that doesn’t mean that the centre or Right of the party were pro-fascist or even vaguely tolerant of Fascism. Lewis was a fish out of water in Wales, other people weren’t Catholic and weren’t reading Barrès or thinking about Action française.
How was Barrès a boulangiste deputy at a date when General Boulanger had already committed suicide? I don't know. French politics are not transparent. It is fairly transparent that the Dreyfus affair, beginning with a forgery in 1894, sprang directly out of the Panama bribery row, and that Barrès was an instinctive anti-Dreyfusard.

Leurs figures has got the stereotype anti-Semitic novel (or film story, later) all worked out. 20th C versions of the story derive from Barrès. But was he the first? I don't actually know. There are terrific histories of anti-Semitism, such as the one by Léon Poliakov, but they deal with factual books and speeches (pseudo-factual, obviously) rather than novels.
The components would be:
1) ruined ordinary people wondering Why
2) murky dealings involving positions of trust (political and financial); a conspiracy is involved
3) very high living involving exciting cocottes; the women wear great frocks, clearly sinful. Scenes of luxury and debauchery
4) the villains are Jews
5) the villains are sophisticated and reveal a degree of cynicism/abstraction which people in (1) can hardly understand. They are mocking.
6) total ruin of (4), in spectacular form
7) (4) are dehumanised, their skin is an unusual colour, their flesh is hanging slack, they evoke stereotypes of sickness and aversion
8) it is unclear how (4) make their money or what they produce; they do manipulations and become rich
9) there is a peaceful, natural life far away from the city and its fever. Its gains are only long-term and reached by hard work.

Barrès' novel fulfils all these (except [3]). It is credible that gutter anti-Semitism, as it surfaced for example after the Wall Street crash of 2007-8, is recycling this myth or fantasy. There is a certain resemblance between Leurs figures and Lion Feuchtwanger's Jud Süss (1925). This may just expose my limited reading – Jud Süss is a great novel, and obviously Feuchtwanger wasn't an anti-Semite, being Jewish and quite far on the left. (There was an East German issue of stamps which included one showing Feuchtwanger.) How far is it true that the staple Marxist novel exposing the fantasies and wickedness of Babylonian-style bankers and speculators followed the same pattern as Barrès' novel, but with the lead characters no longer being Jewish? So points (4) and (7) are not present. I don't know. I try not to read that kind of novel. But I do have Friedrich Kaul's Kleiner Weimarer Pitaval, (East Berlin, 1959), a documentary account of various scandals and trials under the Weimar regime, which he was clearly a Communist opponent of before being the Democratic Republic's most celebrated lawyer. (He even appeared in a TV series from 1959-62, Fernsehpitaval, doubt I can get that one on DVD. 'Pitaval' means a 'collection of criminal histories', like the Newgate Calendar.) Kleiner Weimarer Pitaval is a cracking book, forget about Edgar Lustgarten. There is an unmistakable resemblance to Barrès (in 1904). If you disprove the banker myth, does Marxism collapse? I think the explanation of povety is a worthwhile endeavour, it's just that you can't resolve it by setting up stories about evil bankers and stockbrokers.
Michael Curtis said that fundamental features of Barrès were ambiguity and equivocation. This matches with what Jean Guéhenno (1890-1978) says about him (in Les années noires), where he tries to recall why he admired Barrès so much at twenty and despised him so much aged fifty. Guéhenno wrote: (27 January 1942)
 “I am returning to Barrès, ‘my old enemy’, always with the same pleasure. Yesterday I re-read Une impératrice de la solitude in Amori et dolori sacrum. What does it matter, after all, what he thought or believed that he thought, and his doctrinal positions and prejudices. He had the instinct of grandeur, and the very design of his sentences, this sort of rapture of pathos which it evokes, this feeling of discomfort in one’s own skin, this tension at the limit of one’s force, these discouraged collapses, this effort always begun again, moved me too much in my twentieth year, taught me too much, for me not to recognise my debt. And now that everything is destroyed, that all the ideas are in a heap on the ground, more than ever, these words, too vague, but which awoke the fervour of a twenty-year-old, ‘Having a soul’, seem to me to define the only possible revenge. Having a soul, to suffer thoroughly at least, if we cannot do anything else. Having enough soul to say no.”.

To clarify, “la revanche”, revenge, was Barrès’ lifelong preoccupation but meant at that time the return of Alsace-Lorraine; in January 1942, 19 years after his death, it still meant defeating Germany, but also defeating Barrès’ former associates on the monarchist and nationalist Right, who by now were working with Pétain. This is why the ideas of nationalism had fallen “to the ground”. Guéhenno was a dissident communist, in 1942, and quite indifferent to Barrès’ right-wing constructions. (At 20, he was a manual labourer plotting to find a way back into formal education.) Guéhenno’s remarks stress the vagueness, although his other remark on Barrès’ preoccupation with himself and with appearance is what Guéhenno always says about writers who weren’t socially committed. Describing Barrès for someone who hasn’t read his books is difficult, possibly more so than for any other writer. It is hard to evoke how someone can write a book called Le culte du moi (the cult of the self) and also be political, in fact a member of the Assembly for many years. This ambiguity is not truly complexity, as the contradictions don’t point to anything deeper. The uncertainty obviously helps with the composition of novels, we read them because not only the outcome but the theme is fundamentally uncertain.
The parts aren’t fastened together, but this subtlety covers up the negative implications of Right attitudes more than with any other writer. This was a cover-up – so that when Barrès lost his reputation, with the disillusion with wartime patriotism after 1918, it was a cover-up which fell apart. When people realised that it was nationalism which had made the war and its mass deaths come about, they questioned nationalism – and Barrès had been the most dedicated nationalist, its theologian. Barrès is not a detached narrator of nationalism, he is committed to it– its high priest. The implications of choosing war and “glory”, of putting territorial claims above any other questions, of defining the nation primarily as something unified by honour and aggression, of racial intolerance – these profoundly needed to be covered up. The First World War was not beautiful. Maurras is the dark side of Barrès, and Maurras pretty much invented fascism. 
I don't know why I am digging up these right-wing figures. A few weeks ago I wrote about the film version of The Valley of the Dolls; I suspect that writing about very high-quality, demanding poetry for so many years left me in a state where I wanted to write about trash. There is also the question of "right-wing artists and thinkers being excluded by a liberal consensus", a contemporary myth which is worth attacking. My copy of Leurs figures is from Livre de Poche – the biggest paperback house in France. As I said before, the Western media industry is dominated by the profit motive, not a "liberal consensus" which is able to silence its enemies.



















Saturday, 23 February 2019


Philip Pacey


This is a note on Philip Pacey (b. 1946). I have seen three of Pacey's books : Charged Landscapes (Enitharmon, 1978), In the Elements Free (Galloping Dog, 1983, 30 pp.) and Earth's Eye (Taxus, 1988, 82 pp.). I never managed to write about Pacey, so this is partly an apology. There is a fourth book, If Man, which I haven't seen. There is also a kind of pamphlet with the concrete poem Goods Train (1971?) – the poem is in the shape of a goods train, so long and thin. This is a lot of fun. 2nd Aeon said : >>its a great book altogether - the complete book-as-movie ie the book works a good deal more for itself than a regular book would. a concrete poem that works on all levels, all counts. a 2nd aeon must. << so who am I to argue. Apart from that, In the Elements Free is the one that really spoke to me. Pacey mainly writes about landscape and the much freer, open texture of these poems works much better in evoking the greater than human scale of space than the more narrowly focused fabric of Charged Landscapes. The 1978 book got a rave review in PN Review from Jeremy Hooker, which is what set me onto Pacey. (I mean, I dug the back issues up 40 years later, it's what I do.) Earth's Eye is a retrospective which goes back 15 years to gather poems which had not been properly seen before; I liked “James L Maxim and the paved causeway over Blackstone Edge': why there is a stone passage at the worst incline of Blackstone Edge; the route is no longer used, abandoned for one with a gentler gradient.

As to the trough
assembled theories of its use
and origin:

worn

by pedestrians and packhorses, also by thousands of sheep and cattle which from time to time were driven over the Edge;

by the marching of soldiers in single file (Col. Sharrat);

by sliding tail pieces of ordnance;

by the skidding of chariot wheels (Dr. H.C. March)

by the use of three-wheeled vehicles (W.T. Watkin)

by the use of trolleys and bogies (H. Fishwick, J.H. Stanning, J. Hirst, J.Currie)

by chains and cables used in a winding mechanism at the top of the incline (C.C. Smith);

by sledges used to haul the baggage of Roman soldiers (each soldier had baggage weighing up to 60 lb);
by the Danes transporting boats over the Edge;
by “Baiting's Bull”. The tradition about the use of this bull in hauling vehicles up the old Packhorse Road and also as a drag on them on the steep down grade was well authenticated by old inhabitants in this locality;
the haulage of stone for the local quarry;

by water, the hollow acting as a drain;

or made
as guiding-line
in dark or fog

to fill with turf
that horses' feet
could bite
to hold descending vehicles
(that, being hard, might otherwise
skid

this is more documentary than the others and takes more in. This takes in the age of the landscape, the fact that it visibly contains features which have been growing, or being eroded, over thousands of years; the poem is capacious and so beyond the line of sight of a single human at a single moment in time. You can’t write landscape poetry which marches in single file. Almost all the text is a direct quote from James L. Maxim, I think. I also liked “The Axe-Masters”, about trade networks for stone axes (Neolithic?) as revealed by modern finds, a poem more about geography than just landscape:

pale grey-green or blue-grey
fine-grained volcanic ash, ground
granite-hard between the millstones
of moving mountains.
Came

to Pike o'Stickle, Mart Crag
Great End, Glaramara

where wind-
lashed waves of trees
lapped at hill-tops;
to a rash of
shivered, shredded
rock ice had left.

Hooker's Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant is also really good. I have just finished writing a book about Seventies poetry, which led me to read some lesser-known works, but unfortunately was so jammed with material that I couldn't include Hooker. Hooker undoubtedly saw a confirmation of his own path in Pacey, and perhaps they do belong together as landscape poets, sharply distinct from the other landscape schools, for example from the English Intelligencer poets and their interest in archaeology and geography. Hilton's landmark anthology of "landscape poets" in 1974 (published as Joe DiMaggio issue 11) did not include them  there were so many strands. It is worth reflecting on the 'alliance situation' of Pacey and Hooker, that other geography – they don't appear in the anthologies but that just gives us a critical insight into the anthologies. Editors have a view of the world, it's bound to be limited, there are bound to be other poets who are just out of their sight. There can't be a point from which you can see everything. I just want to observe that these two poets are part of the scene, not great poets but they are rewarding. It's not rational to recover the seriously Underground, alternative, poets and glory in their "alternative DNA" and ancestor status, and just bypass all the poets who weren't rebels.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019



Syberberg

This is partly an assessment of the idea that eccentricity is an English thing, by means of talking about some German eccentrics. There is or used to be a German comic called “Der Excentrik-Club”, which told the comic adventures of the members of that club – a German image of England. (There were some films about them, I believe, specifically a 1917 film called 'Die Hochzeit Im Exzentrik Club', credited to Joe May but allegedly written by Fritz Lang.)

If you believe that there is a sector of important ideas, whether in solving political problems or in cultural achievement, which is repressed by a liberal consensus, you probably belong to the New Right. This is the New Right's private property, the asset they trade with. I don't actually believe that the 'liberal consensus' (that is, the ideas sector within capitalism, or half-outside capitalism) has blind spots, or that there is a windfall you could collect if society gave up on it. My understanding of how our institutions work, from personal experience, is that there is a sceptical principle which takes on any ideas and tests them out to see if they work. A monoculture with its inlets blocked does not prevail. I realise that saying this makes me part of an evil consensus in the eyes of the Far Right and their allies. Of course, there is a "legacy" of ideas which have been tried and exploded, and of false facts on which erroneous ideas are based, which are not allowed in court because by now they just bore and irritate everyone. I gave at the office!

A specific example of someone whose artistic career came to a mysterious end, which was probably connected to misgivings in the ranks of cultural administrators about anti-Semitism and Far Right sympathies, is the director Hans Jürgen Syberberg. Syberberg was born in 1935, in Mecklenburg, and came to the West in 1956. From the Sixties, he was making documentaries, funded by himself from his salary as a TV producer in Munich. He seemed preoccupied with subjects much older than him, in fact with people born in the nineteenth century. This activity expanded, he made long films about Ludwig II of Bavaria, Hitler, and Karl May, still with very limited funds and in a style which was almost home-made, abandoning cinematic values to save expense. The subject of the Bavarian monarchy and the Third Reich was unpopular with cultural managers in West Germany, but it could be interpreted either as an attempt to appeal to archaic authoritarian currents of opinion undermining the Federal Republic (and its cultural institutions) or as a laudable attempt to recover lost areas of memory and discredit them or clear them up. In 1990, he published a book which included a number of Far Right statements, including anti-Semitic ones – he saw modernity as Semitic because it was dominated by the ideas of Marx and Freud (not true in the Federal Republic, obviously) and connected his difficulty in acquiring funds to this nefarious cultural hegemony. His career then came to an almost complete halt. It is plausible that the funding panels, necessary to him since his work had little popular appeal, lost their nerve at this point. The ambiguity had almost disappeared – he was no longer seen as part of metabolising suppressed crimes and evils of the German past (this despite his statement about combining historical investigation with a Brechtian alienation effect, which would have meant that he didn't idealise Ludwig – or Adolf). As mentioned, he had always had difficulty in getting funding. However, 'Virgin King” was successful in France, playing at one cinema for six whole months, and it was quite rare for a contemporary German artist to be acclaimed in Paris, so that funding would not normally have been scarce following that. So far as I can tell his last important film was in 1982, but it's hard to tell from bare filmographies, some part of which may be just a display to refute widely-believed claims about isolation and decline.
I wanted to buy DVDs of his work, but the “marketplace” I consulted showed them only at about £40 a shot. This implies that they are all out of print, and that even used copies are scarce. It looks as if his disappearance from the cinemas prevented a demand from building up in the DVD world, and as if any “cult” following had been thin. There is no pool of used copies. I can’t easily quantify this, but you can get any old junk on DVD, the market is greedy and huge. Of course, this situation would encourage a certain kind of Far Right romantic, for whom anyone suppressed is of interest because they are hoping that there is a whole suppressed world which they can discover and then go and live in. You can get the 'Hitler' film on You-Tube, courtesy of the CelticAngloPress. My thanks to them although I suspect that my idea of the White race does not coincide with theirs.

So, it's not irrational to suggest that Syberberg is a talented artist whose access to funding dried up because he offended the liberal consensus. But the circumstances weaken the case for him to a remarkable degree – he really did go into print with anti-Semitic remarks in a country which wiped out half of European Jewry, he had received extensive State funding for films including a Hitler biography, there are major problems with his style, his slow and sparse manner is so unattractive to a wide audience that the commercial world has not picked him up (and he was rejected by them even before the 1990 book, so that he was deeply dependent on State funding). It looks more as if there is no demand for his work.

One webpage says “He also came into contact with Benno Besson of Brecht's Berlin Ensemble and through him was invited by Brecht to Berlin where he made his first film, in 8 mm.” That would be about 1953. It is probable that his unique approach to interview or biography was influenced by Brecht. He is not asking for identification but has a very important founding in documents, in dense recorded facts. He actually filmed the Berliner Ensemble at work (rehearsing four productions); in a context of 'alienation' this might not mean that he sympathised with their methods or Marxist propaganda content. He was 18 – this sounds like something unimportant to Brecht and yet also “spontaneous”, something we hardly expect in a zone of “managed culture” like the DDR. Had it been official, it wouldn't have been this 18 year old pointing the camera, it would have been a whole team of comrades, including a Spanish War veteran, a secret policeman, and an accountant.

I think Syberberg has his place in film history. I am not convinced that he had restored the sublime, or that the liberal consensus has crippled West German culture.

If you can imagine that one could have made feature films in 1885, what would those films be like? Unbelievably slow, wordy, close to the sublime, close to religious painting. Syberberg was making home movies in the style of the 1880s. The style of 'Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland' (HEFAD) is out of place. It is about ten times slower than you expect from a film narrative. This is not unpleasant but it is hard to admire; identification with the characters is impossible, and this is what might bring it close to Brecht. The settings remind me of Christmas cribs, with their wooden figures. It is radical: it is as if there were two styles of cinema, Syberberg's and the Hollywood style. Does it leave us in a state of complete boredom? Yes, but that leaves an empty emotional space in which we can do other things. It is the opposite of an advertising film, in which visual and auditory senses are jammed, there are rapid cuts, there is no emptiness at all. Behind this is a theory about modernity, by which it involves a crazily speeded-up, jangling, cage of over-stimulation which prevents consciousness and leaves us in a state of hyped-up frustration. Continual stimuli wear out our ability to respond, and we sink into insensibility. In contrast, there was the Victorian Sunday, in which the formal banning of any pleasant stimuli left time for studying theology and philosophy (acceptable because it had roots in theology) and this gave us access to the Sublime, to a settled personal view of things. Of course, these abstractions might be dependent on the exclusion of a wide range of stimuli, which would either refute them or at least expose their weaknesses. The sublime is less available in the twentieth century. So many thinkers, normally of the Right, have expressed this doctrine that the time-sense of the 20th C was bad for people. Syberberg is proposing a journey back into the 19th century. He is interested in subjects who were immersed in the sublime. His idea of Hitler as a fantasist, a classic German adolescent who had trouble with reality and tried to live in a world of his own, is strikingly original and in many ways convincing (although it leaves out his other career as a politician). Fantasy leading to violence? – yes, persuasive because dialogue, relationships, a sense of borders, indeed a belief in the reality of other people, are all likely to make violence unnecessary, and yet are less available to someone who is sunk in fantasy at all relevant times. The time-sense of the film is mimicking the tempo of Hitler's fantasies. Is boredom equivalent to sublimity? Is a move into monologues, into long takes, enough to drag us back into the nineteenth century? 
The film is hard to evoke, but it couldn't be more anti-Hitler, and it is compelling even if exhausting. It is designed to prevent identification, and leaves feelings of sorrow, lucidity, and determination. Its viewpoint is complicated and indirectly expressed but is in no way of the Far Right. It is very personal and offers a text in Syberberg's own voice, over a complex mesh of sound montage, superimpositions, and allusions. The cultural quotations are too many to pick up.


The tag in the New Right chat I saw on-line is “the loss of the essence of the German nation”. That is, the idealistic philosophy of the 19th century, “remote from the world” (weltfern), is raised to being the German essence, and its disappearance is a loss of essence rather than a development in public language and cultural style. I should say first of all that when this philosophy originated there were few bookshops in Germany and few people read books, certainly books of philosophy; and that the feeling of isolation and infinite power which animates the philosophy is connected to the status of a tiny educated class, cut off from the masses and by the way also cut off from a political process, in monarchies which observed no democratic principle. It is credible that the later arrival of mass literacy, of a book and newspaper trade which reached all parts of the country, and of a political process (interrupted, to be sure!) which could solve problems by legislation, and which strove to reach all voters and indeed all adults, made this speculative and solitary philosophy out of date. In a strange way, the idealism produced both the arbitrary power of the petty kings and the helplessness of a thinker in a kingdom where he was not genuinely a citizen. It is plausible that German collective culture simply developed away from it, across the board, and so that it was not the “German essence” at all. To be accurate, 99% of Germans in the 19th century were hardly touched by difficult works such as those of Schopenhauer or Hegel, and the main axis of German thought was surely theology. The idea that Germany is suffering from a desperate shortage of megalomaniacs does not convince me.

He went from filming actors rehearsing to filming real people against a fantasy stage set. The predecessor to the Hitler film may be the interview with Winifred Wagner, in her eighties at the time. Once a close friend of Hitler, she is an unrepentant Nazi and makes no secret that the twelve years of the Reich are the ones she recalls most affectionately out of her long life. Syberberg gives her all the time needed, and rigorously never either rebuts or sustains anything she says. The film is rigid and this may give insight into the rigidity of the Hitler film. The aesthetic is much more easily reconciled with an American aesthetic, i.e. that of various documentarists, say Pennebaker. If you look at Syberberg's subjects, Brecht and then the head of the Wagner family, it is apparent that ideology is the key thing, and that unless you show the sublime landscape of ideology you can't get close to the mentality of these rigid egotists. This accounts for the visuals of HEFAD – a static backdrop, rather complex, resembling the scenery of an opera. It represents Hitler's fantasies and is vague and blurred because that is how fantasies are. It shows for example the Welteislehre, the “cosmic ice theory” of Hörbiger, as Hitler’s idea of how the planets came into existence. The characters can't walk through the backdrop or interact with it, obviously. This is also very cheap. It looks as if Syberberg had never heard the American mantra of film, “don’t tell me, show me”: he gives 90% of the exposition to words, and the visuals are static (if sometimes beautiful). He is less interested in the sensory world than in reason, the faculty which makes us persons and draws us into the world of morality. While this cinematic world is profoundly Syberberg's, rescued from a state which is merely real, and not imagined, at the same time it is not a dream we share, the whole staging keeps us at arms' length. HEFAD is about sorrow and the natural pace of sorrow is slow.

Syberberg's racial slurs affected the way you could read his films. For example, his style is anti-Hollywood, ignores all the rules which Hollywood has developed since about 1910. Hollywood was run by Jews. So making those remarks re-contextualises his artistic preferences: now it appears that being anti-Hollywood could be a way of expressing anti-Semitism.

Syberberg would have been ten when the Third Reich collapsed. He belonged to the landowners of eastern Prussia, in fact the “ostelbianer” who were cast in European mythology as the most militarist, right wing, and unreconstructed of all classes. The war destroyed their grip on the German army, huge numbers of non-professionals reached the rank of officer and large numbers of the professional officers died. The years after the war saw the destruction of their estates, redistributed in one of the few benign acts of communism. Syberberg came from an enemy class and grew up in a country where class determined everything about you. It is unlikely that he accepted the pieties of Marxist teachers at his school. Anyway, Mecklenburg was one of the most conservative parts of northern Europe. He missed the ethical teaching offered by Western German schools and it is credible that he emerged into the Sixties as a deep conservative, regarding the twentieth century as one long night of trauma. It does not seem that the word progress meant anything to him. Certainly he was interested by the 19th C when he came to make documentaries. The word "market" probably didn't say a lot to him.

If you look at Ludwig II, with his glittering career as patron of the arts (chief funder of Wagner, builder of numerous fairy-tale castles, etc.) followed by intervention of the soulless Bavarian bourgeoisie, subjection to business values, budgets, etc., in 1885 loss of his throne and sequestration in one of his castles, etc., it is hard not to see the pattern of Syberberg's career. Again, he was someone alienated from official DDR culture who managed to make himself alienated from cinematic culture in the Federal Republic. Some fatality is at work here. It may be that this romantic enactment of a myth is inseparable from a commitment to Idealism.

Rural Mecklenburg in the Thirties didn't have capitalism. The liberation of the peasantry in the eastern provinces involved the serfs paying the landowners back for their loss of property – it made the peasants poorer. Mecklenburg lost serfdom in 1822 (not every aspect was abolished) so nostalgia for the 19th century, in Mecklenburg, gets you close to feudalism. When the Romantics were vapouring about the Middle Ages, around 1805, the lower classes, in some parts of Germany, were still serfs. Again, I would question what exactly someone could mean by “the essence of the German nation”. Serfdom, tyranny, overlords – is this what Syberberg was afraid of losing?

But is there a “pot of gold” of Far Right culture which the liberal consensus won't allow us to see? I am sceptical partly because I have hung out in German bookshops and looked at the torrent of militaristic Second World War memoirs, which were sold in millions of copies. Ex-SS generals came out of jail and published their self-serving memoirs without problems. In the Federal Republic, from its foundation, you could publish all kinds of Reich-nostalgia-kitsch. Obviously, you couldn't buy those books in East Germany. Being a monarchist in the DDR of the 1950s meant living in eclipse, in oppression. Equally, a Jacobite in Britain in 1760 could not express his or her beliefs in print. The Jacobite songs from Scotland and Ireland got into print much later. But, in the West, the market rules culture. Everything gets published, and it only disappears because the shops can’t sell it. Former Nazi authors made lots of money in the 1950s, their books are available second-hand, today, in large quantities. (I looked up Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, just now, on the abebooks marketplace: 618 titles.) The idea of a secret marvel world of Far Right cultural creativity is false – this area was not suppressed. At most, you can talk about work which never got written because the Far Right genius was so hurt at the idea of being mocked by clever centre-Left literati around their café table. He turned into custard in the face of their cosmopolitan sarcasm, etc.

Another eccentric German figure was Rudolf Borchardt (1877-1945). What I first read about him described him as having written a complete translation of La Divina Commedia into fictional mediaeval German dialect. This took decades. I imagined him as an unworldly and benign figure, and thought of this invented language as being like Tolkien – from philology into near-lunacy. However, when I read a biography of him it turned out that he was into power, dominance, and freedom from bourgeois restraints, that his preoccupation was with seducing well brought-up young women who had an idealistic view of men, and that he was a Jewish anti-Semite. The last part really sticks in my throat – I find it very hard to sympathise with someone like that. Admittedly, that group was large in Wilhelmine Germany, and you could even argue that disliking them is a form of anti-Semitism, since they were an integral part of the complexity of European Jewish culture. Borchardt wrote an autobiography which does not even mention his mother, allegedly because she was the channel by which Jewish blood had reached him. Pretty unusual, an autobiography which never mentions the subject's mother. Since the biography was published, actually since I drafted this post, a thousand-page long pornographic novel by Borchardt was published – 70 years after his death. After the German book market was closed to him, as a Jew, he had to think of ways of making money – having paying guests for cultural tours in his Italian villa, writing about gardening, and writing pornography were ways of keeping his family fed. The most interesting thing about Borchardt was that there is a document, signed by his former professor, directed to a prospective father-in-law, which describes all his youthful sins (quite a catalogue) and says that he was a rascal but has now grown up. The biographer says that it is very likely that Borchardt wrote this document himself. This is a complex event. Borchardt was someone who lived in a lofty and dead world of Classical European culture, hardly unusual in the late 19th century, and had problems in reaching a market, even if the book market now attracted millions of people. His breakout was as an orator – after 1918 he made political speeches – great speeches, allegedly, but dedicated to overthrowing democracy, overthrowing peace, restoring military honour by a new war, which would first demand an end to demands by the workers. In the Thirties, he was unable to get with the Third Reich even if they had realised his personal programme and overthrown the Weimar Republic, and gave his energies to socialising with the (uncrowned) king of Bavaria, the former Crown Prince Rupprecht (1869-1955). So before Syberberg was trying to connect to Ludwig II, Borchardt actually was connecting with Ludwig's relative. (I believe Rupprecht was the grandson of Ludwig's uncle, in fact.) The idea was that the Prussian monarchy had discredited itself too much but the Bavarian monarchy could provide the leadership for a new (old-style) Germany. Borchardt wanted a restoration of monarchy – he was closely associated (this included quarrels, obviously) with von Hofmannsthal, who originated the phrase “conservative revolution” to sum up the enemies of the republics in Austria and Germany who desired new monarchies. Von Hofmannsthal was an important influence on Eliot's Criterion. In the Thirties, a number of German Jews expressed wounded conservatism by reconnecting with Jewish culture, alphabet mysticism, medieval folklore, and with the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine – sadly, Borchardt made no connection with this at all. The Wilhelmine Second Reich really expressed what he believed in. I became aware of him through Thomas Kling's recovery of his poem “Bacchische Epiphanie”. I was translating Kling so I became aware of his cultural salvage exercise, recovering poets of the past often from under many tons of accumulated rubble. The “Epiphanie” is a great poem; I doubt a translation is possible, but anyway the outcome would be to show that B was imitating Swinburne, so that if you read Swinburne (especially “Atalanta in Calydon”) you have got what Borchardt was doing in his Bacchic poem. It is an extremely classicising, costume poem, 20th century elements are hardly to be found in it. Adorno wrote a long essay on Borchardt, from which we can gather that Adorno still belonged to 19th century ideals of high culture and classicism, and that he was by no means a participant in 20th C democratic culture in the way that his modern supporters would wish to have him.


Wikipedia reminds us that “As a direct descendant of Henrietta of England, daughter of Charles I of England, he [Rupprecht] was claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in the Jacobite succession.” I can't spend time on this, but it does allow a flashback into the “exile culture” of the 18th century. There was a way of being anti-modern in 1714 just as there was in 2014. The origins of the European Right are often traced back to the speculations of French monarchists after the fall of the monarchy, spun out in their enforced leisure as exiles and people without power. This (in, say, 1792 to 1815) was the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment, but perhaps we can already find elements of it among the Jacobites and their fertile myths of resentment. In the 1920s, the European Right received a new injection of rather shopworn and past its best DNA from Russian, Austrian, and German monarchists, out of office. Rupprecht firmly discouraged any mention of his possible claims to the English throne, “However, during his mother's lifetime Jacobites had styled him 'Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay', because of her claim.” The Jacobite era was a time of people emotionally living in a country which was not the one they physically lived in, and which in fact did not exist anywhere. This situation was one which became a habit of the Far Right, and contact with reality was something incompatible with their cultural style. There is a rumour that Jacob Rees-Mogg is a Jacobite.

A book on Syberberg has this quote: “
while his more sympathetic colleague Rainer Werner Fassbinder described him as a 'merchant in plagiarism' who simply imitated Werner Schroeter’s techniques and 'competently marketed what he took from Schroeter' (Frankfurter Rundschau, Feb. 24, 1979: 21).” I never managed to go and see any of Schroeter's films when the Goethe Institut, London, showed them (in the 80s?) but the write-up suggested they were extreme gay films, made from the point of view of someone who had no compromise with heterosexual aesthetics or emotional norms at all. I am not sure what Fassbinder says is true (as opposed to being a sprinkle of bitchy rage) but it does open up the possibility that the Far Right position and the far gay position might coincide, in their wish to find a new world hidden behind the dominant reality channel. So a film about Ludwig II might simultaneously express a reactionary monarchist sentiment and a gay, operatic, beautiful male martyr sentiment. Would Ludwig II have made better films than Fassbinder?
The idea that Austria/Germany do not produce eccentrics is much like the idea that they do not produce homosexuals or bad films or unambitious, popular films. There is a whole range of minority-interest material in Europe which simply does not make it through the boundaries of translation. If you wander round a city like Munich for a week, you find all kinds of things which never got exported – in Munich, the late-Baroque Catholic devotional kitsch is an obvious example, but I imagine something similar is true of every European city.

* You can get Syberberg's films on DVD via the director's own website. This includes the Berliner Ensemble footage.



Saturday, 22 December 2018

Logue  addition: the surface meaning 

I looked at Logue again while writing a talk about gay themes in 20th century poetry.
Logue made no reference to any gay identity in his autobiography, but other information suggests that he was gay. So this is “quasi-non-factual”, or similar.
When I wrote about Logue’s Homer translations (material included in The Long 1950s), I interpreted the choice of subject in terms of a satire on militarism. Satirising the expedition to Troy followed up Logue’s 1950s poems on British troops being sent to Cyprus for a dubious war. Many years into the project (which began in 1959), dubious wars, with British participation, saw invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
Is this enough as a motivation for a project which stretched over 40 years and amounted to some 400 pages? If Logue was writing an anti-imperialist poem, would he have left out, as he did, any material making an argument against 20th C imperialism, and spelling out the purpose of his poem, which actually remains inexplicit?
I think we can also see the long series of combats as a parade of male beauty and self-adornment, which expresses a gay aesthetic by turning young men into glamour objects. Endlessly, or at least serially, we see young men, showing off their physical prowess, exhibited for our gaze. The patient description of their dress and equipment is probably unique in modern poetry. We might be looking at all this detail, not to support hostile feelings about the aristocracy, but as expensive pin-ups.
Two parallels led me up to this change of view. Louis Aragon’s La semaine sainte is a novel about the painter Gericault taking part in the campaign of Napoleon’s army just prior to their utter defeat at the battle of Waterloo. A lot of the characters are dashing young cavalry officers, wearing brightly coloured uniforms and riding spectacular steeds. There is no apparent reason why a Communist would choose this subject, which has no relevance to class politics. But if we see it as a gay writer describing an endless series of brilliant young men wearing ornate and expensive clothes and trappings, it makes more sense. Secondly, I was responding to Christopher Whyte’s remark that George Mackay Brown staged a remarkable number of deaths, one every three pages (roughly!). Whyte asked why this was, and the answer (for me) is a peculiar eroticism of persecution, whereby sexual feelings towards young men are tangled up with a sense of punishment and doom. The feelings themselves attract punishment, and doom or “civil death” is the fate of the homosexual in a mid-20th C society. Having grasped this for Brown, I gradually came to see that the same pattern prevails in Logue’s version of the Iliad, and he was describing a vast series of glamourised deaths. The deaths are the climactic moments, and it is significant that these scenes mainly concern athletic young men.
We could also think of Cecil B De Mille. It was said that de Mille was the director who discovered the bathroom. Even in the 1920s, his Biblical epics had a strong element of sex, and there was a double basis for his popularity. Despite his overt interest in religion, he created a classic moment of eroticism in the scene in Cleopatra where Claudette Colbert appears in the bath of asses’ milk. If we see Logue’s Iliad as a Bronze Age epic of the Near East with a foreground morality and an emotional foundation in spectacle and eroticism, that brings it close to the Hollywood line of films about ancient history. Logue is economical with footage of women characters. If you imagine the Iliad remake as a film, and imagine yourself in the canteen with all the actors, then what you would be seeing is a throng of glamorous and narcissistic young men. This speaks for itself.
It could be hard to explain to someone why 20th C films expressed sexuality in terms of women unclothed but submerged in a bath, or ranks of young women kicking their legs up in a chorus line. Everything gets displaced– everything profound loves a mask, as Nietzsche said. It certainly is hard to grasp how AE Housman expressed erotic interest in young men so often in terms of murder and hanging. Mackay Brown unmistakably repeats the poetic pattern which Housman established (and which he took in part from homosexual Hellenistic epigrams of the Greek Anthology). I find this hard to grasp, and it yields to patient work on iconography. The emotional intent is deliberately concealed, and is complex in nature – de Mille made everything visual and explicit, rapidly graspable, but the opposite is true of modern poets. Brown may be using physical death as a metaphor for doomed love, and for love which was never allowed to flourish at all, but was cut short when only a thought, a fantasy. The epigrams are often about the death of a young man – this cannot be reduced to “the eroticisation of violence”, instead the subject is the poignancy of loss and of flowers caught by a frost in the spring.
The process of civilisation has been said to be follow a course in which basic impulses are subject to more and more elaborate restraints. This produces complex cultural achievements. What if the basic impulses are being restrained by fear? That could produce even more complex cultural achievements, in which what is precious and significant is carefully hidden. What was designed to be ambiguous can never be reduced to plainness and certitude. It is possible to be wrong – but, at the same time, just reading the surface meaning cannot be enough.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Critique of the metropolitan elite

Intro. This follows up previous postings on Ken Smith, and on the relationship of UKIP to poetry (March 2017 and November 2018). It discusses the rejection of the most cultured tier of individuals as those most qualified to judge poetry, and suggests a link between this and a rejection of professional politicians in politics. It discusses the roles of Bloodaxe and Carcanet as the major publishing outcome of the 1970s turmoil, and why these publishers rejected poetry written in the modern style.
The rise of UKIP to win 18% of the vote in the 2015 general election, and the results of the referendum on membership of the European Union, were generally analysed by politologists as reflecting the protest of individuals, who felt themselves to be left behind, against metropolitan elites and their narratives. Xenophobia was well to the fore, but this was not the original policy platform of UKIP, and hostility towards an elite at Brussels was partly a reflection of hostility towards bankers and the political class at Westminster (provoked by the MPs’ expenses scandal). UKIP voters were, statistically, much less well educated than the population as a whole, and UKIP stood for rejection of the idea that “the highly educated should rule because they are better qualified to do it”. This attack on elites fairly obviously mirrors a line in poetry which also rejects the elite and which has expressed itself typically through jacket texts and passing grumbles. Because the anti-metropolitan groundswell in politics is so important, it attracts symbolism: if you use vaguely anti-metropolitan symbolism, it is going to be attracted to the structure of feeling around the rejection of the main political parties and of parliament, because that structure is so big that its gravitational attraction is not resistible.
The inability of the “managers” to conduct the business is shown in the difference between the poetry which sells and the noble discourse around poetry. There is a stratum which has as features low prestige- low participation – high resentment. As it follows, that layer also does not ascribe prestige to the high-prestige literary taste and its owners. The UKIP constituency is typically resentful and non-participating – a refuge in sulking which is very common in the poetry world. There is a layer which has high resentment but also, it seems, high-prestige manners.

As I write, you can go into a pub and find the house magazine of the corporation which owns it denouncing the metropolitan elite, as if whatever they said was inevitably untrue. The editorials by Tim Martin, in the pub hand-out, bear an unmistakable resemblance to the Introduction to Poetry With an Edge. The Seventies saw a swarm of small to micro poetry publishers, but the ones who survived to publish, eventually, hundreds of titles were Bloodaxe and Carcanet. Arguably, the presence of these two new firms, trying to break new poets in the High Street, was the tangible outcome of the Seventies. Their achievements were great in terms of keeping the shelves filled and finding an alliance of sensibility (which manifests, yes, as a market). The period after 1968 saw a polygon of ideals where hippies, Marxists, the New Age, Blake followers, new myth, and the experimental freedom of the alternative poetry vied to be at centre stage. Carcanet and Bloodaxe each represented a literary myth, but did not take on any of these ideals. The decay of these ideals has been taken as way of defining the 1980s. To understand the 1980s, you have to study Carcanet’s position statements, and the introduction to Poetry With an Edge. To put it another way, you can learn a lot by superimposing the two “alternative” sections of the new british poetry (1988), the Carcanet 1983 statement Some Contemporary Poets, and Bloodaxe’s Poetry with an Edge (1988). While they all cover the same period and its new poets, they barely overlap at all. This gives a significant way of defining the literary elite – if we see these three artistic proposals as offers to function as an elite, we can conclude that every elite is a minority and there is no consensus. In fact, the elite is hopelessly split, and in this new configuration looks remarkably like a market-place in which many brands compete for attention.
 I am writing about these firms with relation to the 1980s, and it is clear that their policies changed radically with time, so that generalisations true at one point cease to be true. To put that another way, their poets also changed with time.
Bloodaxe started from Ken Smith, and made his limitations into a perimeter. The jacket of The Poet Reclining quotes Charles Boyle saying “many (of the poems) have the harsh simplicity of Anglo-Saxon or other  oral verse.” To get with this, we have to get with a formation of taste. Such a formation holds assets which rise or sinks in value with the passage of time. A review of a 1960 book by John Holloway says “The poems display a sensuousness, a feeling for tangs, hardnesses, distances, for the muscularity of nature.” Thirty-six years later, the cover of the 2018 Smith Collected also says the poems are “muscular”. This formation shares, roughly, a belief in terseness and gruffness as masculinity and authenticity. Writing in stone is especially good because of its stiffness and, if vertical, erectness. Anglo-Saxon style features are admired because they are irreducible, terse, and, obviously, highly masculine. I suppose that in the 1960s reviewers explained what they wanted and poets tried to give it to them. The end of the age of ideology left reviewers clamouring for poetry about objects and physical work. A point of culmination might be the passage in part 1 of Briggflatts (1966), where the poet says, rather sententiously, that his message must be carved in stone because anything else is too soft. This equates poetic significance with stoniness. Descriptions of objects are admired and either introspection or abstraction are seen as anti-poetic: language has to stay with the concrete even if human beings flourish in feelings and ideas. This formation includes an admiration for the working class, seen as authentic because its members deal with objects and physical problems demanding strength. They take part in struggles. (This version has a male-only working class and they work only in demanding physical jobs.) Their distaste for abstraction correlates with a lack of abstract values like wealth, and of cultural capital.
It is not clear to me why Close Reading made certain moments of the poetic cycle unfashionable. It would be possible to read a text closely and favour any aspect of it. But evidently Close Reading disfavoured poems about ideas and feelings, and poems about objects and sensations, which apparently were more verifiable, and involved the poet’s personality less, were less subject to collapse in the classroom.
I quoted that book jacket because my perception is that this ideology about objects being more poetic than abstractions belongs to the early 1960s and late 1950s. This is part of my feelings of doubt that you can claim it as defining the new poetry after 1980. Bloodaxe have claimed at various times that they have caused a revolution, and that Ken Smith, their figurehead, was “the godfather of the New Poetry” and “inspired a whole generation”.  These claims seem implausible to me, and the way they are made, without any detail or argument to back them up, is typical of populism, where statements are not based on truth but on wishes. To make that clearer, the proposal that the new poetry of 1980 to 2000 was inspired by Ken Smith, and that the new thing during that period was represented by Bloodaxe poets, rather than by poets using innovative language and reacting to theory, is not credible. These are ideas which only work in connection with property – the context of selling a book and of claiming territory for the author (whose book you are trying to sell). They are quite different from statements made because they are true. To get at the real history of our lives, you have to strip away the territorial claims and self-exculpations.
This version of terseness could evolve into dumbing-down. That is the way you end up going when you discard ideas (as middle-class nonsense, or whatever). I think that some ideas have arrived since Anglo-Saxon times, which they did not have words for. In linguistics, a word is correct because a speech community accepts it as such, and in poetry we have to accept the power to legislate of social formations, small communities. The “objects are more authentic than ideas” party have had their successes, over the past fifty years. Of course, what Astley did as an entrepreneur was significant, and as we recover his commercial sensibility, in a vigorous propaganda through book jackets and so on, we find that it was popular. His ideology, with its components of a theory of style change over time, of authenticity, a local vocabulary which embodied preconceptions about poems, the pattern into which it fitted various contemporary poets as assets or witnesses, is a part of history and needs to be recovered. The cover of the 2018 Collected has that nutty claim that Smith inspired “an entire generation”;  I think we could rewrite it to say that Smith “inspired Neil Astley”. I am not aware of any significant poetry inspired by Smith. (With an exception – Ranter is based on Fox Running. But Barry copied Smith because he thought he could do better, at every level.) I understand that Astley hates the word “dumbing down”, but it is possible both to attribute a downer than down quality to much of Bloodaxe’s project and to admire him for reaching a new market which didn’t want difficult poetry. I started out as a rock fan, and the idea of simplicity and repetition doesn’t have the same negative charge for rockists that it does for academics.
The Introduction mentioned has two passages in which Astley dismisses the poetry which existed before Bloodaxe came along to legitimise the territory. One deals with literary poetry, one with the Alternative. The latter presents him as sitting harmlessly in the pub when someone sells him a magazine in the modern style, which he reads and finds to be full of meaningless advanced experimentation. Even though he claims to have only seen one issue of one magazine, he decides that this sums up a whole sector, and gives us 250 words to display his expertise from this wide exposure. The detail about him encountering this magazine shows that his knowledge is worthless – we cannot take it as of any value, since he has only seen one issue of one magazine. In fact, his belief that it represents the Alternative is unconvincing, since that would imply he knew the field and could recognise whether the magazine was ‘alternative’ or not. The subtext is “you’re stupid like I am”. The focus is featureless warmth, it is an anecdote about Astley and not about the range of poetry being created in Britain. Ignorant yet authoritative– this is the authentic Farage touch. It is hardly surprising that he does not say “in selecting poets for Bloodaxe, I looked for a style which had already been around for 20 years” – this would imply an overview which would imply possession of knowledge, and he is keen to present himself as someone who does not have knowledge. The fact that he does not mention the name of any older poet, of any anthology of older or even contemporary verse, or any name of any critic or magazine discussing modern verse, shows that all that connoisseurship, that scholarship, is meaningless to him – his ignorance qualifies him because it means that he does not share in the fatal flaws of the elite. Culture corrupts those who practice it.
Carcanet seized a literary wish-world in which there would never be any dumbing down, there would never be any breach between new poetry and the internalised love objects of classical English literature, where every text would have been made to withstand Close Reading, where there was no trace of invading Pop culture, where the poets stood up to moral examination and could defend their work as acting out a set of moral values. It would not invite mediagenic poets. The poetry would be free of the narcissistic pseudo-spirituality of Beat. It would be free of drugged/guru explanations of the cosmos. It would contain precise observations. All these values enacted inhibitions and the cumulative effect blocked off most poetic impulses. The aggregate was profoundly attractive and by being stable created an emotional place which created a following, a company to be found in that place. The word neo-conservative was uttered. With Carcanet, the myth is about conservatism. Carcanet gave a robust valuation to the assets or beliefs which their market, of Eng. Lit. Academics, already possessed. This consensus was hesitant about the British Poetry Revival (and also about the avant garde of the 1940s) and was not necessarily looked up to by the wider poetry market (their ex-pupils).
Bloodaxe also offered a wish-world. Once you have piled up assets like {gruff, authentic, Northern, hills, Anglo-Saxon, hard, rugged, physical, working class} a significant fraction of the audience have already surrendered. It was an emotional place which many people wanted to spend time in. This line flourished in Stand, which Smith co-edited in the Sixties, and in the North. Smith got it from Jon Silkin and Ted Hughes. It flourished, from 1978, in Bloodaxe Books. It took on Bunting as an anti-abstract poet but rejected everything else about modernism. Later, it took on Smith and Pickard but rejected all the rest of the New Thing of the Sixties and Seventies, as defined by Mottram. It was puzzling how a style which in Smith was an expression of poverty and alienation, even nervous breakdown, could be presented in many younger poets as normal and even desirable. Perhaps it was asserting regional identity by discarding all the innovations of the previous 20 years – the metropolitan sacrifice. Fine words did not flourish north of Trent.
If I keep going on about book jackets, it is because I see them as part of the retail experience, which is one of the core social events of poetry. There is a gap between books about poetry and reviews, and another gap between reviews and jacket blurbs, but perhaps the blurbs are the closest to what readers want and find most persuasive. That is, shoppers may regard the blurbs as monomaniac distortions and partial truths, but they may not identify at all with the reviews or history books (which are usually 20 years behind the times). I think it is likely that there are no books which record the artistic ideology of Bloodaxe, which is clearly documented through their book jackets. Jacket texts record a certain history of British poetry, covering a wide area which never makes it into the formal, academic record at all. They describe thrills which aren’t actually available in the poems, but that is a trace of desires and fantasies which is of value in itself, and could even trace the designs of the poems. The jacket may, therefore, supply a way of measuring the failure of the poems. Further, the way the blurbs change traces a chronology which we should certainly be aware of. Things do change from time to time!
The anti-elite position is acted out in verse by Ken Smith and Peter Reading, particular. Smith attacks abstraction, in an interview. He says “I tend to avoid the Latin words. I tend to avoid the abstract words. What I like is the concrete image for things and Anglo-Saxon provides that all the time.”. This carries the latent anti-elite nisus. The people who understand abstractions are obviously educated and metropolitan and in positions of influence. They are part of the elite. This gives us a new idea of stylistics – we can equate use of advanced and differentiated vocabulary with acceptance of elite values. Conversely, use of repetitive concrete vocabulary may be a protest (or a sign of limited intellectual skills). I doubt that abstractions are meaningless, and I think further that the natural state for humans is to master abstract nouns, to be self-conscious and to record the reasoning which is inherent in that state, to have feelings and to interrogate them, to know other conscious humans and to engage in argument with them. To avoid this domain of language within poetry is to simplify natural language. Eschewing abstraction is a form of purity of diction which, like other purities, paints poetry into a corner where it must repeat gestures. However, the silencing of elite language is also a criticism of the people who use elite language. This is more to the fore in Reading, whose entire work can be seen as something deliberately ugly, linguistically damaged, full of unresolved conflicts and frustration, and as an attack on the people in charge, the ones who offer harmony as a way forward. His poems do not display reasoning because he dislikes the people who use reason. He is psychologically close to the UKIP camp.
If you eliminate abstract words, you come down to something chthonic, archaic, deprived of the modern senses. The purging of Latin and French vocabulary is the clearest expression of resentment of elite innovations and Continental influences. It extends the resentment back beyond the EU accession, into the Middle Ages. Foreign things are inherently wrong. The Bloodaxe book on Ken Smith (You Again) makes much of the Anglo-Saxon quality of his work, also in rhythm. This is seen as authenticity – but not as fear of the French. (To clarify – domestic elites structurally have skill in French and Latin vocabulary, and the protest is against domestic elites. It is not at all a protest against French people, Normans, or Romans, but about British people.)
 It is characteristic of a populist resentment that it ignores differences between various sectors which it wants to attack. But it is characteristic of elite individuals to differentiate themselves as much as possible, using and re-using the fine distinctions which Bourdieu talks about.

Education is bound to meritocracy and is seen as hierarchical by the people inside it, who manage it. It follows that some intellectual assets are more valuable than others. It follows then that some assets in reading and talking about literature are more valuable than others. It seems fairly clear that Theory is regarded as more prestigious than scholars who merely describe texts and assess their artistic qualities. The advent of Theory was tangled up with the student revolts of 1968 and adjacent years. The reaction of scholars of older generations to these events, French theory and students denouncing their elders, was not always either of welcome or of submission. The advent of a new elite did not see the elite in possession willing to withdraw. The role of theory is to separate high and low in an industry where ranking and assessment are one of the central, daily activities. What stands out more clearly in this educational context is that those with the top assets believe in hierarchy and those without them believe in solidarity.
I found a series of articles on Fascist writers in PN Review in 1978-9. The series seemed to express a passive-aggressive stance. The series seemed pointless because it was going back to the Thirties, and obviously avoided dealing with the situation of 1979, surely full of fascinating and creative poets. PNR was not a pro-Fascist magazine in the broad sense – they weren’t even trying to clear the names of those shunned figures. Schmidt had left-wing sympathies, although he did not like hippies. But they certainly wanted to undermine the people who saw connections between ideology and literature and wanted political readings of literary classics. For example, who wanted literature to promote change in society, and literary scholarship to promote changes in culture. The series seems to be drawn by guilt; breezy left-wing thinkers who denounced writers for backing Hitler and Mussolini are being framed as villains for doing so. But the concept is not to vindicate the writers who got into fascism when it was lucrative to do so – guilt is not being denied and is actually part of the appeal. There seems to be a vicarious quality about this– it speaks for conservative and middle-aged academics who know they aren’t very progressive or brilliant and who resent having their failings being called out. The central point is that they don’t disagree with the accusations– the emotional appeal starts with guilt and is a way of soothing it.
People who can’t compete, culturally, want a refugium where they are protected from losing. The idea of refugium applies even to literary academics. I think quite a few people felt that the gurus, first of all, (later, the “post-structuralists”) were brilliant and opening new worlds, but they personally had no ability to do that and wanted a safe place where they didn’t have to encounter these radical ideas. I spoke of featureless warmth as something distinctive for populist discourse. That is, closeness is offered in the absence of evidence or argument. There is a favoured spot for someone educated, where they believe that people who know more than they do are distantiated and inauthentic, people who know less than they do are locally bound, ignorant, and confused, but people who know what they know are simply in the right place. You can see that it is uncomfortable to have any other view of the cultural geography. It is possible that poetry, in the contemporary condition, offers a remedy which reassures people of the value of their cultural assets: bringing comfort, at the expense of course of reducing doubt and making change less likely. It is also possible that we can relate the ideology of given publishers, their brand image, to a comfort zone and to specific valuations of specific cultural assets.

In that PNR series, Michael Hamburger wrote very interestingly on Gottfried Benn. Benn produced an ardently pro-Nazi lecture in 1933. Then he found out that they regarded him as a degenerate. And he had a publication ban. If Hitler says you are unconsciously anti-Nazi, does that mean you are anti-Nazi or that you are consciously pro-Nazi and, as an intellectual, it is your conscious beliefs which count? You do want to read this, no question.
Where grand theory offers idealism, an ideal society (even if after a thousand-year delay), it is clear that populism does not offer ideals, or ideas. It is plausible that populism is involved with feeling of shame – positions which the liberal thought-world condemns. The populist response is not disagreement but resentment with agreement. They do not feel pride in cultural assets which they do not possess. They think their assets are inferior.
I suppose that a whole sector of poets is separate because their poetry comes out of idealism and theory. That is, they have the ability to move from abstract thought into a poem. They have speculated, and their style is what speculation gives them rather than being something awkward and clumsy, the legacy of older speech. It is hardly in debate that this poetry is high, and poetry which merely reproduces memory, with limited patterning, is low. But it is also likely that poetry of this kind also evokes anti-metropolitan resentments, and that the whole complex of resentment which produced the soaring voting figures of UKIP is also engaged in the resistance to elevated poetry. The more this poetry reflects psychological freedom, the more it makes people feel their own limitations. Also, once you go there, you don’t really want to be anywhere else.
Bloodaxe took their name from a character in Briggflatts, and Carcanet issued what looks like an ideologically regulated version of modern history – Under Briggflatts (by Donald Davie). Davie had been an editor of PN Review, the public voice of Carcanet. The clamour for poems about the sense record, about objects and tools, was prevalent in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It is curious to see this wing where Bloodaxe and Carcanet touch each other. Both publishers claimed Bunting as the founder of modern poetry – incredibly. Bloodaxe merged Bunting and Smith as icons of modernity. Neither publisher had any space for the British Poetry Revival, for radical lifestyles, or for the poetic Left. (Some details – Bunting’s poem mentions Eirik Bloodaxe, king of York, and opens with a passage about lines of verse being so terribly important that they should be carved in stone– with an edged tool, obviously. The flagship anthology Poetry with an Edge refers back to that edge, the stonemason’s chisel, and to the axe which Eirik liked to use on his subjects. Bloodaxe’s leading figures were Ken Smith and Bunting, fused together as poets who cut out all abstract words. In the first 120 pages of his 1982 collected poems, Smith used the word “stone” 100 times, and this is also fused with the writing in stone which Bunting longed for. )
Davie identified himself with the Movement, saw himself as its chief ideological manager, and seems to have had some animus against all the poets who arrived on the scene after the Movement (i.e. after about 1956). His book about poetry 1960 to 1988 is essentially a campaign to wipe out rivals. What is being offered is more like “Bunting is a legitimation for all the British poetry which survives after we have eliminated from view all the poets who could actually write”. This is a different proposition from a history of the time. On examination, the poets being excluded and off-mapped could be defined either as “poets influenced by American poetry” or “poets who want to write about ideas within the poem”. Briggflatts was consecrated as a poem about autobiography where ideas played no role, there were only experiences, primarily of objects. I think Bunting has been instrumentalised, and in more than one way. It is almost as if he had been defined as the decommissioned form of modernism, and by claiming him you could promote deeply unintellectual and in fact tedious poetry, while also claiming to be part of the modernist heritage. What set fire to the new ranges of the 1960s was certainly the American poetry (in Donald Allen’s anthology, as a gateway) rather than Briggflatts. Bunting’s poem of old age is too weary and resigned to set a new wave of poetry off.
What Bloodaxe and Carcanet had in common was a distaste for talking about feelings – the impulse was to describe objects or living things but strip them of any symbolic value. This was felt as an escape from ideology. Ideas and feelings somehow belonged together, and both represented an egoism, or risk-taking, which they were saying No to. The new poetry was not going to find its way away from “small presses” and into the bookshops so easily.
Carcanet included several different currents of ideas in the 1980s, and evolved steadily during their long history. The anthology Some Contemporary Poets was a programme statement for Carcanet as it was in 1983, not necessarily five years later. Under Briggflatts was a statement of position for Donald Davie, but, even though Carcanet published it, it is not necessarily true that other players in the Carcanet team shared its ideas, for example its negativity about poetry after 1960.
To reiterate, Ford and Goodwin’s book (Revolt on the Right) raises questions that need to be addressed, and the issue concerning them is less about the merits of a possible UKIP government than about the long-term decline of the major political parties. The decline of the elite can be connected with the greater political awareness, and better access to (non-print) information, of the lower classes – the decline of deference. This basic state of affairs will persist even if UKIP disappear from the scene. Leaving the European Union is an issue which has pitched the graduates (dare we say, graduate class) against the non-graduates, but it  is only one of a whole series of issues which expose a similar opposition, because that opposition is structural and runs very deep. Conversely, the anti-elite current in poetry can carry a wide variety of messages, and is not straightforwardly an artistic error. Because the relationship between the highly educated and the bottom 40% is so important, or because modern life is so complicated that only theory can really help modern government, this object: abstract, or Germanic: Latinate, opposition is a stylistic means through which significant messages can be written.
Literature is, to generalise, about shared feelings displayed through symbolism. We have been talking about feelings which are inside the cone of silence, which were not shown in shared symbolism, which were private and to some extent shameful. There is another category, of feelings which were shameful but which are shared, which are the material of an alliance which can affect public life, and which are perhaps the inexplicit content of symbolism or the content of inexplicit symbolism.
There are two results about the attack on the elites. First, a shift of perspective whereby you see a group of people as carrying out a function, not just being natural and seeking pleasure but as enthralled to other people and providing services to them which can be criticised like other commodities. People would not necessarily agree what these services do or should consist of. Secondly, the ebb and flow of political power. The investment of the elite is not secure. The elite as promoters may be faced with the refusal of the public to consume what they offer, or with surges where certain poets become unexpectedly popular. Commodities can fail in the market, and the retail arena is the decisive area. When waves of resentment billow up, from feminists, ethnic minorities, Marxists, outsiders, and so on, the ship changes course, and this is of great interest to participants.

As I write, the Brexit issue is tearing the country apart and even tearing both major political parties apart. Nobody really enjoys this level of division. The point of an education that makes you look at ideas is that thereafter ideas don’t become rigid and you don’t let them evolve into rigid political divisions. I find it incredible that any stylistic or cultural oppositions in poetry could be permanent, or that everything could rotate around them. In everyday speech, we use a mixture of Saxon, French, and Latin words all the time. Poetry is about shared feelings; its linguistic fabric is made up of moving semantic oppositions, but it is not an investment in permanent social oppositions.