Retrotopia

This appeared in The Irish Times on 13 May 2017:

A Heavyweight’s Flawed but Important Last Work

Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January at the age of 91, was one of the last intellectual heavyweights of the 20th century. He belonged to a generation that derived its aura and wisdom from the second World War, even winning a medal for gallantry in combat. He was a Polish Jew, and so his life and work were shaped by both Nazi and communist persecution, the latter forcing him to relinquish his citizenship as a prerequisite for exile.

Although he became professor of sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971 — residing in England, with his family, for the rest of his life — he always retained a strong accent, not dissimilar to a comedy impression of Sigmund Freud. You can hear it in his numerous books, ostensibly written in English but frequently reading like literal translations from sundry continental tongues. This deterritorialised voice, poised somewhere between Yorkshire and Mitteleuropa, never tries to conceal its cosmopolitan origins. It speaks the language of liquid modernity, the era-defining concept that will doubtless serve as his epitaph.

Composed in the shadow of Brexit and Trump, Retrotopia — Bauman’s last, posthumously published work — revisits this rapidly evolving phenomenon. The sociologist had long argued that a loss of faith in society’s perfectibility was one of the main distinctions between the “solid” and “liquid” phases of modernity, a theme that he reprises and expands on here.

His argument hinges on the “emancipation of power from territory”, as a result of which nation states, with increasingly “porous” borders, are no longer able to fulfil their traditional functions. This political impotence, compounded by the stupefying pace of change, has redirected the utopian impulse towards the “space of collective memory”. We take refuge in the past because it can be “remodelled at will”, thus providing the “blissful omnipotence lost in the present”.

The future is now associated not with progress but with stasis or regression. At best it seems to offer more of the same; at worst it holds out the prospect of “social degradation” and “impending catastrophe”. Hence the privatisation of happiness, sought no longer through collective endeavours but through self-improvement and personal “wellness”.

Today’s dominant “managerial philosophy” appeals to our contradictory aspirations to autonomy and belonging. Idiosyncrasies, which would once have been ironed out on the Fordist conveyor belt, are now encouraged in the name of ever more diversity. In exchange, however, corporations feel free to exploit the “sum total” of their employees’ “personality assets” while guaranteeing them little or no loyalty.

Social in name only, our online networks offer another ersatz brand of communality, acting as they do as filter bubbles, providing insulation from any views likely to challenge our easily bruised egos. Such comfort zones are “as close to the nirvana of the womb” as we can get. Indeed, a return to the safety of the womb is the logical conclusion of a series of reactionary trends taking us back to a world of “weakening human bonds”, tribalism and growing inequalities — a Hobbesian “war of all against all”.

Despite the bleakness of the picture he paints, Bauman elicits none of the pessimism he has sometimes been accused of. He suggests that retrotopianism is largely due to our failure to develop a cosmopolitan consciousness, despite living in a cosmopolitan world. Human groups continue, as they have always done, to define themselves by exclusion. The challenge of our times, he asserts, with an enthusiasm that almost makes it sound feasible, is to achieve “integration without separation”.

Crudely reductive
Retrotopia is an important work but one that is deeply flawed. The sociologist’s rationale, for instance, can be crudely reductive: he too seems holed up in his comfort zone, from whence all ills are ultimately ascribed to globalisation. He appears surprisingly naive at times, presenting some of the pontiff’s pious platitudes as a blueprint for the future of mankind, or universal basic income as a foolproof panacea for inequality.

Bauman’s methodology is equally questionable. Sweeping statements (“today’s growth of violence”) alternate with detailed references to studies whose validity is premised exclusively on their authors’ academic credentials. The recourse to Homeric epithets — “the remarkable Belgian psychoanalyst”, “the great Norwegian anthropologist”, “the formidable Estonian student of culture”, “the foremost researcher” — is unlikely to hold sway in the current populist climate and may even prove counterproductive.

Another weakness is the author’s failure to engage with popular culture, which theorists such as Mark Fisher (who took his life four days after Bauman’s death) and Simon Reynolds have identified as the locus where the major symptoms of our nostalgic times may be observed.

Overlooking a few recurring linguistic mistakes and the odd cliche masquerading as reference, Bauman has a propensity to repeat himself twice, or even thrice, like a one-man Thomson and Thompson, which should have been reined in: “correctness and veracity”, “porosity and permeability”, “trenchant and incisive”, “budding, aspiring and up-and-coming”, “insecurity, uncertainty and un-safety”, “cautious, circumspect and prudent”. The cumulative effect is ludicrous, laughable and risible.

The keen interest this nonagenarian showed in the world and its future is a source of hope and even joy. His enduring intellectual vigour should come as no great surprise, considering that he published most of his works after retiring. Some of the references here are so up to the minute that reading Retrotopia is like stumbling across the number of a recently departed loved one on your mobile.

In those moments it is difficult not to give in to feelings of nostalgia.

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Resemblance in the Work of Jochen Gerz

I have translated Octave Debary‘s Resemblance in the Work of Jochen Gerz (French title: La ressemblance dans l’oeuvre de Jochen Gerz) published by Créaphis éditions on 1 June 2017. It is a bilingual edition, with my English translation appearing on each page beside the original French text.

My aim here is to go on a journey down this road with Jochen Gerz. To strike up a conversation, not so much about his work as one that winds its way through his works. I wish to chart the trajectory I have been following as an anthropologist studying remains and the remains of history, which has led to a decade-long dialogue with Gerz’s oeuvre. Those artworks that he often abandons, once created, offering them up to the city and passers-by. Gerz is one of the foremost contemporary artists of memory and public space.

Peter Rabbit is to be Found in Everything

Interview with Andrew Gallix, “The Brief: 3:AM Magazine,” Silent Frame 1 April 2017:

3:AM Magazine is a literary webzine that comprises reviews, critical essays, prose fiction, poetry, and interviews with prominent writers and philosophers. The interview responses below are given by the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Andrew Gallix. Alongside editing 3:AM, Gallix works as a freelance journalist, translator, and lecturer at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has written for various publications, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, and the Times Literary Supplement. With Richard Cabut, he co-edited and contributed to Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night (Zero Books, October 2017).

Which book would you recommend to our readers?
Remainder by Tom McCarthy. The best French novel ever written in English. It has a special place in 3:AM Magazine’s history, as we were the very first to champion it. This is where twenty-first-century literature began.

Which film would you recommend to our readers?
Berberian Sound Studio, directed by Peter Strickland, which revolves around a particularly gruesome giallo, evoked only through sound effects and snatches of overdubbed dialogue and howls — because films should be heard and not seen.

Which architectural work would you recommend to our readers?
The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, where Peter Pan poetically dwells — a new pavilion is built from scratch each year.

Which television episode would you recommend to our readers?

‘Episode 8’ from Series 1 of Life on Mars, directed by John Alexander — the episode where time-travelling protagonist Sam Tyler comes face to face with his young parents, and even catches a glimpse of himself as a child.

Which Mexican artwork would you recommend to our readers?
Under the Volcano, a novel by Malcolm Lowry. What I most admire about this most admirable novel is the line, ‘Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit’.

[NB: Though an English author, Lowry briefly lived in Mexico, where Under the Volcano is also set.]

Which Serbian artwork would you recommend to our readers?
Complete Poems by Danilo Kupus, some of which were inspired by Beatrix Potter — because Peter Rabbit is to be found in everything.

Can art erase history?
No, but history can erase art. If art is a de Kooning drawing, history is Robert Rauschenberg’s rubber.

Can children make art?
Yes, but can adults?

Could art end civilisation?
No, but I suspect all great art aspires to do just that.

Is the alphabet a system of oppression?
Absolutely. Language, as Roland Barthes once remarked, is ‘fascist’. It speaks us; compels us to see things in a certain way.

Why discover?
Because the temptation to peek underneath is too great?

What question would you like to ask other Silent Frame interviewees?
What question would you fail to answer?

More to discover: You can read 3:AM Magazine here, visit Andrew Gallix’s website here, view his contributions to The Guardian here, and follow them on Twitter @3ammagazine and @andrewgallix.

Click on any of the following links to find out more about today’s recommended artists and artworks: Remainder (excerpt), Berberian Sound Studio (trailer), The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion (information), Life on Mars (trailer), Under the Volcano (excerpt).

Umbilical Words

Dear Mum,

I hope you have read my letter. The other one. The proper one. The one I could not write, because it cannot be written. Couched in an idiom only you and I understand. A mother tongue. Umbilical words that bind us for ever and ever. You alone can hear me mouth them.

Of the pain of being parted from you as a child, it says nothing, not least because that always went without saying. Being separated made us inseparable. In the other letter, this unspeakable pain speaks, though not in so many words. You alone can hear its mute howl. Mum’s the word.

For years, I could not sleep facing a wall. I had to face the door, through which I would be reunited with you. Returning for the holidays was always a homecoming. Even as an adult. I once spent my lunch break at Gare du Nord, simply to feel a little closer to you. Watching all those people boarding trains bound for my mother’s land.

You are my motherland. The only time I tried to tell you, on that warm summer night, you said I was drunk. That was by the potted olive tree.

As soon as I heard you were going, I caught the first train, but did not make it on time. I hope you sensed that I was on my way. That I was coming home to you.

You were already so cold when I kissed your forehead. Stone cold.

We always fail to talk about what we love. Someone else wrote that. You dwell in me, just as I once dwelt in you. Someone else wrote that too. Perhaps they were drunk.

Your son, who always loved you more than you could ever know,

Andrew

The Abode of Fancy

This appeared in The Guardian (Guardian Review) on 24 December 2016: 10.

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We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoo-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to summarise: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected.

There are two main plot lines. The first revolves around Simeon Collins, a young student who shares his initials with the author, and the washed-up, world-weary older friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin. The book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit and snot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages.

Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5,000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. Simeon composes a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw.”

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers are here in name or spirit, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that the first character to appear has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than its fanciful cast come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue is often pitch-perfect and Coll (pictured) displays an emotional intelligence beyond his years: the unflinching, compassionate depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone, but the default mode is mock-heroic, with the quixotic cast out of place in a hastily delineated contemporary Ireland: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” and the 2008 recession.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Nearly all the characters are male and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse?

samcoll2

Here is a longer, slightly different version:

We have all met him: the precocious Irish student who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and would be a shoe-in for the next Joyce if only he deigned to put pen to paper. Sam Coll did put pen to paper, and then some. And then some more, until he had completed 69 chapters spanning almost 500 pages of scatological high jinks and coruscating wit. Born in 1989, he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College — a mere 20 years old — when the first draft was produced. The Abode of Fancy, his all-embracing debut, is fiendishly difficult to synopsize: it is episodic and digressive, yet everything is skilfully connected. For what it is worth, there are two main plot lines. The first one revolves around a young student, Simeon Collins, his sentimental travails, and his father’s washed-up, world-weary friends in whose company he seeks solace. The second concerns a godlike figure, the Mad Monk, who returns to Ireland to herald the advent of the “new lusty age” along with other fantastical creatures: the Pooka, the Puck, the White Dog, the Clunge Monkey, Banshee Megan Devlin, and Elijah, who, like one of the author’s nested narratives, takes up abode in a deceased character’s body from which it emits gnomic utterances. But the book is also about one man’s unrequited love for his bull, a pair of garrulous hares (most of the animals can speak) who are accidentally killed by golf-playing university lecturers, and countless other twisted tales. It even includes a donkey called Balthazar (as in Bresson’s classic) who — “or so he claimed” — was a film star in a previous life.

There are shades of Rabelais in this gargantuan feast of lingual felicity, peopled with giants and morbidly obese alcoholic grotesques. The long-winded sentences seem to have been secreted rather than accreted (which is quite apt since the novel is awash with jizz, piss, puke, shit, snot and whatnot). A single sentence describing a young woman walking towards her boyfriend under the anguished eye of a third character, who secretly pines for her, is agonisingly and hilariously drawn out over the best part of three pages. Not surprisingly for a book whose heft exposes the reader to the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, The Abode of Fancy draws boastful attention to its endowment. A doggerel epic, which appears in several instalments, prompts the following critique from the aforementioned wisecracking ass: “It’s a bloody gardener you need to edit that behemoth, mate!” Beautiful Saruko, whose essay is “5000 words over the limit”, cajoles the protagonist into whittling down her “unwieldy word count”. A bookmark on page 390 in Arsene O’Colla’s copy of Swann in Love proves “how far he got” in Proust’s oeuvre and, crucially, “from whence he never proceeded”. Simeon Collins (whose initials are also the author’s) starts off composing a short story that becomes a book that mutates into a “gargantuan behemoth of a book”: “There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw”.

The Abode of Fancy contains multitudes. All great Irish writers, from Swift and Sterne to Flann O’Brien and beyond, are here, in name or spirit. One thinks of Albert Potter’s dingy subterranean flat, in the novel, where books “copulate and fecundate, book begetting book”. Detailed descriptions of photographs open up new vistas; worlds within worlds. The novel even contains itself. The four-page-long inventory, in the prologue, of the “vast collection of assembled objects” found on a table, provides a preemptive index to all the ensuing narrative strands: “A fragment, contained in a jar, of the surviving bones of Peadar Lamb’s Bull”, for instance, or “A postcard for a Connemara golf-course, with two hares in the foreground”. Reminiscent of Joyce’s “Sirens” overture, this framing device is completed by the revelation, in the epilogue, that Martin Graves (the first character to appear) has been reading a lengthy comic book all along. No sooner has he put it down, however, than the fanciful characters come knocking at his door.

The Abode of Fancy actually evolved out of an epic comic strip, in which the speech bubbles gradually took over. The dialogue — “You’re not, no, are you not, yeah” — is often pitch-perfect. Despite his youth, Sam Coll displays an emotional intelligence far beyond his years. His unflinching, albeit compassionate, depiction of loneliness and ageing provides a melancholy undertow to the lusty comedy. There are shifts in tone (as well as point of view) but the default mode is mock-heroic. When the Mad Monk asks for directions, bemused passersby fail to comprehend the “antique cast in which he couched his query”. The Irish-American Tadgh O’Mara spurns his “own accursed tongue” in favour of bookish Gaelic gibberish. As a result, the poetry he produces is “like reading a dictionary of the most obscure Irishness that had been spliced all out of order”. The implicit critique of the “impoverished idiom” of our age is part of the characters’ quixotic cast. For various reasons, they feel out of place in contemporary Ireland, which is hastily delineated: the bored Polish blonde at the till, the “surly youths in hoodies and trainers”, Tesco’s “four euro red” (that “can’t be beat”) and the 2008 recession.

Like most great works, The Abode of Fancy comes equipped with its own critical apparatus. The description of the Mad Monk’s doggerel as a “happy fusion of Sterne and Yeats, two names one would not have suspected of ever being conducive to successful welding” provides a fitting definition of the novel itself. A mock-Yeatsian mythology runs parallel to, and gradually merges with, the disenchanted world of piss artistry and unrequited love embodied by Simeon and his entourage.

In one of the frequent self-referential passages, a would-be bohemian poet contends that novels “can never be perfect” because they are “just too long”. The Abode of Fancy’s main flaw is neither its length nor its sophomoric quality, but the almost exclusive focus on masculine concerns. Barring a couple of exceptions, the characters are all male to a man and women only feature as objects of affection and attraction.

According to Witold Gombrowicz, it is no longer possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”. Sam Coll seems to have proved him wrong with this tour de force. Some may call it postmodern, but pre-modern is probably nearer the mark: the novel is returned to its picaresque roots, when everything was up for grabs. What fanciful abode will he build next to house his poetic impulse? And will he micturate against the wall whilst whistling a jaunty Celtic ditty?

The Making of Meursault

This appeared in Literary Review November 2016: 30-31.
camus

The Making of Meursault

In July 1944 Albert Camus produced a counterfeit manuscript of his debut novel, The Outsider, published two years earlier. Josette Clotis, André Malraux’s partner, read the text aloud while Camus took it down in longhand, introducing the odd crossed-out variant to lend it the air of an early draft. In Looking for ‘The Outsider’, Alice Kaplan outlines this ingenious scam, born of wartime austerity, but does not say whether it proved successful or not. All the same, it speaks volumes about the book it sought to cash in on. The Outsider had already outgrown its title, acquiring the aura of a canonical work. Camus was now in a position to turn Bouvard and Pécuchet’s lowly profession — that of the copy clerk — into gold. All he had to do was replicate his near-indecipherable microscript, originally developed in response to an acute paper shortage.

Looking for ‘The Outsider’ is the biography of a book rather than of its author. Kaplan chronicles the story of The Outsider from the germ of an idea in Camus’s notebooks to the novel’s re-evaluation in the light of gender and postcolonial studies, taking in, chemin faisant, its wider impact on popular culture. She even identifies the individual who inspired the anonymous Arab. Her research really comes into its own when she pieces together the strange circumstances in which the novel saw the light of day. Retracing the various manuscripts’ convoluted journey between Algiers and occupied Paris — charted on four different maps — is likened to ‘chasing several Minotaurs in a maze’. Even Raymond Queneau, at publishers Gallimard, was baffled, ending up with two different versions before going to press.

In 1937, with two collections of essays under his belt, Camus set about writing fiction. The provisional title of his work-in-progress, ‘A Happy Death’, clearly anticipated The Outsider (published as The Stranger in the United States), as did the protagonist’s name, Patrice Mersault. However, if Kaplan’s precis of this first attempt — ‘the story of a tubercular young man who commits murder for freedom’ — is anything to go by, it sounds more like an autobiographical take on André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures than a new departure. When he peered into his manuscript, Camus increasingly caught glimpses of a ‘completely different book’ within it. By the autumn of the following year, a ‘second novel’, which he went on to describe as ‘already completely traced within me’, stared back at him. Kaplan explains that the ‘ambitious writer who wanted to control every aspect of his craft found himself confronted with the unexpected’. Just as Meursault would realise, in extremis, that he had been ‘a stranger to his life’, Camus had to draw the conclusion that he was a stranger to his work. Having abandoned ‘A Happy Death’, he was ready to yield to something he did not fully comprehend: ‘Sometimes I need to write things that escape me in part, but which are proof of precisely what within me is stronger than I am.’

Eschewing belletristic ‘chit-chat’, he developed his trademark laconic style that gestures discreetly towards that which eludes language. ‘To write,’ he realised, ‘one must fall slightly short of the expression’, for the ‘true work of art … is the one that says the least’. Sartre greatly admired the way Camus deployed words ‘almost miraculously to produce a sensation of silence’, unaware that he had been brought up by a deaf mother and uncle. Estrangement was not only rooted in experience, however; it was also a literary device. Under the influence of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (translated into French in 1936), Camus switched his narrative from the third to the first person, a style that, as Kaplan remarks, ‘usually lets the reader inside the narrator’s head — but he did it so that there was no getting inside, no way to feel close to Meursault’. The novelist described this technical breakthrough, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a mere ‘trick’: ‘once I discovered the trick, all I had to do was write.’

If Camus discovered The Outsider ‘within himself’, he breathed life into the novel as a genre. His protagonist’s ‘lack of connection to people’, writes Kaplan, is offset by his ‘sensual connection to the world’. ‘He exists,’ Camus declared, ‘like a stone or the wind or the sea, under the sun.’ So far, so nouveau roman. Yet when Kaplan quotes the climactic passage in which Meursault opens himself to the ‘gentle indifference of the world’, finding it ‘so much like myself — so like a brother’, she fails to point out how much the world is anthropomorphised and recast in his image, and how even its indifference becomes benevolent. Is this really what Camus meant by living ‘without appeal’; cut adrift from religion or ideology? And, while we are on the subject, is a godless universe ipso facto absurd? As Alain Robbe-Grillet objected, the world is neither meaningful nor meaningless: ‘It is, that’s all’. A major flaw throughout this study is Kaplan’s promptness to take Camus’s ideas as read although, in all fairness, analysis does not fall within her remit.

Meursault fails to feel the gravitational pull of Paris, which, as Kaplan shrewdly observes, is a measure of his strangeness in a highly centralised country like France. Camus, however, had far more in common with Rastignac, Balzac’s arch-arriviste, than with Meursault. Despite going on to become the editor of an underground newspaper during the war, he ‘never questioned the idea of publishing his novel in occupied Paris’ and had no qualms about excising an essay on Kafka from The Myth of Sisyphus lest it attract the attention of the Germans. Within months of the appearance of The Outsider in bookshops, he was already ‘at the heart of things’, dining out with Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Café de Flore, an outsider no more.

At the outset, Alice Kaplan describes reading The Outsider as a ‘rite of passage’ that people throughout the world connect to ‘their coming of age’. Perhaps it is in the nature of such works to be outgrown, as The Outsider was, almost immediately, by Camus himself. Contrarily, our compulsion to reinterpret the book — in the light of the French Resistance, Algerian independence, the banlieues or the Arab Spring — may testify to its irreducible otherness and our inability to simply let it be, like a stone or the wind or the sea.
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literaryreview

A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

This appeared in The Irish Times (Weekend Review) 8 October 2016: 10.

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

Grand Hotel Abyss is a towering work of staggering scholarship. It is so comprehensive that even its own existence falls within its purview. Stuart Jeffries, a former Guardian arts editor, reflects, in the closing pages, on the “mini-boom in popularising critical theory books” — a “perverse consequence of the global capitalist crisis” — comprising “graphic guides, dictionaries, perhaps even this book”.

It is as if his magnum opus were enacting one of the Frankfurt School’s central tenets: the absence of any external perspective from which to critique the system. “There is,” lamented Theodor Adorno, “no exit from the entanglement” — a maxim that also applies to these thinkers’ pervasive influence and, dare I say, aura. Those whom Bertolt Brecht dismissed as the “Frankfurturists” are now an integral part of our theoretical make-up, whether we agree with them or not.

Jeffries should be applauded for sticking to a broadly chronological narrative rather than experimenting with Walter Benjamin’s rather baffling “dialectical image”. His engagement with these thinkers’ ideas is, contrarily, very much in keeping with the Frankfurt School ethos.

He counters Benjamin’s technological utopianism by stating that “one could also argue the opposite” and reminds Adorno, beyond the grave, that Germany was first defeated by “Soviet totalitarianism”, not by a “more advanced form of capitalism”.

Jeffries is unafraid of giving voice to common sense — “isn’t it ludicrous to compare the Third Reich to Hollywood?” — or being didactic when needs be: apropos of Adorno’s constellation theory of knowledge he writes, “This is all quite tough stuff and, even for adepts of critical theory, hard to swallow.”

Unexpected humour
Humour (“to get dialectical for a moment”) is one of the most unexpected facets of this book devoted to hard-core German intellectuals. Benjamin’s somewhat ludicrous resemblance to Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin is remarked on, and a quotation from his Neapolitan peregrinations elicits the following gloss: “It’s hard to tell in this passage whether Walter Benjamin is being given directions or being propositioned. Either way, he seems to like it.” And Herbert Marcuse’s meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre (above) at La Coupole is recounted in hilarious detail.

His “group biography” is an intellectual saga. Readers looking for upskirt pictures of Hannah Arendt will be sorely disappointed: titillation in these rarefied climes is of a purely cerebral nature. The infamous Busenaktion of 1969, when Adorno was surrounded by three female students who “bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him”, barely raises an eyebrow. A benign, possibly enviable form of protest to be faced with, in theory, but one that proved profoundly hurtful in praxis.

Commendably, Jeffries only ever adduces private matters to highlight glaring discrepancies between rhetoric and reality. A prime example is the highly conventional lifestyle led by Marcuse, despite publishing works “indicting bourgeois repression”.

The New Left darling’s fondness for a stuffed hippo is as close as we get to tittle-tattle. Yet even this cuddly-toy fetish proves significant, highlighting how some of the last century’s finest minds were also overgrown children. Incapable of making himself a cup of coffee, Benjamin was bankrolled by his parents until “well into his thirties”. Marcuse could neither cook nor drive. Adorno is described as a “child prodigy who never grew up (because he didn’t have to)”. Few of them did, given their wealthy backgrounds and the women — conspicuous by their absence at the Institute for Social Research, to give the Frankfurt School its proper name — who waited on them at home. Practice was never the school’s forte; nor, to be fair, was it ever meant to be.

Although ostensibly Marxist, the institute was founded, at Goethe University in 1924, not to promote revolution but to analyse its failure. Focus on the ill-fated Spartacist uprising soon shifted to understanding the triumph of Nazism — which led the scholars into exile — and Germany’s postwar “psychopathology of denial”.

Capitalism had moved on since Marx. It was no longer a mere mode of production but an entire superstructure, encompassing the mass media and show business, geared towards concealing its exploitative nature. As Marcuse astutely observed, anticipating today’s ludic work environment, “the pleasure principle had absorbed the reality principle”.

Under the aegis of Max Horkheimer, who became its director in 1931, the institute took a “multidisciplinary turn” so as to embrace all aspects of this complex system, thus giving birth to critical theory. Such hybrid studies conducted “at the trough of mass culture” would indicate, contra Marx, that the proletarian revolution was not inevitable. As a result the Frankfurt School became “modern-day monks working in retreat from a world they could not change”.

Adorno and Horkheimer jettisoned the Enlightenment’s legacy, arguing that reason had become an instrument of oppression rather than emancipation (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944). They did so, in brilliantly paradoxical style, by taking “the corpse of reason” and making it “speak of the circumstances of its own death”.

In Negative Dialectics (1966) Adorno went on, quite logically, to reject Hegel and Marx’s “conception of history as moving dialectically towards a happy ending”. If the Holocaust had produced a “new categorical imperative” — that is, ensuring it never repeated itself — revolution was perhaps no longer even desirable. He sought utopia through art that was at odds with the affirmative culture that had done “little more than supply a soundtrack to mass murder”: art that could express “the truth of suffering ‘in an age of indescribable horror'” by daring to be radically negative.

It is this embrace of negativity that is so bracing to some and frustrating to others, even within the school.

During the 1960s student protests, change was deemed possible by Marcuse, who embodied a sunnier, Californian take on critical theory. The institute’s “late ethos” is likewise predicated on the feasibility of “ameliorating the conditions of capitalism and liberal democracy”.

Yet Café Marx, as it used to be called derisively, remains tainted by Georg Lukács’s quip that these representatives of the chattering classes — branded traitors by Brecht — had holed themselves up in a beautiful hotel “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”.

There is a great deal of wisdom, however, in Adorno’s suspicion of revolutionary students’ “aversion to introspection”, which he had already observed in the dark days of Nazism. “I established a theoretical model of thought,” he told an interviewer in 1969. “How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails!”

There is also a great deal of hope in his belief that “whoever thinks offers resistance”.

At its best the Frankfurt School was always a think tank — in the armoured-fighting-vehicle sense of the word.

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