Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

This appeared in the Irish Times, 16 September 2017, p. 10:

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

Joanna Walsh is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s sister. Not literally, of course, but in Worlds From the Word’s End — the story that lends its name to her new collection — she channels Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), giving it a fierce feminist twist. A woman comes to realise that she and her partner have always been “words apart”. Given that he is “only interested in the sound of [his] own voice” and prefers his “women quiet”, she makes a virtue of necessity by spearheading a mute mutiny that reverberates throughout society. Female hipsters — “seeking something retro as usual” — start modelling themselves on the “silent women in cardigans” of yore. The “new silence” goes mainstream. Newspapers become blank. Talk shows ditch the talk. Social media users post “photos of silent activities”. Signage is removed and libraries burned down as couples everywhere tire of “explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words”. In her struggle against mansplaining, Eve rolls back Adam’s enterprise of linguistic imperialism, returning all things to their (nameless) sui generis nature.

“I’m writing to you so you’ll understand why I can’t write to you any more” — this paradoxical mission statement delineates the liminal space Walsh explores, charting a middle course between inscription and erasure.

The Story of Our Nation lies at one end of the spectrum. With great fanfare, we are informed that the eponymous story will differ from all past chronicles, criticised for being “parallel but not the real thing”. “What was missing,” the character explains, “was bare fact.” The national epic she is working on will log everything, from “gaps between doors and doorsills” to the “light that arcs night ceilings through the slits between curtains”. It brings to mind the legend (found in Lewis Carroll and Borges) of a map on the exact same scale as the territory it charts. This gesamtkunstwerk should likewise coincide with its object: “once we input all the figures you will be able to see everything in a flash.” The snag is that it can only be achieved by freezing the nation in its current state, lest the quest become “uncompletable”. The “real thing” is turned into a dead thing.

This is also the case in Two, which revolves around a pair of statuettes petrified in their verisimilitude: “So poised to move, yet so immobile, so lifelike and at the same time something that only looks like life.” Their owner fears the fixity of writing as well as that of art; the death of the author, whereby a text escapes its progenitor: “I must be careful describing the seasons as they may also be mistaken for metaphor, and I would not like to lay down some kind of mood setting I didn’t at all mean”.

Everything else is in a state of flux, and it it is this indeterminacy Walsh’s fragmentary prose taps into. Domestic settings grow uncanny: in one case, everyday objects migrate around the house as a daily routine goes awry. The characters are almost all anonymous or identified by a letter à la Kafka (this is even turned into a deftly executed extended joke in Reading Habits). More often than not, their gender remains unspecified. Femme Maison is one of several stories told in the second person singular, where you is I and I is another: “You wanted to be someone else, someone neither of you knew”. Hauptbahnhof is a monologue in disguise, the narrator addressing herself to the absent man who stood her up at Berlin Central Station, where she now resides: “Sometimes a demonstrator [in a shop] makes me over to look like someone new.” The longed-for metamorphosis fails spectacularly to materialise in Simple Hans, where a woman’s head is cut off at her behest: “This is the moment the good things happen in stories, but this is real life. She was meant to change into something else.”

The author’s fourth collection is made up of skittish vignettes and longer, more surreal pieces. There is a great deal of wordplay, but it is never gratuitous. “I’m not aloud”, for instance, speaks volumes about the silencing of women. Puns burrow rabbit-holes into the unconscious of language, where the text seems to become self-generative.

In Bookselves, Walsh conjures up a creature who emerges from someone’s bookshelf, having devoured all their unread books: “It will be the opposite of you, your inverse.” Her prose orbits a black hole whose presence it reveals but cannot express. Postcards from Two Hotels ends on a characteristically ambiguous note: “Tomorrow I return to the first hotel. It is in the second hotel that I did all my writing.” Walsh’s style finds its perfect expression in the troubled housewife who, having cut but not pasted, realises that her words “hover in vacant space”.

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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.

A Deterritorialised Voice

My review of Zygmunt Bauman‘s Retrotopia appears in today’s Irish Times. Here is an extract:

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”….

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.

irishtimes
grandhotelabyss

Cafe Marx

My review of Stuart JeffriesGrand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School is in Saturday’s Irish Times.

grandhotelabyss

… 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.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond

This appeared in Guardian Review on 21 November 2015 (Page 10). It was posted on the Guardian‘s website on 18 November 2015:

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

A woman meditates on her rural seclusion in a stunning debut that ‘re-enchants the world’

‘Bennett aims at nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world.’ Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

‘Bennett aims at nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world.’ Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Claire-Louise Bennett’s highly acclaimed debut, initially published in Ireland earlier this year, is a collection of 20 stories — the shortest of which runs to a couple of sentences. They are all told, it seems, by the same female character, whose semi-reclusive existence the tales revolve around. Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the “savage swarming magic” the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her “mind in motion” (the only exception being the final story, told in the third person). For all this propinquity, we would be hard-pressed to recognise her, should she suddenly emerge from her rural retreat. One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator — whose brain and body we inhabit — yet how little we know about her. We don’t even learn her name.

Her soliloquies are peppered with asides to an implied reader — “if you want to know” — cheekily drawing attention to the amount of information being withheld. The young woman discloses, in typically obfuscating fashion, that “it wouldn’t be entirely unwarranted to suggest that she might, overall, have the appearance and occasionally emanate the demeanour of someone who grows things”, despite having actually “propagated very little”. So much for what she looks like. We learn that she expended “many thousands of words” on an aborted doctoral thesis before relocating to the countryside, whence she chronicles the minutiae of her reduced circumstances with professorial pedantry and a mock-heroic style. Ireland, where the stories are set, is never even mentioned: “I live on the most westerly point of Europe, right next to the Atlantic ocean” is as close as we get and as much as we need.

The narrator’s largely solitary lifestyle enables her to eschew what Bennett (pictured) has called “anthropocentric parochialism”. “In solitude you don’t need to make an impression on the world,” the author explained to the Irish Times, “so the world has some opportunity to make an impression on you.” When that impression fails to materialise, in “A Little Before Seven”, the protagonist presses down on the worktop to give herself “a little more density”. In “Morning, Noon & Night” she lies in bed next to her boyfriend, thinking of the vegetables “out there in the dark”: “I’d splay my fingers towards the ceiling and feel such yearning!”

A rich seam of nostalgie de la boue runs through the collection, from the primeval earth that smells “as if it had never before been opened up” in the aforementioned story, to the mud — “feudal and rich, almost igneous” — in “The Big Day”, and the Dostoevskian close of “Words Escape Me”: “I was beneath the ground.” In “Control Knobs”, the narrator seems to envy a character in a novel she is reading, who becomes “more like an element” than a human being, “in the same way that rocks and trees are physiological manifestations. Material. Matter. Stuff.” Having recently moved into her cottage, she reclines on the lawn, and lets nature take her over: “I would listen to a small beetle skirting the hairline across my forehead. I would listen to a spider coming through the grass towards the blanket.”

In the opening story, the narrator is still a little girl, and she climbs over a wall into an ornamental garden and falls asleep on the “unfeasible lawn”, clutching a lilac seashell. This could imply that the rest of the book is an Alice-style dream, or series of daydreams. As she puts it in “The Deepest Sea”, “daydreams return me to my original sense of things” — one thinks here of Wallace Stevens’s “plain sense of things” — “and I luxuriate in these fervid primary visions until I am entirely my unalloyed self again”. The cottage, first glimpsed through a thick hedgerow, and the inaccessible secret garden that she stumbles upon in the process of chasing away a cat, are echoes of this paradise lost.

What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world. Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous, quality through the examination of what Emerson called “the low, the common, the near” or the exploration of Georges Perec’s “infra-ordinary” — a quest for the quotidian. Unlike Perec, however, the narrator does not set out to exhaust circumscribed fragments of reality; quite the contrary. “I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things”, which only ends up “making the world smaller”.

Besides being a nod to Walden Pond, where Thoreau went to “live deliberately”, Bennett’s title refers to a sign next to a pond “saying pond” — the kind of literal message that breaks the spell of place, preventing us from “moving about in deep and direct accordance with things”. On brief occasions, the narrator starts speaking in tongues, drawing on a private inner language that can never be “written down at all”. A language beyond meaning, conversant with “the earth’s embedded logos”, it remains “simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt our flickering organs”. This is a truly stunning debut, beautifully written and profoundly witty.