ReadySteadyBook: Recent Articles a literary site ReadySteadyBlog en-gb Copyright 2002-2013 All rights reserved. (Mark Thwaite) (Lee Kelleher) RSS.NET: House of Leaves, postmodernism and the administration of fear

In his recent piece on the administration of fear, Mark Thwaite asks whether “The Ministry of Fear is not just the name of a novel but a name for what novels are?” Does Art itself have as one of its tasks the administration of fear, the potential to perpetuate the environment of fear in which the State has placed us? Two immediately identifiable formulations of this idea present themselves:  that all literature by its very nature contributes to the state’s fear control system (the ‘negative’ conception) alternatively the thought that the inherent thread of fear permeating literature can either disrupt or accentuate the State’s environment.

Modernism’s literature often stood at the chasm of the dazzling void before falling back in awe, failure, humility or all three of the above and more. Since then, postmodernist texts have often “progressed” from this by delving into the void for empty self-reflection such as the  cheap conjuror’s tricks performed by  Rushdie et al where the very act of self-reflexivity is its own exploration and explanation. A literary space is forged where self-awareness, melancholy and memory bare their white teeth with gimmicky interjections, letting the reader know this is questioning their own experience but never attempting to nourish by engaging with hunger. The work is framed in a self-conscious setting and removed of its power to disrupt is the same manner as activist art might be if placed in the setting of a gallery.

Elsewhere, for example, the works of the Oulipo movement have used tight mathematical and cognitive constraints in order to create works which can, depending on one’s tastes, leave one full of wonder at their puzzle-box complexity or, alternatively, left cold at the movement’s apolitical, hermetic literary exercises in cognitive novelty.

In his piece Mark further mentions that “The Ministry of Fear could very well be the title of Kafka’s collected works.” And one might plausibly suggest many modernist texts which could be said to engage with fear and its administration. But how can one attempt to further this concept when so much of the other literature being written in this climate of fear might be entitled either The Ministry for Performative Administration or The Administration of Melancholy?

 In an attempt to perform a John Stuart Mill in minutiae and reconcile these seemingly disparate threads then this essay will turn to Mark Z. Danielewski’s complex and unashamedly postmodern novel House of Leaves.

I still get nightmares. In fact I get them so often I should be used to them by now. I’m not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares.

From this paradoxical construction onwards House of Leaves oozes and seeps fear.  Captured in this excerpt is something fundamental which the work is positing about the nature of fear and by the extension of the concept opening this essay something about postmodern literature’s attempt at exploring, mapping and deconstructing the void. That it cannot be contained. That fear and the void are only promulgated by self-examination.

For Navidson, the protagonist of the non-existent film about the labyrinth growing inside his house which the tattoo artist Johnny finds a review of in his dead neighbour’s apartment, these elements of the void could not be more apparent.  The labyrinth which grows inside his house does so because of his obsession with that discrepancy between the interior and the exterior. This obsession with this initially tiny space, of exploring and explicating its contents only serves to perpetuate the void’s size and leaves us lost without any hope of seeing the dazzling abyss at whose edge we once stood. Or worse, we may end up back at the edge of that same abyss but the tiresome exploration has removed the fear and awe it once instilled in us. Its presence becomes the norm and the cannibalistic environment of fear subsumes us.

To say something about what the void is, to attempt to give it properties, spatial location etc. is futile. It is both internal to human beings and felt by us and located elsewhere, it is an absence. One may view it from the outside yet its nothingness is endless. Bu to try to treat it as a black rock face, to be abseiled down in to armed with rope and cameras with only self-referential morsels of irony for sustenance. However it may be a place where real self-reflexivity might be possible.  If the void is not a black mirror where some slightly tainted doppelganger stares vacantly back but a vastness which one finds a loneliness so complete that: “When at last nothing was present but my perfect nothingness and there was nothing more to see, they ceased to see me too.” And the gaze which is returned is one’s own returned eternally by the abyss.

The fact that House of Leaves uses a postmodern toolbox of stylistic features to accomplish this exposé ultimately means that Danielewski too must fail in order to succeed. However in this instance the fact that the text succumbs to its own logic is a triumph. Everywhere Danielewski’s use of codes,  postmodern metafictional referentiality and Oulipian games, whilst no less carefully constructed, curl in parabolic arcs to nothingness. These are not just empty tricks deployed as meaning; they are failures, not of the text (which “cannot be blamed”) but of the method, with each repeated failure  contributing to the success in exposing postmodernism’s own shortcomings.

This is further accentuated by the book’s attempts to turn the very act of reading into a postmodern performance. When there is unbearable tension the number of words on the page is reduced so that the pages must be turned faster and the multi-layered codes continue to encourage many to obsessively make notes on their own copy of the book. Its fear cannot be confined even to the fiction it has created, it is truly afraid of what a novel can be and do, leaving the reader in a labyrinth where:

You will see nothing in that distance of eternal emptiness, you will not hear your own step, you will find nothing solid for your rest.

House of Leaves uses the literary techniques of postmodernism in order to reveal postmodernism’s own failings in attempting to familiarise the void. In attempting to map the perfect nothingness postmodernism only serves to amplify it’s threat.

This self-perpetuating cartography of dark coordinates often mirrors the State’s belief that any state of peace can be convincingly presented as a state of impending war so long as new threats can be identified commercialised and ‘sold’. If it can bombard the people with these clear patches of darkness  it may produce  an environment  where distinct entities are identified in such great numbers that all action is paralysed by fear.  By the very nature of the techniques it employs, House of Leaves offers no solution of its own, a solution which may lie in accepting the void’s defamiliarity, removing the self-conscious exploration and simply falling back.

But what of the negative conception mentioned initially: the idea that all art contributes to the administration of fear? Despite being intuitively false, it does not seem beyond possibility. But might this not lead to the Freudian compulsions which result in direct action against the state’s control? After all:

Jackals have little importance if truth for gazelles is to taste fear, if it is fear alone that makes them surpass themselves, driving them to the most spectacular acrobatics! (Dan Fraser) Thu, 02 May 2013 12:18:33 GMT
The Great Alexander he Book of Alexander the Great; 9781848852945

The first of these (Legends of Alexander the Great; 9781848857858) is a revised version of a 1994 original, the second (The Book of Alexander the Great; 9781848852945) brand new. Both are paperback publications by the versatile firm of I.B. Tauris, to which Stoneman happens to be Consulting Editor for Classics. These, along with his cognate The Greek Alexander Romance (1991) and Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend (2007), cement Stoneman’s reputation as World Number One in this exotic field.

It was appropriate that I began drafting this review on the day Ray Bradbury died and The Avengers opened here in Calgary. A good deal of the various Alexander romances is unabashed science fiction, strange landscapes and stranger monsters, where devotees of Dr Who, Star Trek/Wars, and Fortean Times would be quite at home. Speaking of this last, its eponymous hero Charles Fort described his notional Super-Sargasso Sea (Move over, Jean Rhys) thus:

Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones... treasure troves for the palaeontologists and for the archaeologists – accumulations of centuries – cyclones of Egypt, Greece and Assyria.

Alexander has much mutated from his own day to modern entertainment. In film, he was played by Richard Burton (suitably, in that both became alcoholics) in 1956 and Colin Farrell in 2004 under the direction of Oliver Stone, perhaps a logical retrogression after Platoon. A more oblique compliment came from the 2010 Malaysian movie Alexander the Great, an Asiatic take on Rain Man with Alexander playing no part.

For one not altogether flattering example of many from his literary Nachleben (devotees of historical novels cherish Mary Renault’s trilogy), take this 1973 Anthony Burgess delineation (reproduced in a New Yorker article, May 11, 2012, pp.69-76) of his anti-hero in Clockwork Orange:

Alex is a comic reduction of Alexander the Great, slashing his way through the world and conquering it.

Not an unreasonable equation -hard though it might be to visualise him as a Droog – given the Macedonian’s later military aggressions, a theme prevalent in some of the romances, played down in others. Burgess being Burgess, Alex also comports a bilingual pun: A-Lex = Lawless. The Greek name Alexandros (Protector of Men) went back to Homer, where it is Paris’ alternative divine moniker. As The Book of Alexander the Great dimly remembers, Homer played a big role in Alexander’s life, enriching his fantasies of being a new Achilles. He kept a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, along with a dagger - a striking symbiosis of escapism and realism.

Alexander became a legend in his own time. Plutarch in his Life (17.6) gibes at the “many historians” who came up with wondrous rubbish. The historian Callisthenes, on whom the Ur-text of Alexander romances was fathered, accompanying the great leader on his campaigns, declared the Cilician Sea drew back and prostrated itself before the conqueror. This permits us two kinds of smile over this lick-spittle’s subsequent execution for refusing to bow the knee in formal Oriental style. After Alexander’s demise, another travelling historian, Onescritus, claimed his boss had trysted with Thalestris, Queen of the Amazons. Last word on this twaddle goes to Alexander’s general Lysimachus who (says Plutarch, 46) on hearing Onescritus read this passage aloud quipped, “I wonder where I was at the time?”

It’s often said that Julius Caesar and Roman emperors such as Augustus and Trajan took Alexander as their model, incorporating his name into their personal propaganda. Much of this was long ago demolished by Peter Green in an article (American Journal of Ancient History, 1978) ‘Caesar and Alexander: aemulatio, imitatio, comparatio,’ reprinted in his Classical Bearings (1989), concluding that the evidence for this is “surprisingly little.” More to this point was actually Caesar’s rival Pompey, who gave himself the title ‘Great’, thereby attracting much contemporary derision. Indeed, it was not until Longinus (On the Sublime, 4. 2) in (probably - his date is disputed) the first century AD that any surviving Greek text dubs Alexander ‘Great’. By and large, his name cut little ice with the Romans down to Caesar’s time. Their first extant mention of him occurs around 200 BC in Plautus’ comedy Mostellaria (The Little Ghost) where (vv.775-77) a slave remarks with striking casualness “They say Alexander the Great and Agathocles were a pair who did really big things. How about me as number three? Look at the immortal feats I pull off without any help.”

In Nero’s reign (AD 54-68), Lucan in his poem on the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey tirades (10. 18-48) against Alexander as “a lucky bandit, crazed offspring of Philip,” and other choice insults. Stoneman sees this as a piece of Stoic horror at the slaughter caused by his wars, influenced by his philosopher-uncle Seneca, both victims of Nero. He might have added that, according to Suetonius’ Life (19.2), Nero himself went in for a bit of Alexander imitation, thereby adding contemporary point to Lucan’s lines.

As to Trajan, Stoneman claims “it is no accident” that Arrian’s favourable history of Alexander was composed in his reign. In point of fact, as suggested by Peter Brunt in his Loeb edition of the work (1976), this could have been written several decades later: we simply do not know. This was also an age in which Alexander’s divine pretensions and other traits were being mocked in the lively Greek prose satires of Lucian. Stoneman also needed to consider why the younger Pliny’s hyper-flattering Panegyric on Trajan (delivered to the emperor in, as modernly estimated, a five-hour marathon – shades of Fidel Castro or Enver Hoxha) takes none of his many opportunities for Alexander comparisons. On the matter of long-winded oratory, one recalls the rejoinder attributed (among others) to Churchill when rebuked for excessive length: “I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

As that grand old song The British Grenadiers kicks off: “Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules, of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.” Not a far cry from Chaucer in his Monk’s Tale: “The storie of Alisaundre is so commune/ That every wight that has discrecioun/ Hathe heard somewhere or al of his fortune.” Alexander Romances burgeoned into a world-wide industry. Stoneman surveys much of this with his usual crisp erudition; available supplements include Thomas Banchich’s review-article on his original Legends (Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.08.06 - online) and - they are not all to be despised - the Wikipedia notice thereof. Multifarious Western and Eastern versions converge and diverge. More might have been said about the Byzantine contribution; cf. the unmentioned H.J. Gleixner’s Das Alexanderbild der Byzantiner (Munich, 1961), also relevant entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991). It is here worth noticing how the romances develop in tandem with historiographical and other literary allusions to the real Alexander. One case in point is the anonymous 12th-century Lucianic satire Timarion (see my annotated translation, Detroit, 1984), where the Cynic Diogenes boasts about his respectful reception by Alexander, “the man who enslaved all of Asia.” A strand of this tradition surfaces in the largely fictional Athenian scenes in The Book of Alexander.

Stoneman’s reference to the interplay between the romances and Qur’an (18: 60-65) - which which? as Lenin might have put it - could have been enriched by pointing to the discussion by John D’Urso and others in the online Islamic Awareness magazine (1999, updated 2005). Likewise with N. Gopala Pillai’s analysis of the Indian tradition in Skanda: The Alexander Romance in India, electronically reproduced from the Proceedings of the All-India Oriental Conference 9 (1937).

For the British reader, Stoneman is especially intriguing on the English and Scottish romances from Chaucer on. In the Book of Alexander (68-69), Alexander makes a rest-stop in our green and pleasant land (I here think of the Star Trek episode ‘Shore-leave’), where he orders the “rulers of England” (unspecified: when this yarn was first published in 1670, Charles II was on the throne) to rush out 12.000 new vessels - what a boon that would be for our modern cash-strapped ship-building industry!

At least there was a lively England to go to. According to Plutarch, one reason Caesar went there was to confirm the existence of a place often dismissed as a poetic invention. The early Byzantine historian Procopius declared it was a “country of the dead, inhabited only by ghosts.” Tacitus was the first to comment on its gloomy climate. At least one Roman poet described it as “unfriendly to strangers”, a description with which many modern tourists might still agree.

I’d subjoin one further branch of the industry, with the same incorporation of fact and fiction. Namely, the Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-1468), his last name deriving from Turkish Iskander Bey (Lord or Leader Alexander). His first biography (Rome, 1508) was penned (in Latin) by Albanian historian Marin Barletti. Though not attributing to him the kind of exotic adventures that abound in the Alexander romances, Barleti does in the manner of the latter invent letters between him and fellow-rulers such as Turkish Mehmet II (the 1453 conqueror of Constantinople) and Wallachian Vladislav II. Praised for his generalship and leadership by the likes of Gibbon, Voltaire, Sir William Temple, and General Wolfe, Skanderbeg inspired a trio of operas, the first a lost one by Vivaldi; three 18th-century English tragic dramas; poems and poetic salutes from (e.g.) Ronsard, Samuel Johnson (Irene), Byron, and Longfellow. In a just-discovered Venetian cache of Albanian-related documents (information from the weekly magazine Java (April 21, 2012, 12-13), the 1770 Albanian lord of the village Margëllici is said to have been particularly devoted to biographies of Alexander and Julius Caesar.

Now to specifics and the nit-pickings reviewers must indulge in to show they have actually read the book in question - not always the case, it sometimes seems. In Legends, Stoneman handles the multifarious texts with - subject to reservations noted above - his customary aplomb. Manuscript traditions and the content, context, and purpose of the individual texts are lucidly presented. Stoneman writes clearly, eschewing academic bafflegab. A certain breeziness and some humorous seasonings (nice joke about Callisthenes on p. ix) add to the pleasure. His translations are accurate and readable. Terse notes convey a wealth of information, though sometimes more information might have been offered. One cannot document everything in texts of this kind, but (for easy examples) a few words on the fates of Alexander’s sisters (all murdered) and the allegations of his own poisoning would not have come amiss. The Index is serviceable, bibliographies to primary and secondary sources direct readers to most of the right places, albeit valuable work (mainly articles) by Boyle, Chasseur, Gero, Gosman, and Selden is passed over, as is the useful electronic Medieval Alexander Project.

In The Book, Stoneman (as in the famous Star Trek slogan, boldly going where no man has gone before) provides a pioneering English translation of a Greek text first published in 1680 at Venice. He might have mentioned that in modern Greek the titular word Phyllada means ‘pamphlet’ (he translates it as ‘little book’). Could this suggest it was originally put out as a kind of gospel-cum-rallying call? There was also more to be said on the subsequent use of Alexander’s name, possibly thanks to this romance, in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks. As Peter Green (p. 155), quoting Nicolas Yalouris (Director of Greek Antiquities) writes: “Alexander was virtually the only figure from antiquity to survive, however mythicised, in the folk-consciousness of medieval and modern Greece. He became the symbol that embodied the desire for a national uprising...Rhigas Pheraios, the revolutionary Greek poet later shot by the Turks, and a passionate promoter of ‘The Great Idea’, featured the bust of Alexander on the clandestine broadsheet that he circulated in 1797.” These supplements apart, there is nothing to add to Stoneman’s introductory cornucopia of crisply-expressed learning, except I think he somewhat (p. xxiv) underrates the author’s classical knowledge. No space here for all the fine print, but I was left with the impression that, as well as Homer, the author knew his Arrian and Herodotus, plus such Byzantine chroniclers as John Malalas. Still, I can readily endorse what Stoneman well calls the “elegant” conclusion of Kariofilis Mitsakis: “ Alexander was born an antique pagan, but died a Byzantine Christian.”

All the compliments paid to Legends can be repeated here. Reservations, too. The Phyllada’s error about Pella (capital of Macedon, not an ancient name for the country) might have been noted, likewise Plutarch on Alexander’s supposed meeting with the Amazons. Alexander Demandt’s Alexander der grosse: Leben und Legende (Munich, 2009) may be added to the Bibliography, also the various articles of Liam Gallagher, e.g. the one on manuscript illustrations in Thesaurismata 16 (1979), 179-205. Homer nods once in the notes (p.167): Diogenes is not the only genuine philosopher in the author’s list; Antisthenes is equally authentic. Likewise, Philon (p, xxv) may not be the “puzzle” Stoneman thinks, being named by Plutarch as one of Alexander’s historians. There are a couple of spots where I offer tentative suggestions. The Daphnaion said to have murdered Xerxes is branded “unidentifiable” by Stoneman. True enough. Possibly, it is a confusion with the Daphnaion that was a shrine of Apollo? Or, given that Ctesias has the spelling ‘Dariaios’, the author’s word may indicate ‘followers of Darius’. In the finale, where Alexander is poisoned (this has remained an open question from his own time), Stoneman is floored by the sentence “ Philip split a living mule, and hustled Alexander inside.” I wonder if this is a confused version of Arrian’s statement (7.27) that the poison was brought in a mule’s hoof? Alternatively, that there is a notion of a mule being cut up either as a sacrifice for Alexander’s recovery or in a desperate search for some presumed remedy? But, I do not wish to make an ass of myself.

Overall, full marks to Stoneman yet again for these fresh ventures into the ever-fascinating world of Alexander Romances – also kudos to I.B. Tauris for their elegant and accurate production. I hope that, as Alexander (and as Mrs Thatcher aspired in 1987) he will go on and on. Despite some resemblances, these fictional Alexanders knock hell out of John Carter. (Barry Baldwin) Fri, 29 Jun 2012 11:39:33 GMT
Brian Cummings

Brian Cummings is Professor of English at the University of Sussex. He was previously Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and has held Visiting Fellowships at the Huntington Library, California, and the Center for Advanced Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich. His books include The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (OUP, 2002). Currently, he holds a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship for 2009-12, researching his next book, The Confessions of Shakespeare. In May 2012 he gave the British Academy Shakespeare Lecture and in October 2012 he will give the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University. He is currently guest curator of the 2012 exhibition at Lambeth Palace Library, Royal Devotion: Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer. which runs from 1 May to 14 July 2012 (for details see His most recent book, and cause of our interview, is The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662.

Mark Thwaite: Please tell us something of the historic background to the first edition to the Book of Common Prayer?

Brian Cummings: The Book of Common Prayer was first published in March 1549. This was fifteen years after the Act of Supremacy inaugurated the English Reformation, and ten years after the Great Bible was introduced in English churches. So it is clear that the introduction of a liturgy in the vernacular was neither an obvious nor an easy matter. It is significant that it was not done under Henry VIII, who was content to keep the old Latin services while breaking free of the power of the papacy. Like for many people, the Latin mass was a ritual of great emotion for him and he would have considered anything else a sacrilege. Medieval ritual life in England before the Reformation was very rich – a vast panoply of ceremony and processional which varied through the seasons but was always centred on the mass.

Thomas Cranmer, however, his Archbishop of Canterbury, had been experimenting with the idea of a Reformed, and even English, liturgy for a long time. He first heard a Protestant service in Nuremberg in Germany in 1532 – on the same visit that he first encountered Margaret, the niece of Osiander the theologian, and married her in secret. Cranmer made two drafts of a Reformed liturgy by the death of Henry.

After Edward VI came to the throne, the pace of the Reformation picked up. It was a period of iconoclasm and violent religious controversy. A version of communion was printed in 1548 and parliament debated the mass in detail. Cranmer assembled the BCP from a wide range of existing material. Morning and Evening Prayer were compiled by translating parts of the Roman Breviary, while leaving out key parts such as the Ave Maria. Baptism and Burial were adapted from the Sarum Manual, while leaving out many bodily rituals. Most difficult of all was the mass, but Cranmer for the moment retained a version of the Roman Canon, while creating a complex compromise over the doctrine of real presence.

In some ways the BCP of 1549 was a careful balance, which horrified Catholic traditionalists while also failing to satisfy full demands for Protestant reform. Cranmer himself perhaps thought of it as a staging post, the best he could do in the current political climate. But it was also a triumph just to bring out an English liturgy at all.

Two printers were involved in what was a massive publishing exercise by the standards of the time: to comply with an Act of Uniformity which required a copy in every parish church, thousands of copies were needed (when print runs were normally in the low hundreds).

The book was first used at Whitsun, 9 June, in a communion at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, with Cranmer giving a sermon. In the west country, the same day, riots broke out: the demands of the rebels in Exeter including ‘bringing back the mass in Latin’. So despite Cranmer’s claim that he was making a religion fit for the people to understand in their own language, not all the people wanted it.

Mark Thwaite: And, now, if you could unpick some of the background/differences to the three editions you've focussed on, and tell us why you've picked out the 1549, 1559, and 1662 editions...

Brian Cummings: After 1549, there was an immediate campaign to produce a more radical version. The great German theologian Martin Bucer, in exile in Cambridge, produced a commentary to assist in this process. The new book of 1552 made profound changes to the Communion and to Burial, and lesser ones to many other services such as Baptism. Morning and Evening Prayer, and Marriage and Confirmation, were much less changed.

But within months Edward was dead and his sister Mary I brought back the Catholic faith and abolished the BCP. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, religion turned again – although it wasn’t clear straightaway that the 1552 BCP would be reintroduced, and some hoped for the revived Latin rites to continue, while others wanted the 1549 book back. In the end, a new edition of the BCP was brought out quite quickly in 1559, very closely related to 1552. Religious controversy did not end: Catholics often refused to use the new book; while the group who became known as Puritans often aspired to the Geneva forms of worship without bishops and with simpler ritual forms. In 1603, after James I came to the throne, Puritans hoped that a new king who had been brought up a presbyterian would favour them. But the 1604 revision, apart from Baptism, was more or less a repeat of 1559.

The Puritans got their way in 1645 and the BCP was banned again, and there were no editions between then and 1660 when the king was restored. While we now think of 1662 as inevitable, it was not at all clear at the time. Charles II himself liked the BCP, however, and a Royal Commission was set up to revise a book now over a hundred years old. While old Laudians wanted to change the Elizabethan book back into a more ritually traditionalist mould, presbyterians wanted a more enthusiastic and less formal kind of service format. Neither got what they wanted: the Savoy Conference made a political decision to alter as little as possible (always a safe move when passions are at stake), and the 1662 version, while incorporating a lot of important change, was much closer to 1552 than we might think.

I could have chosen any three of these five texts. I decided on 1549, 1559 and 1662 instantly – as the three which give the longest continuous life. 1549 and 1662 were obvious and uncontroversial choices. 1552 was the hard one to leave out. In the end I felt that although it has been often reprinted, and while it is important for textual and doctrinal reasons, it was in use for at most six months. 1559 was heard by Shakespeare and the other writers of the Elizabethan period. It is also very little different from 1552.

Mark Thwaite: Of the differences you discovered between the editions, did any particular ones shock and/or delight?

Brian Cummings: In general, I learned that liturgy is as much about bodily ritual as it is about the words said. Many of the most emotional arguments at the time were about what Cranmer called ‘Ceremonies’ – rituals as corporeal signs and symbolic actions. So the kinds of change I became fascinated by were of that kind. For instance, in Baptism, before the Reformation the priest would anoint the ear and mouth of the infant with spittle, in an action known as the ephphatha – from New Testament Greek – meaning ‘let it be opened’. This was dropped in the 1549 edition of the BCP, but anointing with oil was kept. Then that was removed in 1552, yet signing with the cross remained. That action caused debate and sometimes violence right up to the Civil Wars – when the child might be snatched from the priest’s hands, or the priest’s hand held behind his back, to prevent the ritual being done.

Another moment of delight was finding that the word ‘bell’ is used only once in any text of the BCP – for the Ash Wednesday service in 1549 – and yet bells were being cast throughout the sixteenth century, and their inscriptions show they were still being used for rituals associated with burial – the ‘passing bell and the ‘death knell’. Indeed, seventeenth-century England was a hey-day of English bell-ringing. So despite religious qualms about rituals, many of them thrived in ways that can be hidden from us.

Since I am also working on Shakespeare at the moment, I also took great enjoyment from tracing some of the marriage and funeral rites in the plays.

My favourite footnote is on p.755. St Enurchus was only introduced to the Calendar of saints in 1604. He never existed, since it was a misprint, probably for Evurtius. But the true reason for his entry into the BCP – discovered after a little digging – was both more obscure and quite wonderful. The 7 September was Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. So someone seems to have put Enurchus in as a kind of secret code so that those who wanted to could continue to celebrate the cult of the Virgin Queen after her death. Nobody seems to have noticed in 1662, and Enurchus stayed in; in the 19th century someone checked, and could not find Enurchus, and put in Evurtius instead.

By chance, as I sent off the final manuscript of however many pages to the commissioning editor at OUP, Judith Luna, I saw that the date was 7 September. I laughed out loud and added the saint’s day to my acknowledgments.

Mark Thwaite: Tell us a little about how the 1662 edition was already "archaic", and why you call the Book a "site of deep social memory"?

Brian Cummings: 1662 is a self-consciously old-fashioned book. It is printed in Black Letter, the old ‘Gothic’ script. This was still in use in the 1660s, especially for official and legal texts, but it was archaic by this point. And the ornamental letters also help to lend an ‘old’ appearance. The reason was to give people the impression that the book belonged to an old tradition that was now venerable. Some of the orthography, too, while still found in other places in printing of that decade, errs on the side of the old-fashioned. The revisers changed some language to make it more comprehensible, but in general they seem to have wanted to respect the old. An example is that there was a move to change ‘With my body I thee worship’ to ‘I thee honour’. The change was approved, and then at the last minute cancelled. It was not until 1928 that the revised text made that change. Myself I like the old version.

One of the things that seems to me most moving and significant about the BCP is this sense of a text over time. That is what made me want to use that phrase. We remember who we are by using these words – and we remember our connection with those who have gone before. ‘In the midst of life we are in death’.

Mark Thwaite: What were the particularly editorial challenges of bringing all three editions together and picking through their differences?

Brian Cummings: The book was an enormous challenge in every possible way. The decision to include three separate texts was taken very early. It immediately led to two things. One was that it had to be, at least moderately, an ‘old-spelling’ edition, since modernizing everything would have led to a smoothing over of difference. But a totally old-spelling edition is not altogether user-friendly, and the World’s Classics Series is intended for general readers. So I came up with a solution of light modernization, and I feel that works. The other consequence was that the texts needed to be completely re-edited from first principles. Although they have been reprinted and edited in the past, no edition has ever been made according to the standards of modern textual practice such as might be used for Shakespeare and Milton. Sometimes it seemed to me to be taking forever. This part of the work alone took a few years.

It also felt rather daunting – such an important and venerable text. One thing that helped me here was a choice of font. I decided for my own draft material to use Baskerville – because Baskerville was a great printer of the BCP in the eighteenth century, and worked in Birmingham, where I grew up. Once I put my texts into Baskerville it gave me confidence that these were ‘my’ texts - and that the whole thing might work after all. I would have loved the finished product to be in Baskerville, but this is a publisher’s decision. I worked closely with the book’s designer, Paul Luna, to get the lay-out right. Paul is a genius of typography, and I couldn’t have been luckier in having him work on the book, or in the intense interest he took in it. I am intensely proud of the look of the text.

The Book of Common Prayer

Mark Thwaite: Why was the Book of Common Prayer so important when it was first published and why has it remained so important since?

Brian Cummings: The BCP is one of the most-used and best-loved books in history. As well as one of the earliest Protestant liturgies in Europe, it was the standard book for religious service in cathedrals and churches for centuries in the English-speaking worlds. It comprises traditions in the Western and Eastern churches that go back to the beginnings of organized religion, and continues to influence anyone interested in religious devotional practice and prayer to this day. Beyond this religious significance, it was a book produced to be used by everybody. It covers life from beginning to end, a book, as I have put it, ‘to live, love and die to’. Human life is ritual to its core, and this is one of the most wonderful examples of lived experience to be found in any book in the world.

Mark Thwaite: What is significant about the word 'common' in the Book's title? And of the word 'prayer' - particularly when this is really a book of rituals?

Brian Cummings: This is an interesting question to answer. The word ‘ritual’ was not used as a noun before 1604. ‘Common prayer’ was a familiar term in medieval usage for collective worship in church; e.g. in the fifteenth-century Dives and Pauper: ‘Comon prayer is the prayer of the ministres of hooly churche and of comon persones in holy churche.’ But I think more can be said. ‘Prayer’ was a term that avoided association with ‘mass-book’ or ‘breviary’ or other terms that implied Catholic practice. It was general to any Christian act before God. And ‘common’ beautifully embraces the way that the book reaches out to everyday and universal use. That might be sometimes a pious wish, and the book has been used exclusively and controversially from the beginning, but I think Cranmer did aspire to a general human commonwealth.

Mark Thwaite: In what way is the Book a "quintessential Reformation book"?

Brian Cummings: At the heart of the book is a paradox of profound historical significance. Historians have argued long and hard about whether this is a book ‘of the people’ or a book ‘imposed from above’. I think it is both. It was introduced by an Act of Uniformity in Parliament that was authoritarian and even rather threatening in measure. The Tudors loved ‘uniformity’: they wanted one realm, one sovereign in religion as well as politics – and one Bible, one prayer book, and one grammar.

But Cranmer also meant it when he said in his Preface that: ‘S. Paule would have suche language spoken to the people in the churche, as they mighte understande and have profite by hearyng the same: the service in this Churche of England (these many yeares) hath been read in Latin to the people, whiche they understoode not, so that they have heard with theyr eares onely: and their hartes, spirite and minde, have not been edified thereby.’

The book is democratic in spirit even though authorized by king and parliament.

Mark Thwaite: Why do we need this edition now? What do you hope your edition achieves?

Brian Cummings: I think an edition like this has been needed for a long time. The BCP is one the most reprinted books in history. But there have been relatively few editions which reach beyond church use. Historical editions of 1549, 1552 and 1559 have been made, but even the Everyman edition of 1662 includes a text which is really that of 1952 – it has the Accession service for Elizabeth II, and her name is used in all the state prayers. And no publisher that I know of has produced comprehensive explanatory notes for the meanings of words and the histories of rituals or doctrines. I tried to produce the edition that I needed when I was a student and could not find. The one that inspired me was F.E. Brightman’s edition of a parallel text of 1549, 1552 and 1662. I love that edition. But even it has no Notes.

But this is also a special time to produce the edition. It is the 350th anniversary of 1662. And yet it is also a period of some nostalgia for other reasons. The BCP is still is use – but its use grows less and less. Most churches in the Church of England use modern liturgies. So it is possible that the book is receding a little into history. It is time for its importance to be recognized in that context.

Mark Thwaite: What does the Book tell us about England and Englishness?

Brian Cummings: The BCP is a book profoundly bound up with national identity. I have had the privilege to co-curate an exhibition this year at Lambeth Palace Library ( which celebrates a certain version of the national myth via this book. For many people its words somehow sum up a view of national consciousness and memory. But it should be remembered – and the exhibition tries to reflect this – that many people have been excluded by this myth. Catholics rioted when the book was first produced; the Oath of Allegiance enshrined in the book was used to stop people taking university degrees and is still used to stop someone becoming or marrying the monarch without belonging to this religious community. Protestants of a more radical kind have equally felt offended by it, and after 1662 many ministers were excluded from their ministry as a result: this was the time of the Great Ejection, when about 2000 puritan clergy who refused to adopt the liturgies of the BCP were expelled from the Church of England. The 1662 book in some ways marked the birth of England’s 'non-conformist' (Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist) churches, which have had such a rich contribution to national, social and political (as well as religious) life.

Mark Thwaite: How do you think the Book has affected the English language? Can you separate that effect out from the effect of the King James Version of the Bible?

Brian Cummings: The BCP is perhaps the most used book in English history. It is even more significant than the King James Bible in that respect. Many ordinary people heard the Bible through the BCP rather than read it at home. Through weekly services, and through the rites of passage of baptism, marriage and burial, it has entered the bloodstream of the language.

It is easy to sentimentalize this. But anyone who loves language can see immediately that this is a beautiful, moving, and profound book.

Mark Thwaite: What does prayer mean to you Brian? What, for you, is the interface between faith and thought, prayer and philosophy?

Brian Cummings: I was brought up an atheist. My family is Northumbrian, a mixture of miners and whalers. On my father’s side in the past we were Methodist and resolutely non-conformist. But I only went to church to be a page boy when my aunt get married. When I was in my teens, for historical and aesthetic reasons, I started to like religious art, and enjoyed looking round churches in England, France, Italy and elsewhere. I have had a face-to-face experience with liturgy on and off ever since.

Intellectually I have long been drawn to the study of the religious past, partly because in literary history it had received such short shrift. In my other work I have been writing a lot about Shakespeare – who became a kind of ‘secular’ writer in the 20th century. I am trying to dispute that, to bring the study of Shakespeare into the context of the social life that surrounded him – with religion in the middle of it. My special interest is the relation between ritual in religion, in everyday gesture, and in theatre.

I love Dante and Milton; Augustine and Luther; Josquin and Byrd; Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca. Something is going on there. I would think of it as philosophical and emotional rather than religious in the narrow sense. Faith is a difficult concept: in Luther, quite the opposite of the common view of him, it is described as being very like doubt in formation. I am as much a student of doubt as faith. But I think that is ‘religious’ too.

Mark Thwaite:Your book is dedicated to Stephen Medcalf -- can you tell us something about what Stephen and his work meant to you?

Brian Cummings: Stephen Medcalf was a writer and academic from the 1960s until his death in 2007. I worked with him at the University of Sussex for nearly twenty years. He was a classicist by training, and a pupil of Iris Murdoch (she thought him one of the two best students she ever had). But he was really the nearest thing to a polymath I have ever known. Even though very unmathematical he had intense interest in science; he was a scholar of the Bible but also of P.G. Wodehouse.

Stephen is one of the most remarkable men I ever met. He was intensely soulful as well as wonderfully earthy and human. He had more poetry inside of him than any person I have known (I mean by heart, at a moment’s recall). He was learned to his finger tips and yet also extraordinarily simple in his habits and pleasures.

Stephen’s conversation was a constant education. We talked about this edition over dinner in a number of his favourite restaurants over quite a few years. I remember telling him how editing Cranmer’s communion service was so moving because you could tell at every word how much it was costing him: Stephen’s eyes told you how deeply he understood.

I am made to think at such moments about a film he once told me to see, which is one of my favourites: Babette’s Feast (1987) It is written in Danish, the story of the most extravagant feast prepared by a Parisian chef (played by Stephane Audran, one of the great actresses of the French avant garde) for the daughters of a Lutheran pastor. It is exquisitely funny and yet also philosophical (it is full of Kierkegaard). It is a hymn to the body and the human soul at the same time. I don’t think I can explain the meaning that the BCP has for me better than by recommending anyone who has never seen it to do so. The scene when the old general eats quail is pure Medcalf.

Mark Thwaite: What were your reading highlights in 2011, and what are you currently reading and/or looking forward to in 2012?

Brian Cummings: I spent much of 2011 reading Moby-Dick. I knew it from long ago; but this was the first time I in any way understood it. It was a complete revelation. The language is sheer pleasure. It took me ages to read because I kept going back over paragraphs, reading some out loud. It’s also a great book about providence, the theologian in me was in heaven. I made a little grace note to Melville’s genius in the glossary of my edition; fellow Mobyists can seek it out.

Since then I relaxed by reading the Robert Harris Cicero novels. I didn’t expect to like them as much as I did; they are enchanting, and wonderfully complex about Cicero. I started looking at Cicero’s letters a bit as a result. For all his faults Cicero is on the side of the angels.

I have also been reading, because of a work project I have been doing, some of the plays of the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel. What a writer he is: the combination of demotic simplicity and figurative complexity is like Shakespeare. Lucifer is in a recent English translation: I can’t commend it too highly.

Mark Thwaite:Anything else you'd like to say?

Brian Cummings: I’m really happy the edition is finished. It was a monster to do. But also a life-changing privilege. (Mark Thwaite) Tue, 12 Jun 2012 11:18:56 GMT
Wilde and Morris – Saving Socialism’s Soul Is this Utopian? A map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.  
Oscar Wilde  

It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life….a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread… 
William Morris

We are living through capitalism’s greatest crisis, witnessing what should be the death-throes of a discredited system, as bankrupt in credibility as it is financially. And yet Rightist political parties benefit from the chaos.A dead system has risen up and mugged us in such a crafty and audacious a way that we have been left dazed, staggering in a hazy psychosis. We are now showing all the symptoms of a kind of global Stockholm Syndrome. The parties of the Left are left floundering and flapping,  wrong-footed by their earlier surrender to the disastrous deregulation of the neo-liberal project. There was a reason however, for this initial retreat, the cowardice that made this collapse possible. The popular conception of socialism had already been blasted and blackened, trod to the mud. An understatement: socialism has something of an image problem. If something is deemed to be even worse than the mess we currently find the world in, then it really must be in trouble.

The experience of the soi-disant Communist countries, the ‘actually existing socialism’ of the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, China, and assorted lower-league tyrannical basket cases is of course the greatest argument capitalism has for socialism ‘not working’. The Marxist replies that these regimes were perversions, distortions and contortions, that Marx should no more be blamed for Stalin and Mao than Jesus for Torquemada and Franco. True enough, though the fact nearly every Communist country came to fester a similar way suggests that the source text has, at least, a case to answer.

Most thinking people however seem to understand that these economic backwaters were the worst possible areas in which try out any socialist experiment, press the point and even most fair-minded Rightists will concede this point. No, the allergic reaction to socialism goes deeper than revulsion at the horrors of the Great Leap Forward or the Gulag. There is a nameless fear of uniformity, of regimentation of the human mind, a cold grey labyrinthine bureaucracy of the soul, a monochrome maze where individuality loses itself, shrivels and dies. Over the years a sturdy connecting corridor has been built in the world’s collective consciousness between ‘socialism’ and this netherworld, and the link cannot easily be severed. It’s a structure frightening and ruinous enough to convince millions of people to vote against their own economic interests.  It isn’t just Stalinist Red Tape to blame for this. Amongst the social reforming Fabians of Britain, amongst the continental Social Democrats too, a species of socialism formed, which, when given a vague taste of power, seemed more about regulation,  order and uniformity than freedom. A creed of liberation seems to have curdled into officialdom, Spartacus re-clothed as a jobsworth traffic warden.

Of course, if we do live in such a colour-drained petty tyranny of ticket-stampers, it is not socialists of any stripe who have installed it.  Bureaucracy festers in a market economy just as much as a planned one, moreso once the legal classes get their mucky thumbs in the pie. The irony of surburban Daily Mail letter-writers complaining that “under socialism we’d all be the same” has not been lost on many. But just because they are duped and duplicitous, we still don’t somehow believe them to be entirely wrong. The lingering idea of coldness, of sterile desiccation, is still there. How to cleanse it? Where might we find the answer?

To the casual reader, Oscar Wilde would seem an unlikely response. Wilde has the reputation of an airy aesthete, a genius of frivolity, master of the mannerism and bon mot, but neither rabble-rouser nor theoretician. With a superficial glance at apparently superficial statements, an argument could be made to bear this out. The only banner Wilde seemed to wave was “Art for art’s sake”  “all art is quite useless”. Where his reputation  does touch on “political issues”, it is as his unwanted role as the great Liberal Martyr, persecuted by Victorian conservatism for his homosexuality (a fate and reputation which would surely have bored him for its drab worthiness. )

Yet this masks an essential truth:  Wilde was a socialist, avowedly and dedicatedly so. The many audiences of his plays who see only the wit and wicked humour make a fundamental error. As Lord Darlington says to Lady Windemere “Life is too important thing to take it seriously.” Wilde may have been vehemently opposed to didactic art, art with a controlling and improving  “message”.  Nevertheless, razor sharp dissections of bourgeois society criss-cross his work, plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance swipe savagely at the grubby hypocrisies which stick the system together. They are all the more deadly for being subtle, yet the subtlety is such that many audiences do not even notice them. Only once was Wilde uncharacteristically direct in his politics, in a brief essay entitled The Soul of Man Under Socialism written in 1891.  It remains his clearest and most candid vision of how he wished the world to be, what he thought it could be. It is also one of the most inspiring – and overlooked – arguments for socialism ever written.

Wilde’s most deadly weapon was always the paradox, which he wields in this text as soon as we start. The first line:- “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is undoubtedly the fact that Socialism would relieve us from the sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.” The chief argument of the anti-socialist down the ages has always been individualism, that living for others is an unnatural state. And here is Wilde, agreeing whole-heartedly.

On the same page, Wilde wrong-foots the reactionary even further, continuing the onslaught against unnatural altruism by laying into the whole pantheon of social reformers, philanthropists, and ‘do-gooders’ of the late-Victorian day. On one level this is the familiar argument of the revolutionary against the reformist – putting sticking plasters on society doesn’t solve the real problems, and instead makes revolution less likely. “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of England, the people who do most harm are those who try to do good.” But Wilde is against this altruism for a more fundamental reason – he sees it as a distraction for people being true to themselves, in particular, for the few men living who are able to realise their greatness.

Indeed, Wilde is every bit as much a believer in the Great Man – the intellectual and spiritual Titan who stands above and beyond the herd – as that other great aphorist Nietzsche. Wilde mentions Keats and Flaubert earlier in the piece, and Byron, Shelley, Victor Hugo and Baudellaire later as among the few who have managed to ‘keep out of the reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world.’ The difference between the two is that Wilde thought it desirable, and thought it possible, that everyone should be able to follow in this perfection, that all could became ‘real men, the men who have realised themselves’. He believed we all had the capacity to be ubermensch, supermen. 

The present state of class relations, the rank injustice of the division  between masters and men is shown to have an enslaving effect on the owners almost as much as the owned. “Property is really a nuisance... Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any large extent is a bore.”  He goes on to note even the greatest men such as Caesar and Marcus Aurelius were made less great by the ‘waste’ of having to exert their authority on others. Note however, that Wilde is still making the claim that the few who have managed to realise themselves are among the wealthy and moneyed. Here Wilde goes against the Leftist grain again with an apparently disdainful view of the working classes as they are. “There is only one class that thinks about money more than the rich – the poor.”  Wilde says that the poor have no wit or cultivation “no grace of manner or charm of speech”, but his real scorn and contempt is saved and savoured for the ‘decent, hard working poor’, those who are contented with their lot. “They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for a very pad potage. They must be extraordinarily stupid.” On the other hand, Wilde has much time for those poor who are “ungrateful, discontented, disobedient and rebellious. They are quite right to be so.”

It is safe to assume he would have quite approved of our recent riots, however indiscriminate the targets. Violent, arbitrary, aimless : at least they were rebelling in some way. Rather rambunctious rebellion than craven compromise. There is a great schism within the broad church of socialism on the role of those that Marx termed the “lumpenproletariat” can play in a revolution. One tradition states that only the organised working-class, the unionised workers, united and resolved can achieve anything either within, or against capitalism. The lumpens, the long term unemployed, the criminals, confidence tricksters, prostitutes, beggars and other assorted outlaws are an objectively conservative force which will always be bought off by the rich, “a tool of reactionary intrigue.” Such was Marx’s view, and phrase. The wider labour movement has been in broad agreement. Bakunin took the opposite stance. He thought that organisation in itself always corrupted, always led to hierarchy. Given this, the unionised were more likely to be co-opted by the state, and that the more lawless the workers, the more independent: and therefore the more revolutionary. A century later, Huey Newton and the American Black Panthers thought so too, despite being ideologically closer to Maoism than anarchism.

Wilde, it seems, was in agreement. On his lecture tours of the USA he found his favourite audience in the town of Leadville, Colorado, an utterly lawless Wild West crew of prospecting miners, hustlers and prostitutes – “the best dressed men in America” as he termed them (they loved him back, admiring his ability to drink them under the table, and naming a sliver mine after him). His exploration of the underworld of the rent boys of London brought him further contact with the criminal classes. He came to admire the transgressive in general – larceny in person and lawlessness in the abstract (“genius steals”), as a bulwark against  bourgeois  morality. We will return later as to whether this necessarily makes Wilde an “anarchist”, but suffice to say this is part of Wilde’s view that “man’s original virtue is disobedience”. And as such he has no time for a state modelled on obedience, however “progressive”, whether Stalinist or Fabian.

Wilde is strikingly prophetic in his denunciations of what he describes here as “authoritarian socialism”.  He says again that in the present state of affairs, at least some men with the advantages of privilege manage to find themselves, to realise their potential “If the Socialism is authoritarian; if there are governments to be armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have industrial tyrannies, than the last state of man will be worse than the first.”  At least some can have freedom now, in this state, no-one would at all. Wilde sees no virtue at all in the equitable distribution of misery.  The collectivism of compunction which existed in Soviet Russia or Mao’s China was precisely the nightmare scenario he was warning against. It seems clear though that Wilde actually thought the sheer unattractiveness of this made it unlikely. “I hardly think any Socialist, nowadays, would seriously propose that an inspector should call every morning to see that each citizen rose up and did manual labour for eight hours”.  He may have ‘hardly thought’ it, but at the same time Wilde wrote this there were plenty of socialists who had just such a vision in mind – and sadly their type were to proliferate, and in some areas to predominate. No wonder that The Soul of Man was an inspiration to many revolutionaries rebelling against the Tsars of Russia, but was later suppressed and banned by Stalin himself.

Wilde’s antipathy for this vision stemmed from a hatred not just of tyranny, but for utilitarianism, for grey functional necessity in all its forms. For this ultimate aesthete anything which smelt of soul-shrivelling drudgery of utility was poison to his nostrils.  When Wilde said earlier that “all art is quite useless”, he meant it as the highest form of compliment to art. In this essay he states “the Renaissance was great, because it sought to solve no social problem, and busied it self not with such things, but suffered the individual to develop freely”.  The ‘dignity of labour’ seems to have little appeal for Wilde (recalling his earlier witticism “a man who calls a spade a spade should be compelled to use one.”)

Wilde had a life-long aversion to the regimentation of the old Latin Roman world, preferring instead the free intelligence of the Greeks (and Athens rather than Sparta.) Here he says that the Greeks were right to say that civilisation needs slaves – but that machines are now the new slaves. The machine is key to Wilde’s vision of liberation, saving people from soulless drudgery, from living to work rather than working to live, allowing them to spend time exploring their own true potential. Wilde’s actual  criticism of capitalism’s depredations is generally non specific and allusive, he is at his most exact in decrying the fact that at the moment machines only exacerbate the problem, they put people out of work but do not give them leisure in return. After the revolution this “surplus value” will be given back to the people, machines will serve man rather than the other way around.

A familiar criticism of socialism is that it engenders conformity, the hive mind and “tyranny of the majority.” In fact, this is a criticism levelled not just at socialism, but at democracy itself, and has been directed by the libertarian down the years at  the conformity of societies from Atlee’s UK to Eisenhower’s USA. De Tocqueville’s criticisms of American democracy were an early warning of the tyrannising dangers inherent to a mass society. Again, the avowedly libertarian Wilde is in full agreement. “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people."  Perhaps the majority of the second half of the essay is given to a defence of the individual, not against oppressive government, but against the tyranny of public opinion, the drab ochlochracy of the press pack. “In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But it is still very bad, and wrong, and demoralising.”  

The press is the grand villain of the piece,  not for its defence of the powers-that-be, but for its low, utilitarian pandering to public opinion and prejudice. With signature deftness of paradox, the public are credited with an insatiable habit for curiosity for everything except that which is worth knowing, “and the journalist, with his tradesman-like habits, supplies their demand.”  This is a denunciation of the tabloid mentality, the double-faced prurience and puritan morality which has persisted down the years and which was to devour Wilde himself in the end. These journalists are in the gutter, but their eyes follow the sewers, not the stars. His point here though, is rather more profound than a critique of Paul Dacre, Kelvin Mackenzie and their spiritual forbears. The press is merely the clearest and most obvious example of pandering to the public rather than challenging them, of playing to the gallery, feeding on the underbelly of the lowest common denominator. Art and politics are just as guilty, and the enervating effect of the herd who must be heard is even greater.  Poetry, declares Wilde, is only of quality in Britain because the public don’t care about it and so leave it alone, novels and drama are soiled with the influence of public opinion. This may appear to be snobbery. On one level, it is.  But Wilde is keen to stress that the collective opinion of the “educated” is even more harmful than that of the wider masses. His true point is this: a piece of art should be true to the artist, it should be made to for the artist, not his audience. Hence “Thackeray’s ‘Esmond’ is a beautiful work because he wrote it to please himself. In his other novels... he is too conscious of the public, and spoils his work by appealing directly to the sympathies of the public...”

The implication of this message in art is that true genius is unique. The implication in politics is that the individual must not be stifled in any way. This does not mean that people should be free to trample on others, as in the infantile, one-eyed, self-interested and self-contradictory arguments of modern day so-called libertarians  (those who conveniently forget that finance capital is only given meaning by the reviled state itself. ) It does mean as complete a freedom from restraint by the state as is possible. Just as crucially, it also means freedom of the constraints of physical want and need, from the talons of finance.

Perhaps a more controversial view from the socialist perspective, is that, if the crowd is usually wrong, then it takes an exceptional individual or group to make change. Wilde is adamant about this – slaves never freed themselves, it was outsiders with unpopular ideas which achieved emancipation.  He makes such a demon of popular opinion that popular morality itself takes on a devilish form, to the extent that Wilde claims that to be accused of ‘immorality’ is the highest compliment that can be paid, whether to art or individual (to be respectable is to be repellent, as Lady Bracknell cattily remarks of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest.)

Again Wilde seems to be with Nietzsche here, both in his desire to escape the slave morality of the masses (a continual theme in his plays), and also his defence of history being shaped by powerful personalities, Carlyle’s “great men.” Nietzsche had said that madness was rare in individuals but in “groups, parties, nations and epochs, is the rule.”  Much earlier than in this essay, Wilde had said that “To disagree with three-fourths of the British public is one of the first requisites of sanity.”  We needn’t go into the obvious ways in which such a message is prone to perversion, except to say Wilde’s defence of absolute freedom in every area of human life is something of an inoculation against any usurpation by dictators, that his elitism of individuality should not equate to a political elitism. His absolute individualism is an inoculation against oppression, whether that tyranny is brought about by government or money power.  

"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinion, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation” said Wilde later in De Profundis,  text more tormentedly personal of course, but the message was essentially the same. Society as it stands does not allow people to be what they want to be, and that is its greatest crime. In The Soul Of Man, Wilde holds that being absolutely true to yourself was the most essential message to be found in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the greatest goal of any society. The pain which Jesus’ endured is no longer necessary, and the self which we reach will be a new state, beyond the necessity of sacrifice. It is hard to deny that such a vision is utterly removed from any bureaucratic statistopia. It is equally hard to deny that it is quite as equally far removed from a capitalism where the poor are shackled to the rich, and all are shackled to commerce. “It will be a marvellous thing, the true personality of a man” when it finally appears.

In fairness to Marx, he too could offer the odd glimpse into the liberated society which he envisaged socialism would lead to, and in his vision too it was one in which the true potential of the individual was unleashed. In the German Ideology, he wrote that in a society un-encumbered by the division of labour and bolstered by plentiful and bountiful resources, that a man could would be able to "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner... without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." Sadly this was an all too rare insight into the end goal of the purest liberty which Marx had in mind. Can this absence really be unrelated to the abysmal tyrannies committed blindly in the man's name? In The Soul Of Man, Wilde gives full untrammelled voice to the liberation dreams hidden largely in Marx's head, as the German spent his devoted his energies to what we might call with wry understatement "the details" of society as it is, how and why revolution was to occur. Marx inspired action where Wilde only dreamt. But dreams are necessary too. As with much of Wilde’s writing, one feels the presence of a large and loving wisdom, a generous genius, all the more profound for being informal and approachable. To hear this voice speak out for the cause of equality and liberation is a truly a liberation in itself,  and a release.

If Wilde's essay is dreamlike in its idealism, and in its unique beauty, it is amorphous like a dream too. When it comes to what communism will “look like”,   Wilde gives more of the specifics in aesthetics and principle lacking in Marx, but he is as vague as the man himself in concrete examples of the how the society is to function. Still, no-one ever came to Wilde to seek the steely rigours of practical instruction. Yet to another great Victorian polymath, quite a few people often did.

William Morris loomed as large over the intellectual world of late 19th century Britain as did Wilde, though his shadow fell on different areas. Both were writers, both were poets, and both had a very particular aesthetic vision which was to prove as inspirational as it was divisive. Morris’ pastoral view of England, a bucolic arcadia with a rustic, rural and Nordic spirit, was every bit as influential as Wilde’s iconoclastic and urbane art for art’s sake.  But the more practically minded Morris was a craftsman and draughtsman as much as a dreamer and thinker, a man whose textile designs are more well-known to the wider public today than his writings. Morris was the high overseer of the arts and crafts movement, a print-maker and editor or the highest distinction, and a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.  Morris was more a joiner than Wilde in more ways than one.

Wilde neither joined nor applied for membership of any political parties or societies. Like a later, wise-cracking left-winger, he probably wouldn’t belong to any that would have him. Morris by contrast was a leading figure in both the Social Democratic Federation and the later Socialist League, the earliest organisations in Britain to have fought for a fully realised socialism in both name and form. His temperament tended more to the aesthetic than the ascetic, and he was happier conversing on art with his friends the pre-Raphaelites than reviewing policy documents. Nevertheless he was not averse to the organisational side of the political world, and proved an effective leader. He helped build organisations with the same methodical care in which he produced beautifully bound editions of Chaucer,  and, with his inspirational lectures,  did as much as any other one man to promote the popularity of the socialist cause in the century’s later years. Perhaps it should not be surprising then that Morris should seek to combine his literary and artistic sensibilities to his proselytising for a freer and more equal world. To him there was no contradiction between the two.  The result of this marriage of aesthete art and political purpose was his 1890 novella News from Nowhere.

The inspiration for News From Nowhere was a negative one. The American lawyer, writer and socialist Edward Bellamy had written his own utopian fantasy novel Looking Backward, which sought to imagine the perfected future society which a socialist revolution would bring about. In Looking Backward, America is transformed into a machine-led society of plenty-for-all, a rationalised utopia organised from the centre. Unemployment and poverty are banished, great rationalised and nationalised chain stores provide citizens with all they need. Morris reviewed the novel in the Socialist League magazine the Commonweal, and his reaction, while polite, was unmistakably hostile.  It was not just the impersonality of Bellamy’s vision which unnerved him, nor the centralisation, with all the propensity for dictatorial abuse which that entailed. It was the fact that Bellamy saw work itself as an evil to be vanquished, a primitive throwback to be banished in his labour-saving, leisure oriented utopia. This was deeply unsatisfying to Morris, and was determined to offer an alternative view as to the promised land where socialism might lead. News From Nowhere was the response.

Its plot was a response too. Just as in Looking Backward, News from Nowhere features a narrator who is spirited away from the dingy present to a fantastically improved future. But unlike the earlier book gleaming mechanised world of Bellamy, that very futuristic future, Morris’ hero at first seems to be stepping not into the future at all, but further into the past.

Awakening one day following an evening discussing what a future society might look like with his friends at the Socialist League, middle-aged, middle class Londoner William Guest takes a walk along the Thames to find it oddly cleaner than usual. Taking a boat ride with a curiously dressed, handsome oarsman, Guest travels up the river to find the rickety habitations thrown up by industrialisation remarkably absent, “the soap-works with their smoke-vomiting chimneys had gone; the lead works gone, and no sound of riveting and hammering came down the west wind from Thorneycroft’s.”  In their place are verdant greenery interspersed with beautifully designed medievalesque houses.  Guest is as unnerved by this as he is by the fact that his oarsman (also dressed in a style closer to the 1400s than the 1800s)  seems mightily amused when Guest suggests payment for the ride.

"I think I know what you mean. You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don't know how to manage it.”  

The ruggedly handsome oarsman, whose name it transpires is Dick, takes warm pity on the on the confusion of the relatively haggard Guest, and takes him on a quick tour of the hamlet style commune in which he and his fellow healthy, youthful and cheerful citizens live. Guest sees citizens displaying arts, crafts and furniture they have made themselves at stalls, giving or exchanging wares but expecting no payment in return. He sees craftsmen working on benches and then relaxing in the woods afterwards, and finding equal satisfaction in each activity. It becomes clear than many people he meets are a good few years older than they look, such is the succouring and flourishing environment in which they dwell.  Seeing that Guest’s confusion is still intense given the alien world from which he has arrived, Dick and his girlfriend Clara, another vivacious and hearty character give him over to the more detailed instruction of an older man; the wry and avuncular Hammond. Seeing that Guest is truly an outsider, from what is in effect another world, he explains as patiently as he can.

Hammond explains that in today’s world money is meaningless, and that small, autonomous interdependent communities produce what they need and trade with one another. Cities have in effect have dissolved, there is no distinction between town and country, habitations are distributed precisely where people want and need them, enmeshed within surrounding nature.

Central authority does not exist, decisions are based entirely at a local level. “I must now shock you by telling you that we have no longer anything which you, a native of another planet, would call a government.” Marriage and divorce are no more, free and equal relationships are forged between men and women at will, based on mutual affection alone. This may seem the least radical of Morris’ ideas to us today, upon its earlier readings it was probably the most. Morris tells Guest how Dick and Clara have been lovers for many years but for a while they grew apart and each had other partners between them, before realising that they were in the end happier together. Entrapped as the earlier reader would have been in the draconian bonds of Victorian marriage, Guest can hardly fathom the sexual freedom on display. “Socialist” though he is, he finds it as hard to accept this as to accept that people can work without payment.  How can you get people to work when there is no reward for labour? Hammond explains the reward is “the reward of creation. The wages that God gets, as people might have said in time agone. If you are going to ask to be paid for the pleasure of creation, which is what excellence in work means, the next thing we shall hear of will be a bill sent in for the begetting of children.”

Morris’s society is a world revolving heavily around “work”, but work is no longer seen in any way as something divorced from enjoyment, as something that has to be done to ward off starvation or to accumulate abstract wealth. Work is no longer a chore. From an early age children are taught to create things which they love, and which make them happy. If their surroundings do not suit them, they are taught to make their own. Some may find it more amenable to fashion pottery, some to write poetry, some to assemble brickwork, some to cook, some to perform athletic feats.  But to all, a sense of art is integral, not additional to life.

Everyone is encouraged to try their hand at everything, so they are not limited to one path of expression, and to have a large degree of self sufficiency. And yet, equally importantly, people are allowed to pursue their own desires and enthusiasms so that the activities which they spend most time on are the ones they enjoy the most, and which in turn they can excel at to the best of their abilities. The boy who enjoys welding with brass will turn his love into an essential service for the community, in just the same way that the girl who enjoys poetry the most will create this into a commodity for those who enjoy it. Crucially though, she is not writing the poems to please others, but to please herself. Division of labour is gone, all work is now a “hobby”, or rather more than that - a thing of enjoyment and fulfilment. Yet in being harnessed for the community becomes so much more than that. The same principle is applied to physical work and mental work, to music and exercise, to the serious and the jocular, so that people are able to achieve the very zenith of what they are capable, hence the beautiful bodies and minds on display.  This society would contain “Neither brain-slack brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers” to quote a phrase Morris uses elsewhere.

One of the great innovations of Marx’s writings was the theory of alienation, the fact that workers, toiling for wages on work completely divorced from their own needs, become separated from their essence, their very being. While this alienation has been fascinatingly explored by many, from Lukacs to Debord and the Situationists, it is much rarer to see an explanation of what humanity would look like with the alienation removed. Morris sought to achieve this through the bucolic natives of News from Nowhere. These were not just men and women working how, where and why they wanted, these were self-contained artists, producing their own aesthetic surroundings producing their own reality, rather than living in another’s.

As the book’s plot unwinds in its charming way, just as even the most hard-headed capitalist may find it hard to refute some of its arguments, so even the most idealistic utopian may find it unlikely that such a society could ever genuinely be created. Guest himself shares this incredulity with his host. It is at this point, when Hammond begins to explain the history of how the commonwealth came about, that the tale takes on a sterner tone. He explains at some length how the capitalists did not give up their wealth through education, through persuasion, or any sudden spasm battalions of philanthropy on their part. On the contrary, Hammond recounts how capitalist Britain was wracked through heroic strikes from the working classes which lead to increasingly violent and vicious repression from the rulers.  This bloody impasse eventually leads to all out civil war, leaving carnage in its wake. In a fairly brief aside he mentions thuggish pro-government leagues bought off by the bosses to put down the masses, which go by the name of the “Friends of Order”, an eerie augur of Fascism. This struggle eventually comes to an end after several years, when the workers begin to generate their own self governing communities  which win over more and more converts. Eventually the capitalists simply cannot afford to buy off the loyalties of sections of the proletariat any more. As their capital supplies dwindle, and communities become increasingly more self sufficient, they lose their potential to either bribe or blackmail the wider populace.

Whatever one makes of this scenario, it certainly takes News from Nowhere out of the realms of the abstract utopia, or for that matter prissy pacifist idealism. On the contrary, it places the plot in a specifically Marxist framework of class war, fleshing out for the first time what such a violent struggle might look like in practice. Morris did indeed consider himself a follower of Marx, but found equal inspiration in the teachings of John Ruskin. The great genius art critic (a teacher of Wilde at Oxford)  was as influential to Morris for his theory of man being degraded by an urban environment as he was in his arguments that all work should be pleasing as well as productive, “labour without joy is base, joy without labour is base.” He wanted to expunge the arid abstraction from Marx, and the lingering desire for social hierarchy in Ruskin. News from Nowhere is Morris’s audacious synthesis of the father of scientific socialism and the self-professed “violent Tory of the old school”.

As William Guest wakes after his blissfully inspiring sojourn with Hammond, Dick and Clara, he finds himself back in dingy industrial London, sad to leave them, but hopeful for the future. And so this seminal tract ends with the very conventional plot device of the ‘ambiguous dream’, at the end of what is in some ways a quite traditional story. Quite apart from its ideological controversies, it has been quite as divisive as a piece of art. Its vision of a hopeful future served as a great beacon of idealism inspiring many thousands to take up a lifelong struggle of a freer and more equal future . At its best its arcadian idyll can give the socialist reader the feeling that the ghosts of old England are on their side, that the cause of a just future has found its greatest ally in the ancient past. Its pastoral prose style has found admirers who are not socialists themselves.

On the other hand it has had its detractors as well. George Orwell for one was  unimpressed with what he termed its “watery melancholy”, meaning the very satisfaction and self-containment of its characters made them insipid. Orwell made this observation in an essay which maintained that describing a perfect, or even a particularly happy society in inspirational terms was so hard as to be nearly impossible. There is perhaps a certain lack of spark in the prose, but perhaps this is, as Orwell says, the sheer impossibility of capturing utopia in print.  Dystopias are far more vivid, as he and others proved. When challenged with imagining an ideal world, even Swift, the greatest of imaginative writers, could only create those very wise, very dignified, very dreary horses, the Houyhnhnms. Morris  managed better than most.

What would Wilde himself have made of it? As far as I know there is no record of this. Wilde was certainly an admirer of Morris himself, of much of his work and his aesthetic vision. One biographer speculated whether the playwright visited the engraver on his deathbed, it transpires this was probably not true, though the pair were certainly on warm correspondence terms in earlier years. It does seem likely though that a man whose work is rife with waspish worldly-wise aphorists like Lord Henry Wooton, Jack Worthing and Mrs Erlynne, may have found Dick, Clara and the whole rustic crew a little too clean living for his tastes.

There were other fundamental differences. Wilde’s attitude to nature is ambivalent; witheringly contemptuous of “wearisome, uncomfortable nature” which he finds hopelessly inferior to art in The Decay Of Lying, and yet later finding sublime wonder in natural simplicity near the end of De Profundis. Wilde seems to swing both ways here, but taken as a whole his essentially sophisticate worldview seems as urban as it is urbane, elementally distanced in sensibility from Morris’ communism of carpentry. For Morris, nature was supreme, an organic ideal to which humanity should aspire.  A different palette of thought was being drawn from in both men. Wilde’s well of cultural inspiration was essentially cosmopolitan; pagan Greece and the Catholic Europe of Italy and France. The Europe which inspired Morris was that of the North, he espoused an organic, medieval rural idea of the British isles which he saw as interwoven with the ancient sagas of Scandinavia. Wilde was Classical, Morris was Gothic. Visions of the future inspired by these two quite separate and unique imaginations were bound to have their differences.

The line about a man calling a spade a spade being compelled to use one does not indicate in Wilde a man who sees any intrinsic value to manual work, however fresh and free the environment where the digging takes place. The Soul of Man claims that the Greeks were correct on the need for slaves, and that we now have machines to play such a role. Morris, by contrast, sees machinery itself as an anonymising tool of the market, which would, to coin a phrase, “wither away” once socialism had arrived.  Morris found fulfilment in labour, Wilde sought to escape it altogether. This is a major schism to put it mildly, and in that area at least, it seems likely Wilde may have preferred Edward Bellamy’s labour –saving utopia closer to his Hellenic ideal than Morris’s pastoral paradise.   

The similarities however, are more striking than the differences. Classical and Gothic aside, both were Romantic. These were visions of socialism which both showed a profound understanding of how inequality and the market economy poisons human relationships, distorting life into a warped mirror of its own debased priorities and limiting possibilities.  While abhorring capitalism, they both warned against a vision of an alternative which would set against the power of capital an equally oppressive power of the state, the “industrial tyranny” of augur. Most importantly, both were visions in which the autonomy of the individual was sacrosanct, in which the absolute freedom of the individual to be what they wanted to be was inviolable. Marx may have wanted this too, but the ambiguities surrounding his wishes have led to the darkest of consequences.

While Morris was the more practical man, he was every bit as committed as Wilde to the aesthetics of human happiness, and to the principle that art and culture were central to society, not just a by-product. Both were passionate in their belief in the sanctity of the independent human spirit. The sheer stupefying dullness and uniformity which characterised the societies of post-war Poland, of Honnecker’s East Germany, of Czechoslovakia following brave Dubcek’s defeat, would have been as alien to them as muck to marble, with less similarity in form and spirit than the bile of Pat Robertson has with the Sermon on the Mount.  

It is not suggested here that either The Soul of Man or News From Nowhere are a stand-in or replacement for the great works of the socialist canon, that Marx and Tawney can be thrown from the window, or that lyrical dreams are a substitute for the lived experience of struggle. Nor is either work without important flaws. Wilde’s vision is beautiful, but its reliance on the Great Man, on outside agitators as the only agent of change, is frankly elitist.  News from Nowhere on the other hand is so tied into Morris’s particular ruralist outlook as to put anyone who actually quite likes living in a city (not an insignificant number of people) off the idea of socialism altogether. What they are however, apart from being brilliantly inspiring revelations in themselves,  are magnificent correctives to the high-handed excesses of other thinkers, so heavy is the air of freedom about them.

Some would claim it is not correct to classify the pair as socialists at all, but rather as anarchists. Certainly those within the modern Left Anarchist tradition passionately claim them for their own. In their denunciation of state tyranny and advocacy of decentralised community power allied to their egalitarianism, it is very clear there is at the very least much common ground.  Wilde and Morris, while clear on the way their ideal society would look, were not prescriptive as to their method of travel. Wilde gave no indication at all. Morris clearly believed a violent revolution would be necessary to uproot and overturn the capitalist system, but issued no prescription against accessing the levers of power to move society towards this direction. Anarchists denounce any function of the state, or participation in Parliamentary process. The heroic achievements won by social democracy: full employment, free healthcare, support for the weak and disabled (now being systematically destroyed) were great steps towards the empowerment of both working people as a group, and towards unleashing the potential of individuals to lead the lives they want to lead, emancipated from the slavery of poverty. Of course Wilde and Morris would have thought these measures didn’t go nearly far enough, but I still believe they would have treasured these achievements, not scorned them.

Take a look at the index of any dictionary of witty quotations, and Wilde is likely to be one with the most entries, or in the top five at any rate. Jostling with him for position is likely to be that other great Anglo-Irish wit; George Bernard Shaw. The pair were contemporaries and friends – on one occasion when Shaw launched a petition to free the Haymarket Martyrs (anarchists jailed in America), Wilde was the only one to sign it. Shaw went on to outlive Wilde for half a century, and his vision and version of socialism was the one which came to predominate. For Wilde, this was a tragedy, for Shaw, a dubious vindication by default. For socialism, it was a disaster.

If the driving force behind Wilde’s socialism was liberty, the controlling passion for Shaw was order. Of course he could write the most brilliant denunciations of the horrors inflicted by poverty on the workers, or on the absurdities of sexual inequality. But it was the chaos of capitalist society which he opposed more than its injustice. It was the wanton inefficiency of unemployment which irked him more than the human misery it caused.

In Wilde’s wit there is always a warmth, no matter how sharp the surface. Shaw’s barbs have an icier quality to them, the air of a sarcastic schoolmaster chiding his children for disappointing him  -yet again.  Shaw didn’t see himself as a poet, but as grand designer, the great engineer of the human soul (as Stalin himself said a writer should be), re-sculpting it in his own image.  He had no faith in the working-class as an agent of its own liberation, and his attitude to individual proletarians in his plays was one of ill-concealed contempt. No, the only way that workers, and society as a whole could be saved was by the benign tutorship of the enlightened, rationalised middle-class, by individuals, in short, such as his good self. It was this corrosive spirit which formed the kernel of the Fabianism which has so sullied the soul of socialism in this country.

I simplify perhaps, but not too much. When one moves beyond the UK and into the realms of international politics, it is hard to overstate how detrimental and deleterious Shaw’s attitude was. He was, of course, one of the main cheerleaders for the Stalin regime, apologist-in-chief for the crimes of Communism, the myopic scar which was to disfigure sections of the Left, and bring the rest into disrepute by association. His was a rather worse betrayal however, than those many Communists of the 20s and 30s who had misguidedly come to see the Soviet Union as carrying out the Marxist mission. Shaw did not even believe in revolution - never had - far too messy, too  combustible. He had little time for Marx - but he did have time for Stalin. He admired the tyrant, without even endorsing the thinker who gave the tyrant spurious justification. Here after all was another great engineer of humanity, a “great man” who “got things done”. A man of destiny who didn’t allow such trifles as the value of liberty or the sanctity of human life to get in his way.

Shaw would take this ruthlessness and power-worship even further however, into sympathy not just for Stalin, but even for Mussolini, and, to a lesser extent, Hitler. In this rather rarer perversion, we see in even purer relief the moral and intellectual monstrosities which can be justified when socialism becomes nothing more the desire for a planned economy and opposition to the free market,  divorced from the humanistic vision which should inspire it. The modern Right, particularly in America, is full of pseudo-libertarian quarter-wits yelping “Hitler was a socialist too! You’re all the same!”, while trying to prise Barack Obama into their demented and nonsensical Venn diagram. It is Shaw’s intellectual outrages with give this drivel currency. George Orwell observed that most Englishmen either considered Communism and Fascism as opposites, and so sympathised with one over the other, or else they saw them as the same, and opposed them both. Only Shaw, he ruefully remarked, saw them as the same and so supported them both for that very reason (“though Shaw is not an Englishman”.) This is where you can end up when the means engulfs the end, where your enemy’s enemy is always your friend.

Though they did not live long enough to give us hard proof, it is literally unthinkable to imagine either Wilde or Morris displaying the slightest sympathy for Stalin (let alone the Fascists.) Turning the tables, it is equally impossible to imagine Stalin, Mao, Hoxha or Gaddafi reading their works with anything other then seething contempt. Such effete decadence , such rebellious individualism, such unworkable idealism…The very fibre of their writing pulse with a humanity, a sheer will to freedom which these arid tyrants entirely lacked.  But it is not just the Stalinists who lacked this basic vitamin of respect for individuality and autonomy. Many Fabians, Shaw among their number were very nearly as corrupted. The same corruption led to the  enthusiasm which many of them had for eugenics, “re-scalpelling” society in the most sinister way possible.  Take Shaw’s chilling phrase “the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialism of the selective breeding of man.”  The same inhumanity and inflexibility would lead others into anti-Semitism. Here is Shaw again: "This is the real enemy, the invader from the East, the Druze, the ruffian, the oriental parasite; in a word: the Jew.” It would be hard to dream up a clearer example of how a creed of liberation had been wrenched from its origins.

Stalinist and Fabian, revolutionary and reformer alike were to end up betraying the very basic tenets of socialism because they ended up the free autonomy of the individual human being. Arch-Fabian Beatrice Webb dismissed the 1926 General Strike, the nearest this country has ever came to revolution in the twentieth century, as “a monstrous irrelevance in the sphere of social reform”.The working man was not to be trusted, he was too brutalised by capitalism. He would be led to salvation either by a revolutionary vanguard political party run by intellectuals and warriors, or a reforming state run by intellectuals and bureaucrats. In rejecting individuality, they ended up jettisoning the fundamental freedom of the worker to live the life that he or she wishes to lead: the whole reason why the creed evolved in the first place.
The biggest defence of the true spirit of socialism is not in the example of any one leader, writer or thinker, but in the lived experience and struggle of the working people down the decades who have fought for fairer wages, more spare time to live their lives, freedom from being ravaged by want: what E.P. Thompson termed the “moral economy” of the masses. Nonetheless, the brave and bold example of a few magnificent, unique individuals did much to not only inspire a movement, but also made it truer to itself. Wilde and Morris are not alone here.

There are other inoculations against the viruses of Stalin and Shaw, other heroes. E.P. Thompson himself, the historian who did more than most to rescue the voice of ordinary people from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” Orwell of course, famous enemy of Stalinism, but an equal foe of  Fascism,  British imperialism and the brutalities of the free market. William Cobbett, the great agrarian writer, farmer and eternal rebel whose dogged and rugged individualism has been claimed by Tories, but whose unassailable fight for the underdog places him as a the champion of the common man against the powers-that-be, ( a man whose anti-intellectual outlook, taken in small doses, is a valuable corrective to the systemising excesses of the urban middle-class left.) Above all, the heroic stand of all those on the Labour Left, from Bevan to Foot, from Tony Benn to Dennis Skinner who have kept alive the strongest support for egalitarianism, and workers’ rights without ever falling under the Soviet spell.

All the same, the examples of Wilde and Morris offer a unique counterbalance of idealism and clarity, of insight and inspiration, warriors with words, grand sentinels of soul and mind. It is time to take heed. Movements for freedom, fighting the stagnant tyranny of the plutocracy are flaring the world over, armed insurrections, occupations, protests, strikes.  The Occupy movements may be scorned for their blank-slate idealism, but at least they are finally free from the deadening sectarianism which has ultimately strangled every previous insurrection. They are not in thrall to dead Russians, and this is a good thing. Time for some dead English and Irishmen to be heard instead. Not Shaw though: his time is over, his day is done.  Let’s let Wilde and Morris  have their say. (Ben Granger) Tue, 15 May 2012 15:31:16 GMT
My Mother and Edith

Edith Wharton and my mother, Rachel Silberstein, could not have been further apart. Edith Wharton was from one of old New York City’s wealthiest families, polished, bred and educated in the polite though confining drawing rooms manners and society of America’s 19th century. My mother had immigrated in 1948 from the other side of the globe, from a country Edith Wharton’s own work had never reached or considered as part of its scope and concerns – Palestine.

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a wealthy New York family. At the other extreme, my mother was born in 1922, and raised in a five room limestone house with no bathrooms except for the outhouses in a wilderness of pine trees, the daughter of a Jewish clerk, in a place where there were only nameless streets, and who, later, at 14 joined the Jewish underground in the war-torn streets of early Palestine. I have often envisioned my mother from her early photos: a voluptuous young woman in a cotton dress with white lace neckline and sandals, smiling widely inside a limestone arch against shadows of barren and cratered hills. My mother left her native Jerusalem to marry my American father in 1947. Like many of the young woman fiercely trying to escape the confines of a war society, my mother leapt into her marriage with my father impulsively, and though, perhaps, the first years with him were romantically thrilling to her, I am sure, later, their marriage was not a happy one. I do not think my mother ever read Edith Wharton’s novels, English was always hard for her, and I am sure she did not feel she would be welcome in a prose about early, privileged Americans, a Christian society that did not include many immigrant or Jewish families.

The Mount was the house Edith Wharton designed during a time of great unhappiness in her marriage. Built in the Berkshires, standing amid the vast New England green lands, hills and quarries, it seemed an architecture embodying a woman’s self and struggles. The outside acreage with its walled gardens and views of the Berkshire hills could not have been further from the vista of Palestine ‘s sun-scorched fields and rocks.

“I have sometimes thought that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms,” Edith Wharton once wrote...

There is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.

Edith Wharton also wrote in The Writing of Fiction that a writer shouldn’t write for their audience or for themselves but instead write for the “other self.” The “other self” is the inner artist for whom the writer is always in “correspondence”.

My mother took a trip to the revived Mount on my insistence, when I visited her one day in the Berkshires. Standing as she was in 1980 on Edith Wharton’s famous estate, five feet two, round, with the deep worried eyes of woman recently widowed, my mother’s face beamed with a warmth only brought on by the privilege of an intimacy with a kindred soul.

Had they both met in a subconscious spatial world defined by rooms and gardens?

Looking up at an ornamental plaster ceiling, my mother excitedly began her travels through Edith Wharton’s world. Following an interior hallway, which was as much an emotional interior hallway as a real one, my mother walked the ground floor with its drawing room, library, and den, up a flight to Edith Wharton’s boudoir and bedroom. A terrace façade wrapped around to the north side, leading to a Palladian staircase and the formal gardens.

Edith Wharton had her formal "coming out" in 1885 and soon after she married Edward Wharton, an older man from a wealthy Boston family. She built The Mount during the time of her husband’s nervous breakdowns. His emotional illness drove her into debts and sorrow, along with his sexual indiscretions with other lovers.

My mother bought a house in the Berkshire, an old a “Gibson girl” house, after my father died. My father had suffered a stroke causing irreversible brain damage in 1969. As my mother struggled to cope with the tragedy, she grew progressively estranged from the affluent Westchester society my father had introduced her to as a younger woman. After he died, she moved away from the sprawling colonial house we had lived in for years when my father was well.

Both Edith and my mother felt alone in a society where an unhappy marriage isolated them cruelly, and, later, as single women, that alienation widened.

As my mother had reformed herself and her destiny through the creative furnishings and interior decoration of her new Gibson home, breathing in the fresh Berkshire winds and salve from the hills and quarries, she had mirrored Edith Wharton’s work to create the spatial details, harmony, of her own vessel for independence and self-reinvention, The Mount. And perhaps, too, their invisible but ageless communion and alliance was an answer to one of the questions I have always had about art, about the internal emotions that go into the architecture of creating a novel. As I followed my mother who, like an eager child who had finally found home again after a long exile and sojourn, watching her in the long corridors under the arched ceiling, the terrace steps to the gardens, Wharton’s theory grew more profound. My mother died last year. I like to think The Mount had heard my mother’s footsteps in the “innermost room”. I like to think my mother’s soul found a correspondence with a great writer and was, at last, not alone. (Leora Skolkin-Smith) Thu, 19 Apr 2012 12:43:18 GMT
An Introduction to Oppressive Light: Poems by Robert Walser

To paraphrase Musil’s famous aphorism regarding Reason, the path of Robert Walser’s poetry “is the path of a cloud” in the rarified air of a solitary life, adrift in an evil century, moving with the lightness of an accomplished soul. One enters his language to be enveloped in gentle agonies, dark praise, rays of bright pleasure and the tumult of recognitions regarding selfhood and the fog of self, an ich ohne ich. This lyric cloud forms at the beginning of his writing life, with the earliest poem Im Bureau, wherein the poet, as a “miserable clerk,” is “made humble,” his language floating across the moon, a “wound of night.”

As a young man, Walser left his birthplace of Biel/Bienne, Switzerland, for Stuttgart, Germany, where, having failed his first audition as an actor, he resolved to become a poet, earning his living as a clerk moving from job to job before returning to Switzerland, on foot, to continue in clerical positions. After fulfilling his military obligations, he entered the employ of a failed inventor, and then trained as a servant, working as a butler in a castle in Upper Silesia. In 1905, he moved to Berlin to join his brother, a painter of theater sets, and here, living frugally in rooming houses, he wrote his first three masterful novels, as well as short stories, sketches, ‘dramolets’ and feuilletons popular in magazines and newspapers of the day. He was accepted in literary circles and admired by Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and also Walter Benjamin, who wrote that in Walser’s sentences, “the idea that stumbles around... is a thief, a vagabond and a genius.” In these years, prose flowed fluently from his pen, in a script that was nearly calligraphic in its execution. The flâneur, the servant, the poet and salaried clerk moved as characters through his dreamscapes, anonymous and evanescent. His sentences seemed to cascade and vanish like veils of falling water upon rock. The late W.G. Sebald thought that Walser shared Gogol’s secret of “utter superfluity... the awful provisionality of their respective existences, the prismatic mood swings, the sense of panic, the wonderfully capricious humour steeped at the same time in blackest heartache, the endless scraps of paper and, of course, the invention of a whole populace of lost souls, a ceaseless masquerade for the purpose of autobiographical mystification.”

Walser’s life swerves here, through a return to Switzerland, military service, the loss of his father, a brother’s suicide, periods of prodigious writing and self-disparagement, poverty and isolation, and finally the closing of his “little prose-piece workshop.” A crippling cramp in his writing hand forced him then to invent what he called “the pencil method,” – writing in pencil on paper scraps, in a miniscule and, for years, indecipherable hand of “tiny, antlike markings” that his friend, Carl Seelig, assumed was a secret code.

The sequence is unclear to me, but it seems that after periods of drinking and depression, his sister urged him to enter a mental sanatorium in Waldau, and although doctors couldn’t agree on a diagnosis, finally settling on schizophrenia, he would live incarcerated in mental hospitals in Waldau and later Herisau for a quarter of a century, until his death. He spent his days at menial tasks such as sorting beans and making paper bags; he read magazines and took long walks, especially at night. He declined a room of his own, choosing to sleep in the asylum barracks. Although he showed no outward signs of mental illness, he refused to live in the world again, and when asked by a visitor about his writing, he famously answered: “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.”

The later poems are dated from 1924 to 1933, spanning the years of his confinement. The last of them had to have been written “from the pencil area,” a provisional brouillon of light drafts that freed his hand and didn’t at all resemble his past experience of sitting “for hours bent over a single word that has to take the long slow route from brain to paper.” The penciled script allowed him, according to J.M. Coetzee, “the purposeful, uninterrupted, yet dreamy hand movement that had become indispensable to his creative mood.” In the asylum, he never felt himself to be in a hurry. The asylum walls and also his long walks on the grounds and beyond afforded him solitude, and in the barracks and wards, he found companionship of the sort he could bear. “I would wish it on no one to be me,” he wrote, “Only I am capable of bearing myself. To know so much, to have seen so much, and / To say nothing, just about nothing.”

The late poems include To Georg Trakl, the Austrian poet who would have been Walser’s contemporary, and with whom he shared affinities, lyric and experiential, having to do with literary gifts and mental fragility, who shared a sense of apartness on earth, and who was also hospitalized (in Krakow) for a mental breakdown in the aftermath of attending to ninety wounded soldiers in Galicia whose lives he could not save. Trakl’s friend, Ludwig von Ficker, attempted to intercede on his behalf and also preserved his work, just as Walser’s friend Carl Seelig would later do. They shared a radiant awareness of nature, the brevity of conscious life, and the instability of selfhood. Of reading Trakl’s work, Walser wrote to the poet: “I found myself in the chasm of reading,/ in the pursuit of your being’s beauty,” and later, “I dedicate this speech, playfully, dreamlike/ to your genius.” And in conclusion, “When I read your poems/ I feel as if/ I’m being driven away by a magnificent chaise.”

Throughout the poems, early and late, we find the vocation announced, to which Walser would devote his life: the spiritual and later corporeal work of vanishing from the world. This is everywhere available in the lyrics: “They abandoned me, so I learned to forget myself/ which allowed me to bathe in my inspired soul.” And later in the same poem: “Because they didn’t want to know me, I became self-aware.” In another he is “enchanted/ by the idea that I’ve been forgotten.” Of the place in which he has vanished, he writes “I only know that it’s quiet here,/ stripped of all needs and doings,/ here it feels good, here I can rest,/ for no time measures my time.” With untold suffering behind him perhaps, in the interstices of his recorded life, he seems to write his way toward a liminal state of non-attachment and hovering, weightless acceptance: “The world is inside an hour,/ unaware, not needing anything,/ and, oh, I don’t always know/ where it rests and sleeps, my world.” His world is other-where, and he without it, and we emerge from reading his lyric art as a cloud would disperse in raw light, with unexpected clarity, having followed the poet’s footsteps to where he was found on Christmas Day in 1956, lying in the snow, his eyes open, his heart still, with snow on his shoulders and his soul loosed. (Carolyn Forché) Tue, 17 Apr 2012 13:35:50 GMT
Rhetoric: a modest reading list

One of the greatest pleasures in writing my introduction to rhetoric, You Talkin' To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, was the research. For many centuries rhetoric – alongside grammar and logic in the trivium – was one third of an education. Here's a vast, neglected field of knowledge that goes to the centre of how civilisation works, has attracted some of the great minds of the last couple of millennia, and yet also contains some bizarre and fascinating byways. A day in the British Library reading up on it was bliss.

Ever since Aristotle identified rhetoric as a techne – that is to say, a practical skill that can be taught and analysed – a vast body of work has grown up around the subject: books of theory and practical manuals, or “handbooks”, alike.

My book gives an overview – but for anyone interested in reading further here’s a selection of ten of the more important and/or interesting works in the field.

1. Rhetoric, by Aristotle, 4th century BC

Aristotle was the Newton of rhetoric, and here is his Principia. It’s an eccentrically arranged book, and some of the in-jokes will strike the modern reader as bizarre (look out for the one about the sparrow shitting on an orator’s head). It put in place the enduring triads of rhetoric: identifying the three appeals, ethos, pathos and logos; and the distinction between deliberative, judicial and epideictic oratory. This is where it all began – and Aristotle’s tone of wan pragmatism makes clear that the study of persuasion is, in effect, the study of human nature itself.

2. Ad Herennium, 90s BC

Long believed to be by Cicero (it was thought to be his “second rhetoric”), Ad Herennium was the most influential rhetoric handbook in the West through the middle ages and beyond. It’s very likely Shakespeare would have studied it. As well as being full of commonsense advice across the board, and setting out the standard structure of an argument, it contains the first thoroughgoing treatment of the ancient loci method of memory-training. If you want to build your own memory palace – a method endorsed by Sherlock Holmes, Tony Judt and Hannibal Lecter – this is the place to start.

3. The Catiline Orations, by Cicero, 63 BC

Cicero was not only the outstanding Roman theorist of oratory, he was without peer as a practitioner. His works about oratory, De Inventione and De Oratore, are landmarks. But to break up the run of handbooks here I think it would be nice to include, as it were, a shot of him in action. His invective against Catiline, the leader of a conspiracy whom Cicero successfully drove into exile, find the great man bringing his A-game. “How long, O Catiline, will you abuse our patience? And for how long will that madness of yours mock us?” That’s epiplexis as it was meant to be used. That sharp tongue eventually got Cicero in trouble. Mark Antony had him killed – and, legend has it, Antony’s wife Fulvia took his severed head and stuck her hairpins through his tongue.

4. Institutes of Oratory, by Quintilian, c 95 AD

An extensive, very clear, and sometimes crisply amusing work, Quintilian looks back to Cicero and, before him, Aristotle. His book’s a splendid summation of Roman ideas about rhetoric, culled from long experience as a teacher (he was tutor to the grand-nephews of the Emperor Domitian, among other claims to fame). Like Cicero before him, Quintilian sees education in oratory as being intimately bound up with civic virtue. There’s a very nifty hypertext version of at

5. The Arte of English Poesie, by George Puttenham, 1589

“Utterance also and language is given by nature to man for perswasion of others, and aide of them selues [...] the Poets were also from the beginning the best perswaders and their eloquence the first Rethoricke of the world.” Puttenham’s treatise – long held to be the yardstick for Elizabethan courtly verse – makes clear the overlap between rhetoric and poetics. Its real payload for rhetoric scholars is Book Three, where he discusses the figures and gives them all eccentric English names, redubbing zeugma “the Single Supply”, epizeuxis “Cuckowspell”, synecdoche “Quicke Conceit” and mycterismus, wonderfully, “the Fleering Frumpe”. That Puttenham, far from having been an urbane courtier, was recently exposed as a serial sex pest, beater-up of vicars and dodger of alimony somehow makes it all the jollier.

6. Chirologia/Chironomia, by John Bulwer, 1644

Of the five canons of rhetoric – Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, Delivery – many of the classic handbooks skim over the last one. This deals with more or less nothing but, offering a systematic consideration of hand-gestures – from the shaken fist or the blown kiss to higa, or what we now call “flipping the bird” – and the question of how they are most effectively and decorously used in oratory. You may find a copy hard to track down, but it’s fascinating. Best of all are the extensive woodcut illustrations. It’s a standing tragedy that Bulwer died before he was to complete the follow-up Cephalelogia/Cephalenomia, which was to have been an exhaustive consideration of head gestures.

7. A Rhetoric of Motives, by Kenneth Burke, 1950

Perhaps the outstanding twentieth century scholar of rhetoric, Burke picks up the torch from Aristotle by embedding his account of the workings of rhetoric in social relations. Here, again, is rhetoric as the study of human behaviour. He talks about the way that persuasion develops through a process of identification, and so provides not just a formal but a social account of the orator’s art. In so doing he made a place for the ancient rhetorical tradition amid the new social and linguistic disciplines that threatened to displace it.

8. What I Saw at the Revolution, by Peggy Noonan, 1990

A former speechwriter to President Reagan, Peggy Noonan lets you know what it’s like to be the person in charge of what political apparatchiks dismissively call “the rah rah”. Noonan’s account of how a modern political speech is put together – it’s a “fondue pot”, she says, where everyone gets a fork – is invaluable, and her winningly nutty personality is a treat too. Her first glimpse of President Reagan, she reports, was a foot in a cordovan loafer, seen through an open door: “But not a big foot, not formidable, maybe even a little... frail. I imagined cradling it in my arms, protecting it from unsmooth roads.”

9. Winning Arguments, by Jay Heinrichs, 2007

If you want to get a sense of what a rhetorical handbook would look like in the 21st century, Jay Heinrichs’s is a fine recent example. Heinrichs is an American rhetoric scholar and journalist who maintains a lively rhetoric blog at Winning arguments wears its classicism lightly, and is full of slangy examples, imperative chapter headings (“Control the Mood”; “Make Them Identify With Your Choice”) and perky sidebars called things like “Persuasion Alert”. It explains and also – in the age of self-help and business communications – exemplifies the rhetorical quality of decorum.

10. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (second edition), by Richard A Lanham, 1991

This is the invaluable reference – the book no student of rhetoric should be without. As well as being as close to encyclopaedic a guide to the figures as exists in one volume, it’s a work of extraordinary wit and brio and good sense. Plus, funny jokes. I doubt it will ever be bettered, and nor will any other work of reference – with the arguable exception of William Donaldson’s Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics – be read with such enjoyment. (Sam Leith) Tue, 17 Apr 2012 10:50:37 GMT
A bibliography for The Faith of the Faithless

The Faith of the Faithless is a series of experiments in political theology that tries to think through the dangerous intrication between politics, religion and violence that defines our so-called secular age and - without embracing any theism - find a meaning to the idea of faith, a belief for unbelievers like me. It’s a laugh a minute, I promise you.

Mark Thwaite bemoaned the absence of a bibliography in the book. This was intentional as I didn’t want to expose my chronic lack of reading. However, in an effort provide some clues for those curious to follow the book’s byways, there follows a Faith of the Faithless top ten. The book consists of four long essays, framed by two parables: the first on Oscar Wilde, the second on Kierkegaard.

1. Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

This is Wilde’s sole text written in captivity in Reading Gaol. It is a stunning text for many reasons, but what took my breath away, and provided the idea for my book was the following quotation:

When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.

It is the phrase, ‘Everything to be true must become a religion’ that is most striking. What might ‘true’ mean? Wilde is clearly not alluding to the logical truth of propositions or the empirical truths of natural science. I think that he is using ‘true’ in a manner close to its root meaning of ‘being true to’, namely an act of fidelity that is kept alive in the German treu: loyal or faithful. This is perhaps in Jesus’ phrase when he said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.(John 14:6) Religious truth is like troth, the experience of fidelity where one is affianced and then betrothed. What is true, then, is an experience of faith, and this is as true for agnostics and atheists as it is for theists. Those who cannot believe still require religious truth and a framework of ritual in which they can believe. At the core of Wilde’s remark is the seemingly contradictory idea of the faith of the faithless and the belief of unbelievers, a faith which does not give up on the idea of truth, but transfigures its meaning.

2. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

On my reading, what is being called for by Kierkegaard is a rigorous and activist conception of faith that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security, and which abides with the infinite demand of love, the rigor of love. Faith is the enactment of the self in relation to a demand that exceeds my power, both in relation to what Heidegger would call my factical thrownness in the world and the projective movement of freedom achieved as responsibility. Faith is not a like-for-like relationship of equals, but the asymmetry of the like-to-unlike. This is what I try to describe in The Faith of the Faithless as a subjective strength that only finds its power to act through an admission of weakness: the powerless power of conscience. Conscience is the inward ear that listens for the repetition of the infinite demand. Its call is not heard in passive resignation from the world, but in the urgency of active engagement. It has been my contention in this book that such an experience of faith is not only shared by those who are faithless from a creedal or denominational perspective, but can be experienced by them in an exemplary manner. Like the Roman centurion of whom Kierkegaard writes, it is perhaps the faithless who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security, guarantees and rewards: ‘Be it done for you, as you believed’.

3. Rousseau, The Social Contract

I must be briefer in this top ten countdown. The first 100 pages of The Faith of the Faithless are devoted to Rousseau. There is just too much to say here, but my aim is to free Jean-Jacques from the prison of both liberal and totalitarian misunderstandings of his work. For me, Rousseau is the most important leftist thinker in the modern period and a much more consequent political thinker than Marx. His formula for egalitarian politics is very simple: association without representation.

4. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium

God, this 1957 book is a real page-turner. I was turned on to it by John Gray years back. As perverse thanks, I give Gray a hard time in the book, though I have learned much from his work. Cohn plots Millenarian political theology in Northern Europe in the middle ages, but the book is really a critique of various forms of political apocalypticism, which still show no signs of dying away. It was through Cohn that I discovered the so-called Heresy of the Free Spirit and the next book.

5. Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls

Porete was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1310. The heresy is simple: she argued that human beings could overcome the condition of original sin and unify with God. This led to forms of itinerant communist insurgency across Europe that was violently suppressed by the Catholic Church.

6. Reiner Schürmann, Meister Eckhart

My reading of Porete, with the help of amazing scholars like Amy Hollywood, renewed my old interest in mysticism, particularly Eckhart, who I read as an undergraduate at Essex and fell in love with. Eckhart’s most brilliant and heretical writings are his German sermons and Schürmann’s presentation of them is unsurpassed. When I turned up in New York in 2004, I was given Reiner’s old office, which still had his name on the door. I found this very intimidating.

7. Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma

True story: with the help of Lars Iyer’s ‘W’, I liberated seven volumes of Harnack definitive account of the history of Christian dogma from the University of Essex library in 1983. I read them all. Nearly 30 years later, I found a great use for it in my account of Pauline theology in The Faith of the Faithless.

8. Adolph Harnack, Marcion: Gospel of the Alien God

Yes, the king of liberal, protestant, Wilhelmite political theology has two items in my top ten. Harnack spent his entire life working on this book and only published it in 1925, I think. Along with Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion, it is the major source on how the Gnostic heresy took shape after Paul in Marcion, who saw himself as Paul’s true apostle. Basically, although I can’t go into it here, the solution to the Christian problem of reconciling the orders of creation and redemption is the postulation of two divine sources: a true God, revealed through Christ, and a false God of this world. Ontological dualism. In other words, this world is Krapp and salvation lies with an alien God, which is an intuition I am now using to read Philip K. Dick in a long piece that will come out in a month or so in The New York Times.

9. Heidegger, The Phenomenology of Religious Life

Everything that valuable in the existential analytic of Dasein in Being and Time is contained in Heidegger’s lectures on Paul and Augustine from the early 1920s. We are spared the transcendentalizing agonies of Kantianism and the oddities of Heidegger’s Aristotelian reading of Husserl and go to the beating heart of Heidegger’s project: the existential enactment of life in relation to a calling over against a facticity in and for a community of waiting, a Messianic community.

10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Although I have run out of space, let me say that the last part of The Faith of the Faithless is concerned with the relation between an ethics of nonviolence and a politics of violence. Bonhoeffer is exemplary of the argument I try to make. I am thinking in particular of the way he was eventually driven to drop the pacifism he adopted in the 1930s and participate in the attempted tyrannicide of Hitler and failed coup d’état against the National Socialist regime that led to his brutal execution shortly before the end of the Second World War in 1945. Bonhoeffer’s ethics does not rest on absolute, law-like principles, but on a freely assumed responsibility that, in extreme situations and as a last resort, is willing to act violently. The extreme necessities of a critical situation, Bonhoeffer writes, ‘appeal directly to the free responsibility of the one who acts, a responsibility not bound by any law’. But such a conception of ethical action would not lead to the sort of celebration of violence endemic to fascism, National Socialism, but an infinite responsibility for violence that, in exceptional circumstances, might lead us to break the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Responsible action involves what Bonhoeffer calls a ‘willingness to become guilty’ (‘Bereitschaft zur Schuldübernahme’): this is the price one pays for freedom. Would such a strategy of resistance have been successful? In Bonhoeffer’s case, we know that the attempted tyrannicide failed. But the point here is that I am not preaching nonviolence in all political cases, and no more am I arguing for some easy ‘clean hands’ retreat from the state, as Zizek contends. On the contrary. (Simon Critchley) Fri, 30 Mar 2012 10:17:37 GMT
The White Review

The White Review is a quarterly arts, culture and politics journal published in print and online, and established on a non-profit economic model. The current print issue is available to buy in bookshops and via the website, or by subscription. The website is updated with new, usually web-only content in the first week of each month.

The review was conceived as a platform to promote contemporary writing and art, and to bring new work to a wider audience. It takes its name and a degree of inspiration from La Revue Blanche, a Parisian magazine which ran from 1899 to 1903.

The review is edited by Benjamin Eastham and Jacques Testard who kindly submitted to my email questions whilst in the middle of preparing Issue 4...

Mark Thwaite: With the rise and rise of all things e-, web- and cloud-based, is it really a good time to be starting an old-fashioned paper-based journal?

TWR: The fact that there are new means of communicating, of reading and being read, is a good thing for anyone dissatisfied, as we were, with mainstream publishing as an industry. We consider ourselves a part of the rise you mentioned, because we think that that growth is symptomatic of a move towards greater pluralism and adventurousness in our reading and publishing habits.

Our website is a cornerstone of the project – we publish dedicated online issues every month, which content is available to everyone, and we’re looking to include material appropriate to that format. We recently published a short video shot in Tahrir Square during the final days of President Mubarak’s regime. We’ll also be looking to publish short art videos. So we try to play to the strengths of each format. For example, speaking generally, we carry shorter pieces on the website and longer pieces in the print issue. This is I suppose a reflection of our own experiences of reading on screen and reading a physical book.

Beyond that, we believe in the value of the book as a physical object. Neither do we consider this to be an old-fashioned attitude. Publishing will go down two different routes: there’s no point knocking out a cheap, poorly bound paperback on crap paper any more because you’re as well to read the content on an electronic reader. The book as a medium has to justify itself now, it’s no longer the default option, and this is to its benefit. We’ve witnessed an upsurge in beautifully produced books, with enormous amounts of time and creativity invested in them – check out Visual Editions, for just one example, and the work of artists and independent galleries exploring the possibilities offered by the book form. The design of The White Review is important to us – the quality of the images we reproduce, the balance of the colours, the alignment and legibility of the text. We value the content, so we value the medium in which it is reproduced.

Mark Thwaite: Regardless, then, of the format – is it a good time to be starting an arts, culture and politics journal at all? Aren't such things outmoded, even elitist?

TWR: No. We feel very strongly about this. The arts, culture and politics aren’t outmoded: they’re absolutely pertinent to the way we live today, and so by extension is any source that can provide people with greater access to their practice and discussion. To dismiss the discussion of complicated subjects as elitist is to deny people a stake in them. It’s to fall victim to the fallacy that people aren’t willing to tackle difficult subjects, or to engage with things that aren’t blindingly obvious. As editors we might make poor decisions of which readers disapprove, but we have no intention of patronising them.

Mark Thwaite: Isn't The *White* Review a rather ill-advised name?

TWR: We considered this. Ultimately we decided it wasn’t. We liked the name, and we liked its (non-cutaneous) connotations – the link to La Revue Blanche among them – and we decided that to reject a title we felt comfortable with on the basis of what is ultimately a pathological over-sensitivity about being wilfully misconstrued would be ridiculous, and fly in the face of our own stated principles. Last but not least, we are massive Tranmere Rovers fans (Google will help you work that one out...)

Mark Thwaite: You obviously think TWR fills a 'gap in the market', so why do you think that gap was there in the first place and how then does it fill it?

TWR: We identified what we hoped was a gap in the UK market for a periodical that catered for a broader interest in the arts than the largely specialist publications that are well-established here. I don’t know why that gap was there – perhaps because the British tend to delineate the visual arts from literature from fashion from politics in a way that the Americans or the French don’t (and much of our inspiration came from publications based abroad, like n+1, the Paris Review or Cabinet). We were also eager to publish something that was aesthetically attractive and therefore collectible – we don’t believe enough attention is paid by British publishers to design, which is a shame given that there are so many great British designers.

There is also the striking dearth of options for young writers, and to a lesser extent, artists emerging today in Britain. Who do you go to, in the UK, to publish a long-form essay, a piece of reportage or a short story, if you are just starting out? Part of this endeavour was to open up what is ultimately a rather staid industry, with few breakthroughs, few opportunities for younger generations. That’s why our commitment to new and emerging writers and artists is so pronounced – we’re trying to kick-start careers, and with that comes a willingness for experimentation that we don’t see much elsewhere in British publications. By 2015, we’ll hopefully have published the Joyce of the twenty-first century. Failing that, we’ll publish the real Joyce (see below).

Mark Thwaite: Anybody reading the review can see that presentation is key to your ethos – why is it so important to you that TWR looks the way it does?

TWR: We just think the way everything is presented is important. You don’t take a great painting and stick it in the cupboard. It’s an expression of our respect for the content that we spend so much time and energy housing it in something that we believe presents it to its best advantage, and which the reader can enjoy. When we say ‘we’, we really mean our designer Ray O’Meara, for whom (and we’re putting words into his mouth here) every edition must be a coherently produced, satisfying work. Speaking personally (Ben), it’s like really great architecture – it can be considered independently of the objects it holds or in concert with them. We hope that either way the design adds to the appeal of the journal, gives it a ‘collectible’ dimension. And, by the way, back issues are on sale on our website...

Mark Thwaite: How did you get such a handsome – dare I say 'expensive' - looking magazine off the ground in the first place?

TWR: To get the money together for a first issue we set up a crowd-funding appeal. The idea was that sponsors gained access to certain perks by pledging to us in advance of the launch. We took pre-orders on copies of the first issue before we even had it together, and we sold subscriptions too. We relied upon donations small and large to get going, and we still rely upon donations to help us along. As regards the expense, we’re lucky to have a great relationship with the brilliant printing house PUSH, in Bermondsey, whose patience, understanding and willingness to be involved in the project has allowed us to experiment. Unfortunately, we’re still unable to pay contributors but we’re hoping this will change some time soon. In the meantime, and we’re quoting ourselves here from the second issue editorial, ‘We hope that the context in which [artists’ and writers’ work] is reproduced justifies, for now, the time devoted to their art.’

Mark Thwaite: What do you hope the journal achieves?

TWR: We hope really that maybe a few people read it and come across something they might not otherwise have read, and that the experience is in some small way a stimulus, or that it makes them angry, or anything that involves a reaction, really. On a personal level, if we can shake things up a bit, help new writers and artists on their way to success, and prove that there is space for this kind of venture over time, we’ll be delighted.

Mark Thwaite: How do you choose your contributors?

TWR: They very often choose us. We accept unsolicited submissions – a point of principle when it’s so hard for writers without agents to get anywhere. Beyond that, we do a bit of headhunting – approaching people whose work we have seen elsewhere and admire, and people are often recommended to us. As for interviewees, we have a dream list, but suggestions are welcome.

Mark Thwaite: What is your favourite/most important or exciting contribution so far?

Ben: The most exciting contribution is actually hearing back from people – receiving emails disputing or praising pieces that we’ve published. Which brings rise to discussion, which is exciting. The discussions post-publication are the most interesting really. By the time we actually publish anything we’ve both read it so many times, and moved so many commas about, that we’re pretty much sick to death of it.

Jacques: In terms of importance, getting a hold of some unpublished Primo Levi letters for the first issue was a big deal. It gave us (a bit of) legitimacy when getting in touch with writers and artists like Paula Rego, Tom McCarthy and Des Hogan – all of whom eventually agreed to be a part of it.

Mark Thwaite: Who would you really like to publish?

TWR:The copyright on James Joyce’s work has just expired so we’re considering putting out Ulysses for next Christmas, with a few editorial interventions where we think he goes on a bit.

Mark Thwaite: What are your future plans for TWR (and associated enterprises)?

TWR: Survival ( Each issue very nearly pays for the next, and the shortfall has, thus far, been covered by donations. Beyond that: paying contributors, maybe ourselves a bit later on, and if we’re still alive, we’ll try to publish some books.

Mark Thwaite: What are you both currently reading?

Ben: The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass and Fluxus Experience by Hannah Higgins.

Jacques: I’ve just finished Cairo: My City, Our Revolution by Ahdaf Soueif, whom I just interviewed for issue 4. I’m now going back to Infinite Jest, which I’ve been reading on and (mainly) off for the last four months. (Mark Thwaite) Thu, 15 Mar 2012 09:59:08 GMT
George Craig

George Craig, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, is the chief translator for the Letters of Samuel Beckett. For the four-volume edition he has translated the nearly fifty percent of Beckett’s 15,000 letters that are in French. George is also the writer of a volume about his experience working on Beckett called Writing Beckett's Letters.

Mark Thwaite: What exactly is your role within the editorial team working on the Becket Letters?

George Craig: I am responsible for all translation from the French, and act as adviser on French literary matters (ancient and modern). I offer also an insider's familiarity with Irish English, as well as competence in Italian, Spanish, Russian, and, to a lesser extent, German - all except Russian being languages Beckett deploys. The Russian is helpful for questions of transliteration, particularly of proper names. I am also, as it were, the senior proof-reader for the team.

Mark Thwaite: Please tell us something of the practical issues/problems (hand-writing/translation challenges) of working with Beckett's papers?

George Craig: Beckett's handwriting is a perpetual source of difficulty, but long acquaintance makes it, for the most part, manageable. Translation is a problem mainly because SB does not simply "use" other languages, but plays with them. Then again, letters are not carefully prepared and revised texts: shifts in tone and level occur continually.

Mark Thwaite: How tricky has it been working with the Beckett estate?

George Craig: Tricky at first and for some time, because of concerns about possible offence to the families of SB's correspondents. Now good.

Mark Thwaite: My understanding is that you and the other editors may include only Letters "bearing on the work" &nash; have you been frustrated by this stipulation? Were there any letters you'd really liked to have included?

George Craig: As it happens, this stipulation has not made for trouble. SB seldom discusses his work directly: his relation to it emerges in innumerable indirect ways - in, for example, his way of talking about the painters he admires. The only letters we have regretted not being able to choose have been judged too intimate.

Mark Thwaite: Has working on each volume been the same? Looking back at the process, would you proceed in the same way?

George Craig: Not at all. The huge shift between SB the aspiring young English-language writer and SB the author of the great sequence of novels and plays in French has required a very different approach on our part. We ourselves have sharpened our sense of what is appropriate.

The crucial difference from Volume I is that we as editors were constantly aware of what Beckett wrote (as distinct from "hoped or intended to write"), which gave us a detailed sense of the unique characteristics of his work. Later volumes will be marked, not so much by momentous personal change as by wider dealings with writers and directors, familiar and new.

Mark Thwaite: How far are you along with volume three? How many more volumes may follow?

George Craig: Quite a long way. In the early years, when we were unable for legal reasons to publish, we went ahead with choosing and planning. I have already done most of the translating needed for volume III. Our contract with CUP is for four volumes.

Mark Thwaite: Volume II is letters from 1941-1956, but we don't get any war letters (presumably, for quite obvious reasons). How does the War change Beckett as a writer?

George Craig: SB's whole life is transformed by the effect of these years, the transformation including of course the move to French. No short summary is possible: Volume II is your source.

Mark Thwaite: How do you actually work as an editorial team?

George Craig: We agree on a division of labour, carry out our separate commitments, and send each other the results of our work. We then share comments until we arrive at a final version. As it is a Euro / Anglo / American venture, we are dependent on email. The whole project came as a result of SB's direct request to our Founding Editor Martha Fehsenfeld, who subsequently recruited the rest of us.

Mark Thwaite: What have you learnt about yourself, Beckett and his writing as you've been working on this project? What do we, as readers of Beckett, know more clearly now these two volumes of Letters have been published?

George Craig: That I am one of the luckiest people alive, having been given the chance to work on these letters. Readers of Volume II, especially those who know only the Beckett of legend (cold, austere, unwelcoming) will discover a passionate searcher and a man of great kindness.

Mark Thwaite: What did you want to achieve with your own book (Writing Beckett's Letters)?

George Craig: I wanted above all to get away from the notion of translation as pure process buttressed by this or that theory, to give instead some sense of the intimate wrestle that it was in my experience: an urgent conversation with an admired dead friend.

I wanted to make clear that translating Beckett's words required nothing less than a total personal engagement, with the full range of feeling that implies: swings between hope and despair, intuition and bafflement, and the fear of never catching up. The fragmentary form seemed right for that.

Mark Thwaite: What were your reading highlights in 2011, and what are you currently reading and/or looking forward to in 2012?

George Craig: There wasn't much time for new reading (a couple of oustanding memoirs (Michael Frayn and Jeannette Winterson), and much re-reading: the Odyssey, Dante, Calvino, Borges, Eliot).

Mark Thwaite: Anything else you'd like to say?

George Craig: Certainly not. Already said too much. (Mark Thwaite) Mon, 13 Feb 2012 16:28:24 GMT