Category Archives: Literature

David Peace, Roberto Bolaño and International Crime Fiction

International Crime Fiction: David Peace’s Red Riding and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

There are books you like, books you love, books you need, and books that have such a powerful effect on you that they become permanent fixtures in your life, their words sunk into the roadmap of your mental landscape. For me in the past years, few books have as enduring an effect as do Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and David Peace’s Red Riding quartet.

I came across 2666 around four years ago on a recommendation from a friend. I found a copy at my college library, opened the cover, and then proceeded to forget entirely about my somewhat precarious grades, this in the end-of-year final exams period. Over the time since, I’ve read it five or more times, I’ve pressed copies on my friends and family, and even once had my picture taken outside a Chicago restaurant merely because it had the same name as one in the novel.

Red Riding I discovered more recently, around a year ago. After watching raptly through BBC Channel Four’s three-part movie series, I ordered all the books and proceeded to read through them three times over the next months. They still have a strong mental hold on me, to the point where I find myself running over extended sections in my head while doing nothing related to any type of literature.

I don’t typically read crime fiction, and happened upon both works at least in part because they tend to be divorced from this genre in the literary world.[1] Least of all do I find serial killers (a subject which both take up) to be anything other than banal in most circumstances. But what strikes me about both 2666 and Red Riding is the way that the most horrific crimes – and neither author hesitates to use the word evil – are connected, indeed embedded, in a society that produces, normalizes, and rationalizes such behavior.

What follows is a series of not entirely complimentary or even coherent observations about the character of both works. As I believe this is not entirely self-indulgent, but may actually show something about contemporary crime fiction, I pray the reader at least will indulge me in this exercise.

Time and Place

For both Peace and Bolaño, crime is something that is done by specific people, to others, in a certain time and place. Precision is the beginning of their craft.[2] This observation might appear somewhat odd, as certainly all crime is specific. But what sets great crime writers apart from pulp is this idea – that certain societal circumstances produce crime. It is not a metaphysical phenomenon or embedded in human nature throughout history.

Red Riding takes place within a very tightly defined setting. The books take place in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the years 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1983, from which the titles of each book come. There is a lot to be said even about these dates. The years of 1977 to 1980, of course, were those of the reign of terror by Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper,” whose case preoccupies the books that take place in these years.

Peace gives intricate details of the Ripper’s murders, to the point where each chapter of Nineteen Eighty begins with a section from Sutcliffe’s testimony to the police:

… e dropped my hammer she said e hope that was not a knife e said no it was my wallet just strip and she had almost finished that was when e hit her on the head with the hammer and e hit her on the head with the hammer again and she lay on the grass with her hand to her head all covered in blood lay on the grass and e just stood and watched her looking at her hand the hand all covered in blood the snowflakes dancing and then e masturbated and then e threw the tissues at her and put a fiver in her bloody hand and said please do not call the police or e will come and kill you…[3]

The thread running throughout Red Riding, however, is not the Ripper murders but a series of child abductions that form the cornerstones for the investigations in Nineteen Seventy-Four and Nineteen Eighty-Three. Though the Ripper case lends a sinister aura to the proceedings, the books are more about the kind of society that can produce people like Peter Sutcliffe. And Peace makes it clear that this is a society riven by class conflict.

These years are also are framed by the decline of the Labour-led welfare state and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Nineteen Seventy-Four has interspersed oblique references to the successful miner’s strike the year earlier which toppled Edward Heath’s Tory government, and Nineteen Eighty-Three contains numerous premonitions of the great miner’s strike of the following year which went down to bitter defeat.[4]

The child abductions are a story only revealed in bits and pieces throughout the course of the novels. The first abductee, Clare Kemplay, is a nine year-old girl who is found dead on a construction site. She was tortured, raped, strangled, and finally deposited with the word “4LUV” carved into her chest and swan wings stitched to her back.[5]

This was only the latest act by a cabal of respectable men of West Yorkshire society – among them businessmen, artists, and even a priest – who commit their crimes in an abandoned mineshaft. An oblique prophecy referenced several times in the course of Nineteen Seventy-Four refers to this: “Tell them about the others… the others… all the others underneath those beautiful new carpets… under the grass that grows between the cracks and stones… please, tell them where they are.”[6]

The horrific crimes take place “underneath the beautiful new carpets” – behind, in other words, the façade that society erects to obscure them. The fact that “underneath the carpets” turns out to be a mineshaft in fact refers directly to the war against the working class that has led to the dereliction of public life.

The crimes of 2666 also have a direct frame of reference. In this case it is the infamous femicides in and around Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico, which Bolaño thinly disguises as the city of Santa Teresa. All five parts of 2666 have something to do with the femicides, but they are foregrounded in the epic fourth section, “The Part About the Crimes.”

The first documented cases of women being raped, strangled and killed around Ciudad Juárez occurred in 1993, and are still ongoing to this day. At first ignored, by the time Bolaño took up his pen they were becoming an international human rights case, with UN investigations being made and a movie starring Jennifer López being filmed. No resolution thus far has been made.

Bolaño’s voice in “The Part About the Crimes” is often one of the cold, clinical police report, which he worked consciously to imitate:

In the middle of November [1993], Andrea Pacheco Martínez, thirteen, was kidnapped on her way out of Vocational School 16… The city police and the judicial police took charge of the case. When she was found two days later, her body showed unmistakable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced her feet had also been tied.[7]

The murders of women from the beginning of 1993 to the end of 1997 are the main subject of “The Part About the Crimes,” interlaced with the stories of the detectives who try to solve the case and the accused who try to free themselves. Hundreds of murders of women by, at most, a few killers suggests a great malignancy in Mexican society.

In fact, the malignancy is one characterized by one-sided class warfare, the same as in Red Riding. Ciudad Juárez, the model for Santa Teresa, is the epicenter of the growth of the maquiladoras – sweatshops which sprang up along the US-Mexico border during the nineties after the signing of NAFTA. An easily exploited, transient and feminized workforce is the object of these horrific murders – not, in fact, the prostitutes of northern Mexico, as Bolaño is at pains to point out. Stories of women who set off to work and never returned, women who were dismissed for attempting to form unions, and women who happened to be at the wrong place and the wrong time in the city’s run down working-class neighborhoods dot the pages of the novel.

To sum up: for both Peace and Bolaño, even the most horrific crimes have at root a social rather than a psychological illness. They take place at a specific time and place, and importantly for both northern England of the late 70s and early 80s, and northern Mexico of the 1990s, these settings are characterized by fierce class struggles. As Derek Box, the construction magnate of Nineteen Seventy-Four says:

This country’s at war, Mr Dunford. The government and the unions, the Left and the Right, the rich and the poor. Then you got your Paddies, your wogs, your niggers, your puffs and your perverts, they’re all out for what they can get… to the victor, the spoils.

Men who Hate Women

A major theme of both Peace’s and Bolaño’s crime stories is the victimization of women. In both the West Riding of Yorkshire and neoliberal Sonora, society considers women to be, at the end, expendable. This is revealed more often than not by the police who are tasked with stopping the murders of women. In one telling episode of 2666, the omniscient narrator describes a get-together by policemen at the end of their shifts:

For example, one cop would say: what’s the perfect woman? Pues she’s two feet tall, big ears, flat head, no teeth and hideously ugly. Why? Pues two feet tall so she comes right up to your waist, big ears so you can steer her, a flat head so you have a place to set your beer, no teeth so she can’t bite your dick, and hideously ugly so no bastard tries to steal her away. Some laughed. Others kept eating their eggs and drinking their coffee. And the teller of the first joke continued. He asked: why don’t women know how to ski? Silence. Pues because it never snows in the kitchen… all right, friends, what’s the definition of a woman? Pues a vagina surrounded by a more or less organized bunch of cells… And if someone complained to González about all the chauvinist jokes, González replied that God was the chauvinist, because he made men superior.[8]

Of course, it does not particularly matter whether a policeman laughs at the joke or keeps eating his eggs or drinking his coffee: the lack of respect for women, the fact that seeing women as something subhuman is more or less accepted goes a long way toward explaining why hundreds of women have been raped and killed with little intervention by the law into their cases.

Another equally telling section of “The Part About the Crimes” tells an episode in the life of the journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who is investigating the femicides:

One night, after making love with a whore, as they lay smoking in bed, he asked her what she thought of all the kidnappings and all of the bodies of women found in the desert… and as he was talking the whore yawned, which irritated Sergio and made him say, in exasperation, that in Santa Teresa they were killing whores, so why not show a little professional solidarity, to which the whore replied that he was wrong, that the women who were dying were factory workers, not whores. Workers, workers, she said. And then Sergio apologized, and, as if a lightbulb had gone on in his head, he glimpsed an aspect of the situation that until now he’d overlooked.[9]

Does the occupations of hundreds of women who are killed by the same serial killer particularly matter? In a society that finds women expendable, the answer is both yes and no. The insinuation that the victims are all prostitutes relegates them to the edges of the normal at the same time it tells us what society thinks of women in general. Women are for the use of men, therefore, their position in general is equivalent with that of a prostitute. The jokes made by the policeman above are symptomatic of a greater societal malaise.

“The Part About the Crimes” renders no answers to the mystery of the femicides. In fact, Bolaño complicates matters even further by including the murders of women who were not killed by the elusive narco or other serial killers with a sleek black car. The murders of women by jealous men, their boyfriends, lovers, friends or husbands, form an important counterpoint to the women whose bones are found in the desert: they are part of the same continuum of institutionalized violence against women.[10] 

In Red Riding, a similar disdain is shown by the police, the press, and all of polite society toward women, both the prostitutes who are the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims and the less marginal women who nevertheless become victims of powerful men. The disregard of women is so ingrained that many characters, Eddie Dunford for example, refer to women as “cows”: “poor cow,” etc.[11]

Of course, the fact that it is primarily women who bear the brunt of violence in the Quartet, whether at the hands of the Ripper or the cabal of the Dragon, the Swan, and the Wolf shows us something important about the society in which all these criminals operate. A society in which the police as well as these criminals are complicit in the objectification, prostitution, and murders of women is one bound to produce someone like Peter Sutcliffe, sooner or later.

Guilt and Innocence

Both Peace and Bolaño’s narratives contain men who are featured prominently as scapegoats for the crimes the novels revolve around. The scapegoats of both are found in stories that are, in fact, completely true.

The abduction and brutal murder of ten year-old Clare Kemplay in Nineteen Seventy-Four receives its apparent resolution when Michael Myshkin, a developmentally handicapped second-generation Polish immigrant is taken in by the police and confesses not only to Kemplay’s murder, but those of pubescent Jeanette Garland and Susan Ridyard years earlier. 

But it is as the journalist Eddie Dunford says of Myshkin in Nineteen Seventy-Four, however cynically: “He looks the part.” Society has decided to find Myshkin guilty of the murders, and he is just marginal enough to fit the bill. Appropriate stories of his mental and physical disorders and his past behavior among females are filled in by the police until he does look the part.[12]

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a major influence on Red Riding, easily discernable by the titles of the books as well as constant references we find in the text: while Eddie’s last chapter in Nineteen Seventy-Four is entitled “We Are the Dead,” and John Piggott in Nineteen Eighty-Three dreams of DCS Jobson telling him “we’ll meet again… in the place where there is no darkness.”

A major question posed in Orwell’s novel is the malleability of truth, especially the truth of guilt and innocence. Just as Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia if the Party believes this to be true, so then does it really matter if the victims of repeated party purges are guilty or not, as long as society believes they are?

This is the same question posed by the case of Michael Myshkin in Red Riding. Society has made him to be guilty, and those who try to find the truth are guilty of conspiring against society. DCS Jobson’s superior, the Chief of the Amalgamated West Yorkshire Police, tells him: “He did those things, killed them girls… you know it, in your heart.”[13]

The case of Klaus Haas in Bolaño’s 2666 makes a similar point. Haas, a German-American small businessman and immigrant to Mexico, is just eccentric enough so that the police can find him guilty and put him behind bars. When the killings of women continue unabated by Haas’ imprisonment, the police conclude that he must have contracted out the new killings to remove the shadow of guilt from himself. He has a history of strange behavior, including some assault charges and deviant sexual practices, so that he can be safely locked away for crimes he is certainly innocent of, whatever his individual peculiarities and history of sex crime.[14]

Scapegoating in both 2666 and Red Riding has two levels: while it gives a sense of closure to respectable society which can now breathe easy, it also doubly indicts that same society. The scapegoating of innocents is piled on top of the brutal murder of other innocents. It is as Jobson says to Piggott at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Three: “We’re all guilty.”

Humanity and Inhumanity

I’m often reminded of Bolaño’s account of the first murder of a girl in “The Part About the Crimes,” that of a thirteen year-old named Esperanza Gómez Saldaña. Just after the dry, clinical facts of the case are recounted, a sudden slippage occurs in the style:

This happened in 1993. January 1993. From then on, the killings of women began to be counted. But it’s likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, her name heads the list. Although surely there were other girls and women who died in 1992. Other girls and women who didn’t make it onto the list or were never found, who were buried in unmarked graves in the desert or whose ashes were scattered in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to.[15]

This easy slip between the dry, scientific facts of the case and the spooky, even Gothic, style of writing Bolaño adopts even in large sections of the much-maligned “Part About the Crimes” tell us something important: that no single register is capable of expressing the horrifying nature of the crimes. But he is also telling us something important about the never-revealed killer, who wanders alone in the middle of the night scattering the ashes of his victims. The police who vainly try to catch him, the women he preys on, and all the inhabitants of the damned city of Santa Teresa also wander alone in, to skip to the final passage of Part Four, the “streets that were almost completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.”[16]

The killer of 2666 who wanders at midnight forms an interesting comparison with the perception of the Yorkshire Ripper in the fateful third volume of Red Riding, Nineteen Eighty. George Oldman, the Assistant Chief Constable of the West Yorkshire police force, gives a interview in which he states in part:

“I feel after all this time, I feel that I really know him… If we do get him, we’ll probably find he’s had too long on the left breast and not enough on the right. But I don’t regard him as evil. The voice is almost sad, a man fed up with what he’s done, fed up with himself. To me, he’s like a bad angel on a mistaken journey, and while I could never condone his methods, I can sympathize with his feelings.”[17]

There is something more to this than an expression of identity by a policeman with the criminal, a trope that has reached the status of cliché in crime fiction. The image of “a bad angel, on a mistaken journey,” and a killer scattering the ashes of his victims in the middle of the night as he wonders where he has come to, have a striking resemblance. They both contribute to the idea of a man pushed far beyond the limits of society that condemns his behavior in thought as it condones him in practice.

Just as Peace’s women are systematically dehumanized as “cows” or something worse, the perpetrators of horrifying crimes in Red Riding also come in the form of animals: the Dragon, the Swan, the Wolf, and less extreme, the Badger and the Owl.[18]

Peter Mullan as Fr. Martin Laws in Channel Four’s Red Riding.

The Dragon, the most terrifying of this gallery of rogues, is Father Martin Laws, a sinister presence behind many nefarious deeds in the entire Quartet. First introduced as a bizarre sort of confessor for the tormented journalist Jack Whitehead, Laws takes on a terrifying appearance as the most evil sort of bastard you can imagine, manipulating, torturing, killing and even trepanning those under his spell.

At the same time, outwardly Laws maintains the guise of the consummate humanitarian. An Anglican priest (although with somewhat esoteric interpretations of the scripture), he lends the books much of the religious overtone at the same time he is incredibly considerate and comforting to anyone he might have a use for. The two sides of his character, while contradictory, are not mutually exclusive. It is true that as he says, he ends suffering, even if he is the one who caused it in the first place.[19]

Are those capable of the most horrible crimes actually human? Both 2666 and Red Riding have the same answer: given a certain kind of society, the best human specimens are capable of the greatest inhumanity. To quote Jobson at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Three once again:

Lord, I do not understand my own actions.
I know that nothing good dwells within me, in my flesh.
I do not the good that I want, but I do the very things that I hate.
I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
I do not the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand…’[20]

Visions and Dreams

Both 2666 and Red Riding are preoccupied with the world of dreams and visions. This is, fundamentally, an expression of the fact that nothing in the world of cold reality is capable of adequately explaining or resolving the deep impact such horrible crimes have on everyone around them.

In Nineteen Eighty, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter refers to each session of his team investigating the Ripper murders as a “séance,” in which the dead are summoned by passing around their photos and recalling the brutal circumstances of their murders. The dead themselves come into the text through the monologues mentioned above, in which the Ripper’s testimony collides with the testimony of his victims from beyond the grave, often inflected in the imagery of Dante’s Inferno, all told in single-page blocks of 6-point text in transcribed Yorkshire English. It’s somewhat affecting to say the least.

It is, after all, Mystic Mandy in Nineteen Seventy-Four who tells Eddie to “tell them about the others… underneath those beautiful new carpets, and his knocked off by the police because she possesses too much of the truth. Much of what is actually revealed about the killers, whether the Ripper or the more mundane abductors of children, come to the characters in the world of sleep and altered consciousness.

Mystic Mandy finds her Mexican counterpart in Florita Almada, the traditional medicine expert who suddenly and inconveniently becomes clairvoyant in the midst of a television interview:

She repeated what she had already said: a big desert, a big city, in the north of the state, girls killed, women killed. What city is it? she asked herself… It’s Santa Teresa! It’s Santa Teresa! I see it clearly now. Women are being killed there. They’re killing my daughters. My daughters! My daughters! she screamed… Then, in a little girl’s voice, she said: some are driven away in black cars, but they kill them anywhere. Then she said, in a normal voice: can’t they leave the virgins in peace?… Florita roared: don’t touch me, you cold-hearted wretches! Don’t worry about me! Haven’t you understood what I’ve said?[21]

The End of the World

Both authors overtly reference the theme of apocalypse. Bolaño’s title 2666 obviously references an apocalyptic future date, although one that does not appear anywhere in this book itself.[22] It is the landscape of Santa Teresa and its environs that suggests the theme of the end of the world.[23] Here again, we become aware that the social catastrophe of neoliberalism in the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juárez cannot be adequately expressed through ordinary language – it has to be expressed in the mystical and the apocalyptic.

Peace, on the other hand, instead of giving us revelations about the crimes, gives us Revelations. Jack Whitehead’s searing final soliloquy in Nineteen Seventy-Seven, for instance, reads in part:

… in 1977 suffering your terrors, in 1977 my companions are in darkness, in 1977 when young men see visions and old men dream dreams, dreams of remission and forgiveness, an end to penance, in 1977 when the two sevens clash and the cuts won’t stop bleeding, the bruises not healing, the two witnesses – their testimony finished, their bodies lying naked in the streets of the city, the sea blood, the waters wormwood, women drunken with the blood and patience and faith of the saints, and I stand at the door and knock, the keys to death and hell and the mystery of the woman, knowing this is why people die, this is why people, in 1977 this is why I see… No future.[24]

Besides the numerous Biblical references, Whitehead envisions a very modern apocalypse, one that invokes not only the Ripper’s murders but also British racial panic and the myth of the royal family. In 1977, the reggae group Culture released the album “Two Sevens Clash” which became an immediate sensation. After waves of immigration from the West Indies, reggae had become as much a signal for the revolt of the most exploited and oppressed as it was a special offense toward racist morality crusaders. The title of the album was in reference to an apocalyptic prediction made by the early black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who predicted the end of the world “when the sevens clash” on July 7, 1977.

1977, of course, was also the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Peace reverses the promise of peace and prosperity of Elizabeth’s long reign by referencing the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” in which Johnny Rotten sang “No future, no future, no future for you.”

Conclusion: Dream Journeys and Fairy Tales

Neither 2666 nor Red Riding have a satisfying conclusion to the mysteries at the center. Though it is hinted throughout “The Part About the Crimes” that it is the narcos of one gang or another who are responsible for the femicides, this is never decisively revealed. Though the ring of child abusers in Red Riding is found out and for the most part receives justice, the books end with, out of their seven protagonists, four suicides, two murders, and one driven irreparably insane.

This is in keeping with much of what has already been written about both narratives. The point is not that of pulp crime and detective fiction, to establish a definitive resolution. The gaps, pauses, dead ends and tangles in the stories resemble those of the society that produces these crimes.[25]

After the end of the narrative in which the crimes are done, the policeman chases, the killer is caught and that is that, what role does the crime story have in the world of postmodern capitalism? Both 2666 and Red Riding have something to tell us here, though what they tell us is not entirely consonant with each other.

The first is an observation that applies to them both: it seems to be the case that the more realistic forms a detective or crime story takes, the more it tends to bring out the inner, psychological journey of its protagonist. Chasing the killer is often a form of chasing oneself, whether this leads to a resolution or not.[26]

Both stories bring this inner journey out in the open. In Peace’s Quartet, the grittiness and poverty of West Yorkshire where murder, police corruption and child abuse take place simultaneously become the ground for séances, dreams and visitations of hell, and even the Apocalypse itself. Among the maquiladoras and the deserts of Santa Teresa we find the intervention of angels and demons, and the most bizarre and rhapsodic visions from those who even visit the city.

Both Peace’s and Bolaño’s work are in certain ways, therefore, expressive of what some scholars call the “return to the sacred” in postmodern literature. Crimes that one cannot communicate the horror of in secular language find their expression in the languages of the subconscious and the heavens.

Nineteen Eighty-Three, the last of the quartet, begins with the following traditional epigraph:

Oh, this is the way to the fairy wood
Where the wolf ate little Red Riding Hood;
But this is the riddle that you must tell –
How is it, if it so befell,
That he ate her up in that horrid way,
In these pretty pages she lives today?[27]

Peace has spoken in several places of crime stories filling the role that society once had for fairy stories. In our era, the mystery is as much an enticing story as it is a cautionary tale, in which the untold legions of the dead who are victims of capitalist society find their testament. We are left staring at the author, whose work asks us over and over again, “haven’t you understood what I’ve said?”

Notes

[1] While Peace remains a crime writer by most judgments, his work seems to be tolerated in the literary community. He has been given repeated mainstream awards including Granta’s “Promising Young British Novelist.” Bolaño on the other hand is seen as more strictly literary, despite his affinities to science fiction and especially mystery. He stated in one of his last interviews “I would have liked to be a detective rather than an author,” and named James Ellroy “the greatest living writer working in English.”

[2] Interestingly, both Peace and Bolaño wrote the books I am dealing with nearly half a world away from the events themselves. While Peace grew up in Yorkshire, he wrote Red Riding in Japan, with the help of archives of English newspapers. Bolaño had grown up in Mexico City but never even visited Ciudad Juárez, which he wrote about while living in Spain, with the benefit of an extensive correspondence with Mexican friends.

[3] Nineteen Eighty, 98.

[4] Peace covered the strike itself in GB84, the first novel he published after completing Red Riding.

[5] More recently, Peace has stated that he isn’t proud of this last detail, saying “the real crimes are horrifying enough.”

[6] Nineteen Seventy-Four, 126. Though Mandy’s character appears in the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Three. The movies, while they remain true to the spirit of the books, make many swaps, substitutions and character composites.

[7] 2666, 326. The details of anal and vaginal penetration and strangulation with a fracture of the hyoid bone is the M.O. for many of the killings. Bolaño adapted these passages from real police reports provided to him by Sergio González, journalist and author of Huesos en el desierto, the first real exposé on the crimes. Bolaño made him a character in “The Part About the Crimes” in return for his assistance.

[8] 2666, 552-53. I take the title for this section, of course, from Stieg Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor (translated into English as the somewhat snappier title Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Peace and Larsson’s work have been compared at times, in my opinion much to the detriment of the former.

[9] 2666, 465-66.

[10] My impression is that the serial killings break even with more mundane ones, although I’ve not made a complete count. The black Perigrino is a detail which shows up in a few of the original case files, leading to the belief that the perpetrator or perpetrators involved are narcotics traffickers or connected to the trade.

[11] Peace has remarked that one of the things he remains haunted by from his Yorkshire childhood is the term “cow” as both an endearment and a term that dehumanizes women. All of the protagonists of Red Riding, save the gay prostitute BJ Anderson, are guilty of taking deep advantage of the women in their lives, in some cases up to and including rape.

[12] Myshkin is based on Stefan Kiszko, a tax clerk of Ukrainian and Slovene parentage who was wrongly imprisoned for the murder of the eleven year-old Lesley Molseed in Rishworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, January 1975. Kiszko’s botched defense led to a decades-long imprisonment, and he died shortly after being vindicated and released. Jimmy Ashworth (conflated with Leonard Cole in the films) is also found guilty by police of the murder of Hazel Atkins in Nineteen Eighty-Three, and conveniently hangs himself before his solicitor can contest the case.

[13] Nineteen Eighty-Three, 20.

[14] Haas is based on Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, an Egyptian-American chemist resident in Ciudad Juárez. Sharif was found guilty on five counts of murder and died in prison in 2008. Like Haas, Sharif’s history of sexual assault made him a likely candidate for the crimes, at least according to the police.

[15] 2666, 353-54.

[16] 2666, 633.

[17] Nineteen Eighty-Three, 6. The voice Oldman describes was not in fact that of Sutcliffe, but of “Wearside Jack,” a hoaxer who sent several tapes and letters to the West Yorkshire police claiming to be the perpetrator, which he signed “Jack the Ripper.” Significant police resources were diverted in the attempt to apprehend a Ripper with a Sunderland accent, while the real Ripper was a Yorkshire native.

[18] The Swan is architect John Dawson, who in the movies is conflated with the construction magnate Derek  Box. The Dragon is Fr. Martin Laws (see below) and the Wolf is George Marsh, a foreman of Derek Box’s. Marsh’s deeds are attributed to Laws in the Channel Four version. The Owl is DCS Maurice Jobson, and the Badger is his partner, Bill Molloy.

[19] In my opinion, Peter Mullan’s performance as Laws in the Channel Four version was brilliant. But the three movies, especially since they leave out Nineteen Seventy-Seven, can nowhere near capture Laws’ sheer malevolence.

[20] Nineteen Eighty, 402. The reference is to Romans 7:15-21. In the films Jobson is a reluctant participant in police corruption, but in the books he is one of the central instigators. Much of the Quartet, especially the final volume, revolves around the fundamental question of whether an individual can be innocent where society stands condemned. Hence the theme of Christian redemption, even as deeply ambiguous as we find it in Peace.

[21] 2666, 436-37.

[22] The date 2666 appears in the novella Amulet, itself an extended version of a chapter in Bolaño’s one other long novel, The Savage Detectives. The narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, says “Avendia Guerrera at that time of night is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery underneath the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” Amulet, 86.

[23] The desert landscape of Santa Teresa recalls a book with the same setting, although 150 years earlier: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which also relies heavily on apocalyptic themes.

[24] Nineteen Seventy-Seven, 436-37. In order of mention: Psalms 88:18, Acts 2:17, Revelations 11:8, 8:10, 17:6, and 1:18. The context for this scene is Jack Whitehead’s trepanation by Fr. Laws, some details of which were transplanted into the final confrontation between Laws and BJ in the movie of Nineteen Eighty-Three.

[25] When Bolaño began researching the femicides, he was amazed that the police, not to mention foreign experts such as the FBI agent Robert Ressler, had made no significant progress in catching the killer. It took lengthy correspondence with Sergio González before he realized the vast amount of complicity between the killer(s) and the police.

[26] China Miéville speaks about this in the reader’s appendix to The City and The City, his own attempt at the genre. Other examples might include Raymond Chandler, and his postmodern disciple Haruki Murakami, on whom I’ve made some previous remarks.

[27] Besides referencing the fairy story, Red Riding draws on the traditional name for the area. Yorkshire maintained up till the 19th century its divisions into ridings (from Old Norse threiting, or “third”) in 7th-century Dane law, and the West Riding became known as the “Red” Riding because of its record as solid Labour territory. The connotations of the color red hardly deserve a mention.

References

Bolaño, Roberto, trans. Natasha Wimmer. 2666. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Bolaño, Roberto, trans. Chris Andrews. Amulet. New York: New Directions, 2008.

Bolaño, Roberto, ed. and trans. Sybil Pérez. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. New York: Melville House, 2009.

González Rodríguez, Sergio. Huesos en el desierto. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2006.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Accessed through parallel translation software at http://bible.cc/

Miéville, China. The City & The City. New York: Random House, 2010.

Peace, David. Nineteen Seventy-Four. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009.

Peace, David. Nineteen Seventy-Seven. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty-Three. New York: Black Lizard/Vintage Crime, 2009

“David Peace: 1974.” Interview with Letzen TV, the Netherlands. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brWLLZ2077s

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, 1980 and 1983. BBC Channel Four, dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker, 2009.

Marcela Valdes, “Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.” The Nation, 8 December 2008. http://www.thenation.com/article/alone-among-ghosts-roberto-bolanos-2666

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Towards a Holistic Revolutionary Critique of Art

China Miéville’s talk on “Guilty Pleasures: Art and Politics,” delivered at Socialism 2012, points socialists in some interesting directions as regards our critique of art. As there have been some interesting arguments on Facebook recently that I’ve participated in – particularly around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but also things like Homeland which I’ve written lengthy critiques of before – I thought now would be a good time to remind everyone, including myself, of the outlines of China’s critique.

China says that one axis of our appreciation of art (for which term, let’s include every cultural product regardless of medium or quality, just for the sake of utility) is the political worldview a certain piece of art has underlying it. As socialists, we are particularly sensitive to this category for obvious reasons. We know, for instance, that art is never politically value-neutral in class society. It can reinforce patterns of class, gender or racial/national domination, and in capitalist society most of the assumptions of artists as a special breed of intellectuals have this effect on their work.

At the same time, however, another piece of art can propose a politics of liberation in a broad or narrow sense. Most art doesn’t lie entirely on one side or another of this axis, but somewhere in between based on countervailing pressures of the official ideologies or Gramscian “common sense” and the equally common notions the oppressed or exploited have pointing toward their liberation.

It is common for socialists to recognize a particular piece of art embeds politics of oppression in some way or another. There are two typical responses to this.

The first is we can swear off any art that does this, condemn it and refuse to appreciate whatever relative merits it may have. Logically, this position tends to reduce itself to absurdity. I have seen some leftists write that they refuse to watch The Wire because the worldview it embeds is based on a strange breed of Fabianism which believes structures of domination such as the police department can be reformed with the right people put in charge.

As a result, I think that more often than not this reductive, agitational position is only in very rare cases completely consistent. Because all art, or nearly all art, in class society reflects the influence of systems of domination, to embrace it completely means we wouldn’t ever be able to enjoy anything that doesn’t spring fully-formed from the mind of a revolutionary socialist.

This means concretely, I think, that people who embrace this position are highly selective about where they apply it. The consequences of this can look somewhat bizarre. In the past couple months I have heard a person condemn the film Lincoln because it doesn’t include any black characters and in the next breath claim Django Unchained as an anti-racist masterpiece – despite the fact it reduces the talented tenth to the talented ten millionth in the case of the title character, while the only other options for slaves laid out were to be completely passive or to actively collaborate with the slaveowners, as in the case of Samuel Jackson’s character.

I say this without accusing anyone in particular, because my appreciation of art has been equally deterministic at times. Well after I had transitioned from scifi and fantasy geek to revolutionary socialist, I looked back on my youthful infatuation with the work of Tolkien as a particularly regrettable part of my past. The homage to feudal, courtly values paid in every page of his work kept me from seeing the reasons I’d once appreciated the professor – his wonderful devotion to world-building, rightly so influential, and his keen sense of adventure, romance and myth which has made him a hero to generations. It was only after reading pieces by China and John Molyneux that I was able to arrive at a nuanced appreciation of The Lord of the Rings, long cherished books and movies that I had rejected.

So what I’m saying in other words is that a perspective that uses the axis of “progressive/reactionary” as its main determinant is more often than not applied incredibly selectively. This works both ways, jumping from politics to quality and from quality to politics. We might assume a work is bad because we find its political worldview distasteful, as in the example I gave of my changing appraisal of Tolkien.

I have had less success thinking of an example of the reverse, since fiction with an agitational purpose is usually only interesting in how it fails. I have never been particularly fond of Upton Sinclair, the socialist author most famous for The Jungle. As someone smarter than me once said, allegorical fiction (which includes agitational fiction) is hard to take seriously, because even its own characters realize what they’re doing isn’t real. (Of course, this only really applies in fiction. Poetry, theater, music etc. I don’t think are forced to abide by the same limits.)

So if we don’t like a film or a book, this may have a conditioning effect on how we see it politically – it will probably be negative. Similarly, the reverse is true: art we do like can be discovered to have good politics on a somewhat shaky basis.

An example. I really enjoy Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I think the books are very entertaining and am glad in a general sense that a series that speaks so unabashedly for women’s liberation – even using force – has had such an effect on mass consciousness. At the same time as a revolutionary socialist (which Larsson was as well at one point in his life, being a member of the Swedish section of the Fourth International) I find the absence of any notion of collective struggle rather disturbing for a work of its nature, as I do with storylines that put the main characters in the position of collaborating with “progressive” people in the Swedish state apparatus against its own security forces and the far right.

I also don’t happen to think that as art, Millenium ever really rises much above the level of pulp – a fact due in no small part to the central character, Mikael Blomqvist, who seems to me a male fantasy rendered in a very unfeminist way. Somewhat oddly, I seem to agree more with the hypersectarian World Socialist Website on this than my own organization. Even if they are a scab operation run by half-psychotic scum, broken clocks and so forth.

In a conversation I had with some comrades and other general left-leaning folks a while ago, I mentioned these things when the subject of Millennium came up. One comrade whose company I’ve always cherished had the most curious response, the gist of which was that Lisbeth Salander’s lovingly described vigilantism had a progressive purpose because in the context of the books she stood in for the working class. I found it hard to formulate a response to this.

But I digress. The other axis of our chart is quality in the most general sense. Obviously the judgment of quality is a very subjective affair, the reasons for which I’m not very interested in. We can get around this by dealing in terms of works whose quality or appeal is generally recognized, which I’ll get to in a second.

Laying emphasis on the axis of quality over the axis of politics also leads in some strange directions. The most popular one we are very familiar with. Something like this: I like x even though x is reactionary, rightwing, reinforces power relationships of class/gender/race-nation-ethnicity. Obviously this can be a legitimate response to the distorting impact of relying overly much on the political axis. But I would argue its effect is just as distorting.

To return to the example of Tolkien, I have heard people who are generally very leftwing absolutely refuse to consider the reactionary attitudes to women and non-Europeans in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was on the record about this: “they [orcs] are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (It’s less often recognized that the dwarves are in part an equally racist caricature: they represent the Jews, who in Tolkien’s mind had an irrational love for gold, spoke their own languages and never really tried to fit in with the larger society around them.)

There may be hardly any women, and orcs may represent a more than vaguely Sinophobic caricature, it’s said, but why should that detract from our appreciation of it as a text. I think to argue this is to place a barrier in between ourselves and a true appreciation of Tolkein’s universe – which surely requires us to appreciate the mind of the creator and how it was affected by the surrounding class society with all its prejudices. To say this doesn’t involve the intentional fallacy, the application of which by postmodernists has tended to turn a useful piece of advice into its opposite.

What I’m arguing for in short is a holistic revolutionary socialist approach to art and culture. This is very much in the tradition of literary revolutionaries like Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lukács, Brecht and Benjamin, who argued that the understanding of the conditions of production for any work of art was key to the understanding of the work of art itself. Neither the political critique can be allowed to trump the critique of quality, or vice versa in this form of inquiry.

I’ve been overusing it lately, but I think the phrase “concrete analysis of concrete conditions” put forward by Lukács is really the secret of the Marxist method, which includes all criticism, but specifically for us cultural criticism. So we have – the concrete analysis of concrete art.

One example I find incredibly useful, raised by China in his talk, is that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On the one hand, this is a wonderful book, in my opinion among any reasonable “top ten” of English-language literature in the modern era. On the other hand, Conrad explicitly intended his book as a plea for the “enlightened colonialism” of Britain, his adopted homeland (a point of view given voice repeatedly by Marlowe, the narrator) as against the supposedly more savage rule of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo.

Heart of Darkness is a work of such importance that using just one or the other axis of critique I have outlined will not suffice. This has not stopped the literary and political left, however, from praising it as a work of literature while pointing to the supposedly limiting conditions of its imperialist politics, a critique advanced much by Chinua Achebe and other postcolonial African writers.

What China says about Heart of Darkness is that we should consider another avenue of critique. As the novella is a product of a colonial culture, what were the things that made it compelling in a society whose common sense regarded colonialism as a positive? In other words, Heart of Darkness may be compelling precisely because of its reactionary stand on colonialism. Form and function are, after all, united in a dialectical whole – which should get us to consider that Conrad’s book is compelling for the same reasons it is politically reactionary.

The water gets even more muddied, however, if we take a closer look. At the same time that Conrad’s implied author is a proponent of colonialism, the characters and events in his own novel revolt against this view. Much has been speculated about the character of Mr. Kurtz, whose brilliance is told of from the beginning of the book, but when he appears, he barely says anything. I refer most of all to line that is as famous as it is misunderstood: “The horror… the horror!” (Part of the misunderstanding is of course based on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which seems to adapt the novel only in how Coppola misinterprets every part of it in the most systematic way one could imagine.)

Now as someone who loves Heart of Darkness, what I understood Kurtz means by “the horror” is not the horror of the darkness and barbarity he has been reduced to in the “savage” Congo – it is his realization that the comfortable, sedentary bourgeois way of life he enjoyed back in Europe is based on the systematic acts of exploitation and barbarism he engaged in as a colonial official in Africa. Surely one could not ask for a better literary condemnation of the system of imperialism, even if it is only implied.

Lukács was noted for his view that literature was only progressive if it exposed the dynamics of the whole society – the capitalist system as an internally mediated totality. Based on this notion, he tended to reject all forms of literary expression outside realism as reactionary. His view has often been reduced to the point of caricature – it is never noted, for example, that in the context of the struggle against fascism, Lukács’ view was linked to an attempt to salvage Enlightenment rationalism, something that he thought for better or worse was part of the Marxist heritage. Nevertheless, his views did incline to a certain purism which was not helped by his embrace of Stalinism – see for example his incredibly unsubtle denunciations of writers of such stature as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Rabindranath Tagore.

I don’t mean to comment on the long-running debate between Lukács and Brecht – I’m not sure I fully understand it, although Brecht’s notions seem closer to my own impressions of the truth. But Lukács’ notion that we can judge art in terms of how it exposes the totality of social relations strikes me as a useful guideline or at least a reminder of what good art can accomplish. It is also a useful corrolary of Marx’s and especially Engels’ own views on art – that good political art does not accomplish its point through propagandizing, but through subtle subversion of the existing social relations. This incredibly hard goal has only been reached by a very few political authors, among whom I might mention China himself.

Another way of putting the case is the following. We would never have to think about art in a nuanced political way if there were no good fascist artists. Which is of course not the case. To restrict ourselves to literature alone, there have been some wonderful authors of the far right. Some of these, off the top of my head, are Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Knut Hamsun, Gabriel D’Annunzio and Yukio Mishima.

To describe their art as an intervention in society – that is, political in a fundamental sense – should not stop us from appreciating what they do, and especially how they do it. Trotsky’s essay on Céline (some excerpts here) pointed to the contradictions inherent in the author’s worldview, as shown in his first novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Trotsky concluded that the disgust with the hypocrisy and barbarism of bourgeois society that drips from every page of Journey could go one of two ways. Céline would either see the light of revolution, or he would adapt himself to the night. We know it retrospect which way this played out.

The question of fascist art might be a bit of a heavy example to use. So I will end with considering a different one – that of cultural kitsch, especially in its reaction to the war on terror. I mean primarily Homeland, which I seem to keep coming back to in my writing.

From my perspective, Homeland is an enjoyable show. It is not great art, but so little TV is. TV is functional – it is meant to entertain and explain at a very basic level. This Homeland does admirably. I see it as very compelling and interesting even as I recognize what it does is to reinforce and justify the intervention of the US government into foreign countries and its repression of native Arab and Muslim communities – it’s fundamentally racist and imperialist, which I would hope would be obvious.

Unfortunately if you praise the merits of a show in this genre among socialists, in my experience, you tend to get accused of sharing some of its values or at least ignoring them. This is very different from what I’m trying to do. At a fundamental level, most cultural products of the Homeland variety share the same values. But surely we should have a bit more to say about them than “that’s racist” or “that’s imperialist”? Shouldn’t these declarations (perfectly true, mind) be followed by some sort of exploration of how racism, imperialism, etc are perpetuated?

This brings up something else, very important I think, in China’s guidelines. The idea of art as a “guilty pleasure,” he says, whether the guilt comes from bad politics or poor quality, is fundamentally dishonest. There is no real guilt in pleasure, excepting the kind that is staged and performative in the declaration of a “guilty pleasure.”

It’s related to the tendency among people – not just socialists – to take something amiss when someone else disagrees on cultural and artistic preferences. All to quickly, a civil discussion on x cultural product can turn into something along the lines of “You don’t like x? You bastard!” (or, of course, the reverse, which I have experienced). Something which, as China says all too rightly, is an expression of commodity fetishism – to prove his point, many of us hissed during his talk when he mentioned he dislikes The Wire.

One caution I have here is against sort of relativism that China’s critique implies. As an example, I think there are some really great left-wing movies out there: Reds, Matewan, Norma Rae all come to mind. Would it be a complete distraction to believe that some of their appeal comes from the very clear way in which they propose a politics of liberation? I think this would be to miss the point in a pretty major way. The reverse of this is, as China mentions, that if all your favorite books are written by fascist authors, it likely says something about your worldview.

I don’t mean all this to be systematic, much less advisory in any way. I would only offer my hope for a deeper and more systematic critique of all art on an intelligent political basis. Conclusions can be drawn as the result of further conversation.

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A Novel of Primitive Accumulation in the Soviet Union

The law locks up the hapless felon

Who steals the goose from off the common

But lets the greater felon loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

This traditional rhyme, with a couple additional like it, are the only documentation we have of the initial rise of capitalism from the point of view of its victims. I have written here and there about this subject before in relation to England, previously considered by Marxists as the site of the “ideal” transition to capitalism from feudalism. What I said before I will only spend a few words repeating. The rise of capitalism was predicated on the complete destruction of hitherto existing forms of production, indeed, the annihilation of the entire way of life of the vast majority.

What this involved was, basically, systematic death and destruction on a scale never heard of before. While the common lands mentioned in the poem above were “enclosed,” ensuring mass starvation that would leave wage labor as the only possible way the people could make their living, brigandage and vagrancy were stamped out by harsh laws leading to the execution of thousands. Millions of others were condemned to poor houses, where they worked for less than pennies. At the same time, a brutal campaign of terror in the form of “witch trials” took place which exterminated female folk doctors and herbalists, and with them the ancient knowledge of contraception and abortion which stood in the way of pushing the population up to create the class of immiserated wage laborers the new system required.

This was not a process that went without resistance on a mass scale to the unfolding of the capitalist system at every turn. Brian Manning in his magisterial study The English People and the English Revolution documents brilliantly the struggles of the peasantry against feudal exploitation which served as a complement to urban Puritan resistance in the English Civil War, and the Levellers and Diggers who sealed their death sentences by advocating a community that would benefit all as the most radical wing of that struggle. E.P. Thompson in his classic The Making of the English Working Class writes of how foreign the ways of the new capitalism were to its victims, and the brilliant religion-charged critiques that working class Methodists, and followers of more millenarian sects like that of Joanna Southcott formulated, along with the opening of the age of insurrection against capitalism in the heroic Luddite movement. David McNally in the Deutscher Prize-winning Monsters of the Market tells us how the formative English proletariat waged open war against the corpse economy, which was felt to be the most degrading aspect of the new system both spiritually and metaphysically.

Unfortunately, before the 19th century or so, when the system was already firmly established, we get very little documentation of what all this meant from the point of view of the working class- the people who, to use Mary Shelley’s metaphor, were dissected and put back together to fit the purposes of the new system, the most brutal forms of exploitation ever seen in the world. There are of course various reasons for this, most of all that these people were by and large illiterate, but along with it, that their masters tried their very hardest to stamp out any tradition of resistance- which, of course, they were only partially successful at.

Some of these same barriers would be at work in documenting the transition to capitalism in the case of one country which accomplished this hundreds of years later. We can recall only with the deepest sadness that the leader of this country stated openly that what Western European nations had accomplished over the course of hundreds of years, his country must make good in only five to ten years. The country was the Soviet Union, and its leader Josef Stalin.

I don’t want to spend much time rehashing the case for state capitalism – there is an excellent volume published by Haymarket Books, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, which provides the main arguments, alongside various works by Tony Cliff and Chris Harman. The rise of a state-planned capitalism capable of competing economically and militarily with the West entailed suffering on an even greater scale than it did in the West, since it had to be compressed so much.

Since the 1980s, the anticommunism of Robert Conquest and others who were the first to analyze these developments has fortunately been displaced by a revisionist school led by Shelia Fitzpatrick, J. Arch Getty and others who are more tempered in their pronouncements and more nuanced in documenting the transition from Leninism to Stalinism. This has made us better aware of what was entailed: not only a war against the Soviet peasantry by its own state in which hundreds of thousands died by malice (the “dekulakization” campaigns) or by neglect (the man-made famines in Ukraine and elsewhere), but the massacre of a whole generation of Bolsheviks who had led the revolution and were capable of leading another, along with thousands of Party members and minor state officials who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (what is known as the Great Purges.)

Unlike in England, however, this brutal transition did not go entirely undocumented in the literature of those who were its victims. The Revolution of 1917, along with being the greatest event in human history, launched a massive outpouring of achievement in the arts, that took the Stalinist regime a long time to curtail. Millions of workers and peasants learned to read and write, and the deluge of memoir, fiction and poetry they produced in the years after 1917 had been supported and published with the direct assistance of the Soviet state. When the rule of the Soviets was undermined by its own bureaucracy, this did not go unnoticed by these writers. The publication of We by the Bolshevik engineer and writer Yevgeny Zamiatin, the suicide of the Soviet poet laureate Vladimir Mayakovsky, the anti-Stalin poems of Osip Mandelstam, and searing novels by Victor Serge are all parts of this tradition. All these writers, crucially, had been supporters of the revolution from the beginning, and some of them would lay down their lives in its service.

Another of them who has only recently come to the attention of the English-speaking world is Andrey Platonov. Before the revolution, Platonov had been a student whose intellectual pedigree varied from Greek philosophy to Orthodox mysticism, combined with a deep devotion to the eccentric Russian philosopher Nikolai Feodorov, who believed the development of science would lead to the physical resurrection of the dead and the colonization of planets beyond Earth.

After 1917, however, Platonov like many of his class were inspired to devote their lives to the benefit of the Soviet system, deeply believing it would lead to a society run by all and for all which could then accomplish advances in science, technology and art that could never have been imagined before. He retrained as an engineer, serving during the 1920s supervising the draining of swamps and digging of wells that would provide the basis for a society in which all could be prosperous and live happily. At the same time, he emerged as a leading figure in the Proletkult movement of writers who argued for privileging the experience of the working class in Soviet literature (somewhat to the chagrin of Leon Trotsky, who found the movement rather formalist and intellectually vapid.)

In 1928, after the struggles that chased Trotsky, Bukharin and their followers out of the Communist Party, the first Five Year Plan was launched by the Stalinist class which had taken control. It was what I described earlier: the beginning of initial accumulation which led to the Soviet Union establishing itself on an equal basis economically vis-a-vis the West. Understandably, many Bolsheviks who opposed Stalin were caught somewhat off guard by this. If the collectivization of agriculture and establishment of industry was the basis of socialism, as they had long argued, then wasn’t Stalin objectively building socialism? And wasn’t it their duty to stand with him if so?

Platonov had joined the Party in 1921, and there is no indication I know of that he was involved with the oppositions led by Trotsky, Bukharin, or any others. I suspect he followed the inclination of many Communists and Russian workers that the Plan was the road to socialism. Nevertheless, serving once again as an engineer tasked with implementing it, he would run up against its brutal realities. The product of this encounter was a novel called The Foundation Pit.

The Foundation Pit only runs 150 pages in its English edition. But don’t let it fool you – the text is so rife with sorrow and symbolism that I suspect most readers, which include me, will want to take their time with it. In fact this is my second time reading it, and it took me even longer than the first.

The novel centers on an unnamed town in the Russian countryside, whose workers and Party activists have been tasked with the construction of a giant building to house all its people in the future – a “House of Labor.” Starting out with a plan to dig a foundation for the building, they are caught in the tide of increasingly demanding pronouncements and instructions from the Party center requiring a bigger building each time. When finally Stalin gives his speech that activists have become “dizzy with success,” which condemned the overeager fulfillment of the Plan such as the ever-deepening pit, it has become a tomb containing the bones of not only the former bourgeois and kulaks, but sincere workers, party members, and most tragically, of the children who are expected to inherit the socialist future.

On its face, the construction of a House of Labor carries resonances with earlier Russian literature – but of a decidedly counterrevolutionary variety. The reference, which Platonov was certainly aware of, is to Dostoevsky. In Notes from Underground, the unnamed narrator whose monologues fill the slim volume fulminates against such projects. Tying together the Tower of Babel, the Crystal Palace constructed for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, and the building of the same name in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s parable/utopian novel What is to Be Done?, our “sick, despicable” narrator regards these “palaces” as a hateful symbol of the belief that human society can be perfected. In Dostoevsky’s view, human nature was cowardly, mean and despicable, and men would reject being perfect as Chernyshevsky wanted them to be just because they had the choice of rejecting it.

In modern times, the statements of Dostoevsky’s narrator have been taken as an early expression of anticommunism, despite the fact that he died decades before 1917, and that he intended the novel as a polemic against revolutionary populism of the Narodnya Volna group and liberal capitalist modernizers alike. The translators of my version of The Foundation Pit, Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, take this view uncritically: “As Dostoevsky criticized the idealized Crystal Palace that appears in a dream to the heroine of Chernyshevsky’s novel, so Platonov criticizes the grandiose projects of his own time; like Dostoevsky, he compares them to the Tower of Babel” (Afterword, 160).

It never ceases to amaze me that academics will consistently ignore what is in plain sight. They do not seem to recall, just as a start, that Platonov was a Party member and dedicated Communist. Statements like these also leave by the wayside his background as the very man whose job it was to assist in the creation of “crystal palaces” – from where this novel emerges. Reading the novel makes it clear that Platonov disagrees not with the construction of socialism, which he dedicated years of his life to, but rather how he perceives it is being constructed. It seems inconceivable somehow to these scholars of literature that the symbols and language of Dostoevsky, along with those of Orthodoxy, Slavic folklore and even Stalinism, might be used to construct a critique of an entirely new and unanticipated society. In this sense, The Foundation Pit is a simultaneously hilarious and terrifying parable of Soviet primitive accumulation, mistaken by Platonov and others as a brutal, but successful, construction of socialism.

If there is any writer who compares favorably with Platonov in terms of subject matter and political critique, it is the Englishman George Orwell. I say this knowing that once I do, it may be hard for others to appreciate what makes Platonov distinct. But there is something about the tragic irony of The Foundation Pit as compared to Animal Farm. Though Orwell wrote it with the polemical intention of discrediting Russian “socialism,” one can detect the great sympathy he has for the Soviet working class in the character of Boxer, the workhorse whose constant admonition to himself is “I will work harder” for the construction of socialism, until he cripples himself and Napoleon, the stand-in for Stalin, cynically has him sold off for glue. In Orwell’s writing, you have the tragedy of the working class, in all its naivete and idealism, its laziness and heroism. We see a total incomprehension of “plans” and their “fulfillment,” which have no regard to the basic needs of human beings, in both writers – what Orwell represents in 1984 with the absurd yet historically accurate equation: “2 + 2 = 5.”

Similarly, Platonov never treads close to idealizing his subjects, as tragic as the narrative gets. The Soviet proletariat in The Foundation Pit does sincerely believe that what they do is to construct socialism – as so many other workers in market capitalist nations have been persuaded to sacrifice their interests to the glory of the nation. Despite this, they are not idiots or dupes of Stalin. They possess the memory of the revolution that they made a decade previous, however fleeting that may be, and on that basis they feel instinctively that they have been betrayed.

We see this in their rage against the technical specialists, party activists and district personnel. The Civil War veteran Zhachev insists on addressing the party activist as “you bourgeois,” and on using his pension to buy butter which he then uses to grease the wheels of his cart so to deny it to the upper echelons. Or in Safronov’s angry address to Prushevsky, the engineer (perhaps standing in for the author). We get a sense of the deep but impotent rage an atomized working class feels against its bosses in this novel.

Despite this, Platonov makes it clear that the days of the First Five Year Plan were not a joyride for the technical specialists like Prushevsky, or the Party activists (the one in the book remains anonymous) who were tasked with implementing the Stalinist line and enforcing discipline. Prushevsky constantly feels a deep despair to the point of suicide: “‘I’d better die,’ thought Prushevsky. ‘People make use of me, but no one is glad of me'” (21). Or of the party activist who is denounced for overfulfilling the plan as “gone rushing forward into the leftist quagmire of rightist opportunism… No one can disagree that such a comrade is a wrecker and saboteur of the Party, an objective enemy of the proletariat,” who does not resist his death at the hands of the vengeful workers he has pressed so hard to fulfill the plan in accordance with Party directives (136). With the words of several other characters, “I’m bored,” he merely takes his penance and stops breathing.

Platonov gets at the character of the most psychotic of the Stalinist campaigns, the anti-kulakization drive, in one of the later sections of the book. Having proclaimed the collective farm, at which point the peasants proceed to slaughter and feast on their own livestock, the hapless Communists seek high and low in the town for a citizen who can be called authentically proletarian who can identify and punish the kulaks. They succeed in finding the one hired laborer in the town – but it is a trained bear who works as an assistant to the blacksmith, who they then coax out to hunt kulaks with the dinner bell. “Just bang on the church bell so Misha knows it’s lunchtime. Otherwise he won’t budge – he’s a stickler for discipline!” (108). This tragicomic episode ends with the supposed kulaks being “liquidated” – the activist committee understands this to mean they should be put on a barge and sent down the river.

All of this is, of course, infused with cultural and religious symbolism. The bear, named Mikhail Ivanovich, is a common character in Slavic folktales, where he helps the peasants with their tasks and punishes those who mistreat him – such is a symbol Platonov uses to represent the innocence and fundamental humanity of the Russian proletariat, ironically in the being of an animal. And before the kulaks are “liquidated,” they perform the Orthodox rite of Lenten forgiveness with their neighbors. Platonov is perhaps the most perceptive observer of the traditions of the Russian people and their reactions to an alien system of state capitalism being imposed on them from above.

In the end, the superhuman efforts of all the characters, from Voshchev who desires a useful occupation, to the Party activist who wants to direct the masses of his district toward socialism, to Misha the huge and innocent bear, to the child Nastya who merely desires to live to see socialism, all find themselves poured metaphorically and literally into the giant hole that is the foundation pit. I cannot think of a better metaphor for alienation in modern life – hence the “absurdism” or “existentialism” that critics point to, without understanding the very historical basis of this type of literature. I find the book hard to recommend more highly.

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit. New York: NYRB Classics, 2008. $14.95

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David McNally, Monsters of the Market

Monsters of the Market was sort of a vanity purchase for me. Unlike greater minds such as China Miéville, I was a Marxist long before I was won over to consider scifi and fantasy genres as legitimate literary expression, much less to consider, as Miéville says, that “The fantastic might be a mode peculiarly suited to and resonant with the forms of modernity.” A couple of years ago, I probably would have rolled my eyes in Lukácsian fashion at the idea that the study of monsters and that of political economy might go hand in hand.

And yet, here I am. I didn’t really have a reason why I should read McNally’s book except as sort of a diversion that could combine more academic political interests and my increasingly unorthodox literary tastes. It did not disappoint in either pursuit, and my only wish having finished it was that it might have been longer than just three (admittedly, three exquisite) studies of monsters from a Marxist perspective.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Dissecting the Laboring Body,” and contains fascinating studies of the art of capitalism’s rise from Shakespeare, to Rembrandt, Dickens and finally and centrally Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It probably could be expanded into a book of its own, and we can only hope that someday it might be. Documenting the brutal course of capitalist “primitive accumulation,” McNally shows in each case how emerging capitalist rationality constructed the body of the proletarian as something to be taken apart, dissected and put to the use of profit. The proletariat is, in this way, the central “monster” of capitalist modernity.

For me, nothing more clearly showed this than McNally’s thorough reading of Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. Side-stepping Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow (what I was taught about the painting in my high school art history class), McNally recalls for us that the “anatomy” of a corpse was a key bit of political theater by and for the emergent bourgeoisie in both the Netherlands and England. “Public anatomy was bound up with disciplinary practices designed to alleviate bourgeois anxieties through the ritual exercise of class-power over the proletarian body” (29). In 1632, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, chief anatomist of Amsterdam’s physician’s guild as well as a key civil leader in the city, dissected the body of a young man named Aris Kindt, who had been executed for the theft of a coat, and Rembrandt’s painting was commissioned in honor of this great public and social event. As with any anatomy, this event was followed by a torchlit parade through Amsterdam by the bourgeois leaders party to the event, who in this way reinforced their power over the Dutch Republic.

In Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” Dr. Tulp becomes capital personified, directing the movements of the proletarian body.

McNally writes that Rembrandt’s painting has a number of unique features that are not found in contemporary anatomy portraits (yes, there was a market niche for anatomy portraits). Not only does the light fall across Tulp and his fellow doctors, highlighting their individuality and cleverness, but the shadow obscures the face of the condemned man, robbing him of his individuality as he lies in a diagonal position, showing him defenseless as in similar poses of the crucified Christ and martyred saints. Most importantly, Tulp has commenced the anatomy with the corpse’s left arm, which would not have been the first part to be dissected:

Tulp grasps a forceps with which he manipulates the flexorum digitorum muscles of Kindt’s left hand. Indeed, Tulp can be seen pulling on these muscles, causing the corpse’s fingers to curl in imitation of his own. We have here… a portrayal of the paradigmatic relationship of capital to labor. The superintending will employs a tool with which it directs the movements of the laboring body… the movement of the pauper-body is being directed by a will external to it, a will whose control over the tools of production is the key to its command over the bodies of the poor. (33-34)

Command, expressed in the form of dissection, of the proletarian body by capitalism is a dialectic whose beginning is expressed by Rembrandt and whose end is written by Mary Shelley. In late 18th-century Britain, McNally writes, where it was common to execute proletarian men and women for theft as well as other minor crimes against capitalist property, it was a final act of religious and metaphysical humiliation against the condemned that their bodies would be dissected and anatomized for the uses of bourgeois science. Therefore the family and neighbors of the condemned would wage pitched battles at the gallows to save the corpses from those who sought to obtain them to sell to the anatomist. Even if successful  however, it was common for “resurrectionists” or grave-robbers to disinter them for sale.

One such man is Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “I became acquainted with the science if anatomy,” he says, “and spent days and days in vaults and charnel houses.” Assembling his creature by bits and pieces of random proletarian bodies, the creature is first dissected (separated from the land and communities), then reassembled as a terrifying collective entity – the monstrous, anonymous proletarian mob – a process that mirrors the creation of the English proletariat in the process of primitive accumulation. (As a side note, I would say that I found that reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class alongside McNally extremely helpful).

Bela Lugosi’s creature did not speak, but only grunted.

McNally’s reading of Frankenstein is too incisive to be summarized in a short review like this one. I just would note the process of “doubling” which Shelley engages in – the process by which the creature mirrors his creator, his desires and actions come to voice his claim to humanity, including love and respect of his fellow humans, against Frankenstein’s horror at his “inhuman” creation. Key to this, of course, is that the creature is given a human voice – a feature which was removed in early film adaptations of the novel such as that of Bela Lugosi, and consequently from all the creature’s numerous descendants, the zombies which populate Western horror film. This removes the most troubling feature of the creature to bourgeois society, the voice which enables him to tell Dr. Frankenstein: “You are my creator, but I am your master.”

If I have one complaint about this masterly study, it is not McNally’s rather ponderous insistence on documenting every instance in which a bourgeois ideologue like Locke, Burke or Mill refers to the insurgent masses as a “monster.” It is rather his somewhat bizarre adherence in the course of the study to the revisionist account of capitalism’s origins by “political Marxists” such as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Here is not, unfortunately for me, the place for a detailed refutation (readers would do well to take a look at the chapter on political Marxism in Neil Davidson’s wonderful book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?) In the course of his brilliant account of Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” for example, he takes a pages-long detour to inform us that the post-Revolt Dutch Republic was “a commercially prosperous, urbanised bourgeois republic [but] it had not undergone a fully-fledged capitalist transition” (35). In the first place, this is embarrassingly wrong, and secondly, no sooner does McNally establish the non-capitalist nature of the Dutch economy than he informs us that “Nevertheless, during its golden age, the Dutch republic was the site of a flourishing bourgeois culture,” leaving us wondering why he bothered telling us the Netherlands were non-capitalist in the first place.

Dealing with Chapter 1’s brilliance, regardless, left me somewhat unprepared to fully digest Chapter 2, in which McNally attempts, quite successfully in my view, to reestablish the notion of the monstrous as central to Marx’s view of capitalism. This is not merely the monstrous effects capitalism has on the bodies and minds of the proletariat, making capital a “vampire,” or dead labor bent on sucking the lifeblood out of the living, which McNally suggests have Capital take on the forms of a Gothic novel. In a passage from Vol. 1 which McNally tells us is often ignored (I don’t remember it, in any case) Marx says:

The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless, the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will –

Or, in other words, once a table becomes a commodity, it transcends the sensuous, becoming not an ordinary wooden table but a repository of “grotesque ideas” – a sum of money exchangeable in the process of capital accumulation. More than anything else I have read, this gets across the idea of the alienation of the laborer from the product she creates.

Is worshipping something like this really any more ridiculous than the commonplace Western worship of money as value?

Such, in so many words, also leads us toward the concept of commodity fetishism, something which I have also learned a lot about from McNally. Tracing the history of the “fetish,” the African objects invested with spiritual powers which European colonialists used to charge them as being “uncivilized,” McNally shows us how Marx reverses the charge of fetishism against the very European ruling class that invented it.  Marx says that capitalists fall on their knees before objects, just as the Africans do that they enslave. But it goes deeper. In their worship of a commodity (for example, the Spanish conquistadors’ worship of gold), they worship not the object, but the hidden value that is its second and dialectically opposed nature. “However much capitalist fetishism bows down before things, its true god is entirely immaterial” (206). And really, which is more rational, asks Marx – to worship things we can see and touch, or some invisible, super-sensuous quality contained in them?

And so, somehow, I have skipped over most of the middle of the book to come to McNally’s final study, “African Vampires in the Age of Globalization.” Here, McNally takes us on a whirlwind tour of the new vampire stories of Subsaharan African nations from Nigeria to Togo, Cameroon and Malawi. These tales are more bizarre and frightening than anything dreamt up in Western cinema. A rider on a motorcycle-taxi puts a helmet on, which transforms him into a monstrous ATM, spitting out banknotes from his mouth. People fall asleep to be mystically transported to an occult economy of plantations run by witches, on which they are forced to slave until they wake up exhausted and still have to return to their worldly occupation. Government leaders are implicated in a vast conspiracy in which they steal the blood and organs of ordinary people, exchanging them for food aid. These tales do not only form the material for an array of folktales, native theater productions, the novels of Ben Okri (which McNally reads brilliantly) and the “Nollywood” horror film industry in Lagos, they often are the basis for real rebellions of the oppressed against governments and corporations who are metaphorically draining African people of their blood.

McNally’s strength is to bring to our attention the various ways in which these new vampire stories, rather than being remnants of pre-capitalist superstition or imported from Western cinema, form an incisive critique of the plundering of the African continent by international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, in collaboration with post-colonial states, critiques which we are able to read correctly employing Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical optics.” Such is the modern zombie, which originated in Haiti and has found its home in Africa. Rather than the mindless, acquisitive consumer of Western horror movies, it is the body of the modern proletarian, enchanted with mental sleep and compelled to labor for the gain of people and things it does not understand.

Here, McNally is writing in the Marxist anthropological tradition of people such as Peter Worsley – who produced a brilliant materialist analysis of the “cargo cults” of the Pacific islands, The Trumpet Shall Sound, that I would highly encourage everyone to read. This tradition takes seriously the mystical and religious notions of the oppressed as the expressions of a concrete critique of their material conditions. It is my unhappy task, therefore, to anticipate a challenge from the postcolonial camp that I can just see academics salivating over, were they to read his book.

It might be put like this: that although McNally admirably is taking the traditions of non-Western people seriously, he ignores the fundamental differences between Subsaharan societies and those of the capitalist West – he assumes, in other words, that concepts like “capitalism,” “exploitation,” etc. are understood in the same ways by African peoples as they are in the West. Such, of course, is to assume a fundamental divide between Africa and the West that ignores the whole process of the creation of a world capitalist economy through colonialism. Seeing these African stories as something fundamentally incomprehensible to Western minds merely puts a plus sign where racists and imperialists put a minus sign. Moreover, it mirrors imperialist tropes in that the African peoples are not regarded as fully capable of understanding and criticizing the features of Western capitalist modernity.

The proletariat and the oppressed peoples of the world, writes McNally, are indeed “monstrous” – but it is a beautiful kind of monstrosity. “There is magic at work in liberation, then, that brings persons and things back to life and breaks the spell of zombieism.” “Rather than the detached ‘hands’ to which capital tries to reduce them, the world-proletariat needs to become a many-headed and many-handed monster, capable of of shaking the very planets and upending Jupiter’s throne… It is these magic hands that possess the power to slay the monsters of the market” (268-9).

David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012. $28

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Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her

The postcolonial trajectory in English literature begins, oddly enough, with two authors from the British Isles in the first decades of the last century. In 1908, the Englishman E.M. Forster published his third novel in what promised to be a long and prolific career – A Room with a View. In this novel, the heroine Lucy Honeychurch elopes with her lover to Italy. They escape from the mad industrial and colonial metropolitan life of England at the turn of the century to their room with a view of Florence – where they can see across the Renaissance city to glimpse the fullest possibilities of life beyond the insane and alien compulsions that go with modern life. Forster’s first five novels try to probe into the contradictions between personal relationships and life under capitalism – and, convincingly or unconvincingly, their characters succeed in finding this “room with a view.” They reinforce one of the most prevalent ideas in Western society – that a strong romantic relationship affords us a refuge from the alien forces that control us in the rest of our lives. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, for example, calls this “a shelter from pigs on the wing.”

But after his fifth novel, things were beginning to change in Forster’s outlook. It is impossible to disconnect the personal and political here. First of all, he began to make friends with many left-wing people – including the early English revolutionary Edward Carpenter. Second, and relatedly, he came to the realization that he was homosexual. At the same time he was exposed to political views that questioned the very bases of Western capitalist society, he was forced to see that there were some forms of love that his society would not tolerate. There was no “room with a view” – not for him, nor, it was clear, for anyone else. Personal relationships, especially romantic ones, do not exist outside of the day-to-day world. They are the fundamental way in which we experience it – and, tragically, the first place where its pressures come to bear on us.

His last novel, A Passage to India, picks up from this. Its center is the friendship between Aziz, an Indian Muslim physician, and Cyril Fielding, a headmaster of a small government-run school in Bihar in British India. Both men are cultured, sensitive, and intellectual, but as much goodwill toward each other as they possess, their relationship (both Platonic and in its homosexual undertones) is continually fractured by the stresses that divide the society of British India: imperialism, class, caste, religion, and so on. Its ending is, deservedly, one of the most famous passages in English literature. Aziz says to Fielding:

“Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty five-hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then” – he rode against him furiously – “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

Forster did not write another novel for the rest of his life – nearly fifty years. It is clear why: A Passage to India, which shows the mess capitalism and imperialism makes of our personal lives, begs the question of tearing down “the temples, the tanks, the jails, the palaces” that divide Aziz from Fielding. That Forster never took the next step of calling for the aboliton of the system does not detract at all from the greatness of his final novel.

***

The second writer at the origins of the postcolonial trajectory is James Joyce. Instead of discussing final lines as above, here the beginning lines are the most appropriate:

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Father Flynn, the object of this mediation at the opening of the short story “Sisters” (the first in the collection Dubliners) is paralyzed by the stroke he eventually dies of. But by the end of “Sisters,” it is no longer so clear. “It was that chalice he broke,” the young narrator overhears the priest’s mourning sister say:

“That was the beginning of it. Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean. But still…. They say it was the boy’s fault. But poor James was so nervous, God be merciful to him!”

“That affected his mind,” she said. “After that he began to mope by himself, talking to no one and wandering about by himself. So one night he was wanted for to go on a call and they couldn’t find him anywhere. They looked high up and low down; and still they couldn’t see a sight of him anywhere. So then the clerk suggested to try the chapel. So then they got the keys and opened the chapel and the clerk and Father O’Rourke and another priest that was there brought in a light for to look for him…. And what do you think but there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself?”

The chalice that Father Flynn has knocked over is one containing the communion wine – the literal transubstantiated blood of Christ. After this event is when the priest begins to “go funny.” The paralysis affecting him is metaphorical as well as literal – it is the paralysis imposed over the Irish nation by the mutually reinforcing grip of British rule and the Catholic faith.

The word paralysis used by the young narrator functions as a keystone to this story and to the rest of the stories in this book – in my opinion, the greatest story collection in the English language. Joyce brilliantly explores the paralyzed condition of the Irish in the suceeding stories. In “Araby,” an adolescent boy goes to buy a present for a girl who he likes at the exotic appearaing Araby shops, only to have his dream of exotic wonder dissolve into the same old dreary, dull, colonized Ireland. In “The Boarding House,” a fervently Catholic young man is trapped by his landlord into a marriage with her daughter. In “A Little Cloud,” a new father is unable to break beyond the dull life of his wife and baby and dead-end clerical job into the future he dreams for himself as a writer in London – but, as we soon realize, his dreams of gaining fame as a “poet of the melancholy Gaelic school” are so much exoticization of his own people for the consumption of the oppressor. In so many ways are the Irish held paralyzed both by British rule and their own traditions.

***

And so without further stalling for time, I come to Junot Diaz’ latest work, a collection of short stories entitled This Is How You Lose Her. I made short work of this book several weeks ago, and have been delaying posting my reflections on it. In part this is because I found myself – who could not – at least a little disappointed after reading Diaz’ last book, the wonderful, Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In another part, this is because the stories are deceptively simple, and required some time to stew in the mind.

The nine stories contained in This is How You Lose Her, or all but one at least, deal with the youth of the protagonist Yunior, our narrator from Oscar Wao. Like that novel, they might form together the bildung of Yunior, where in the novel his friend Oscar was the subject of the bildung. Oscar Wao, as I have written elsewhere, was in part such a triumph because of the deep counterposition between Yunior – the Dominican sucio who let his cock do the thinking in nearly all matters of importance, thus conforming to the hyper-masculine culture of the Dominican Republic under American colonization and the client regime of Rafael Trujillo – and Oscar, the overweight, scifi and fantasy obsessed ghetto nerd who makes his own way to love, thus destabilizing all notions of what it “means” to be Dominican.

Most of these stories expand on what Diaz started exploring in Oscar Wao – the obscene destruction that traditions of the colonized D.R., both at home and the diaspora in the United States visits on the personal relationships of individual Dominicans. We might remember how Yunior desperately desires a stable relationship with Oscar’s beautiful sister Lola, but despite himself cannot stop cheating on her. In many of these stories, we find the same sex-obsessed sucio we met earlier. The opening lines of the first story – “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” provides a typical example:

I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds – defensive, unscrupulous – but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out about it because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.

We learn elsewhere that this compulsive cheating, constant stepping out on one’s partner no matter how much they love her is merely a fact of Yunior’s life. “Es verdad que tu hijo taba rapando una vieja?” a girlfriend asks his mother in the story “Miss Lora,” which details his youthful affair with a plain middle-aged librarian. “He’s just like his father and brother… Dominican men,” his mother replies, shaking her head in disgust.

Not only is this cheating normalized and to a certain extent expected from men like Yunior, it often becomes as much about the performance of the male role as it is about the sex. In “Alma,” Yunior’s girlfriend finds out about his cheating with a South Asian girl by the meticulous records of it he kept in his diary – as if he did not expect her to look through it at some point. Similarly with his constant stepping out in the last story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” in which he is simply unable to stop himself from destroying a deep, committed relationship and spends the next five years trying to get over it in increasingly desperate ways and with increasingly destructive women. He writes in the second person here, the anguished chronicler of his younger self’s mistakes:

It takes a while. You see the tall girl. You go see more doctors. And then one June night you scribble the ex’s name and: The half-life of love is forever.

Such a beautiful line. Because, for all Yunior’s bluster, these stories are not just about the cheating. Though it is foregrounded, cheating is only one of the ways “how we lose her” (or him, for that matter). It is an act that covers over the experience of searing dislocation in modern life, the space that divides the selfish ways we act, constrained by an alienating system of production and the traditions of our cultures, from the romantic relationships in which we are somehow supposed to act completely selflessly. The cheating is how Yunior acts out his inability to fully love, committ, and give himself to another – a predicament that we have all found ourselves in.

A final note, then, on a personal matter. About a year ago, my then-girlfriend of three years and I decided to get engaged. We had had many problems in our relationship, which are not worth going into, but had resolved them and were sure we would spend the rest of our lives together. In January of this year, she asked from some time apart from me, which led to the devestating conclusion of a relationship I felt I had fully invested myself in. It is this that is the reason for the long absence from blogging I took from January to June of this year, and this that I have tried to understand, in a somewhat oblique and academic fashion, here through reading Forster, Joyce and Diaz. Had I the choice to do it over again, I would gladly get engaged to her a second time, as much pain as it caused me. Maria. “The half-life of love is forever.”

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The Success and Failure of Haruki Murakami

The Success and Failure of Haruki Murakami 

Haruki Murakami, the world’s best-known Japanese author and likely candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, is not known as a political author. His tales of talking cats and vanishing elephants – for which he is most known in the West, and hence the world – usually do not seem to suggest anything about the heavily oppressive nature of contemporary capitalism in Japan, one of its foremost outposts.

Neither does Murakami claim himself to be political. When pressed to honor the cultural boycott of Israel by declining the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, he complained that he was “being told what to do” by Palestinian activists: “As a novelist, I usually do the opposite of what people tell me to do,” he said, seemingly ignoring that the Israeli apartheid state was also “telling him” to accept the prize. This matches a heavily superior, ironic attitude to left-wing politics that runs throughout his books.

In the West, Murakami’s work is not taken as political either, but rather as an expression of an “individual’s search for identity” that tends to involve numerous encounters with ghosts, monsters and other aspects of the supernatural and paranormal, stories which are in fact easily consumed in a neoliberal mass market, in which readers define themselves by the books they read just as Murakami’s characters define themselves by the brand of whiskey they drink or the jazz records they listen to.

This essay will challenge that perception from a critical Marxist perspective. I will argue that the predominant theme of Murakami’s novels –an anxious search for identity emerging out of urban ennui – only becomes comprehensible in light of the deeply alienating environment of contemporary Japanese capitalism. Japan is the exemplar of today’s world economy in that it reduces the individual to an anonymous consumer of products and producer of “fluff” even in highly intellectual professions.

Murakami’s success in appealing to the world’s readers – his novels have been translated into over 40 languages, and is a bestseller in many of them – relies on a unique ability to grasp the terrifying and totalizing nature of the world capitalist system. The supernatural or paranormal elements of his work, in turn, are only understandable as a product of an economic system that reduces human beings to seeming powerlessness and gives control over their lives to alien forces. The success or failure of Murakami as an author – and he has many of both – is in the end a question of his ability to get across both the boredom and the terror of life under late capitalism.

I will focus here on two novels by Murakami. One – A Wild Sheep Chase – I consider a success, while the other – Dance Dance Dance – I think is a failed effort, an opinion that seems to be matched by readers and critics of contemporary Japanese literature. That the second is, in form at least, a sequel to the first should aid for purposes of comparison.

A quick word first about my own background: I am not a professional scholar of literature, and I do not know Japanese. What I can offer as a critic is a long love affair with Murakami’s work in translation which took up the greater part of my college years. I have read all his work that has appeared in English, and most of his novels several times. In approaching his work, however, I have found that while I identify with the characters more than those of any other author, their path of alienation and detachment from life, especially from the desire to change how we live it, was never for me. I found that collective struggle for social change was a way out of their predicament.

“Lord knows it has to be something about sheep…”

On November 25th, 1970, the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima with a group of followers entered a Tokyo compound of the Self-Defense Forces. Arms in hand, they took the commanding general hostage while Mishima proceeded to address the soldiers, calling on them to overthrow Japan’s democratically-elected government and return Emperor Hirohito to power. The soldiers, instead of being roused, were irritated and mocked him. Mishima, who seems to have expected this outcome and had sent the draft of his last novel to his publisher just that morning, returned to the commander’s office, where he committed ritual seppuku.

Mishima’s theatrical coup attempt and suicide is the event that marks the beginning of Murakami’s novel A Wild Sheep Chase. In a university lounge, the narrator, a former left-wing radical, and his girlfriend eat hot dogs.

It was two in the afternoon, and Yukio Mishima’s picture kept flashing on the lounge TV. The volume control was broken so we could hardly make out what was being said, but it didn’t matter to us one way or the other (9).

Earlier in the year, Murakami’s narrator, who is only ever referred to in the first person, had had his nose broken in a confrontation with police at a student strike. This was only one of the last events in a long tradition of student radicalism in Japan that began before the Second World War. After the war, revolutionary and socialist students had rallied together for the removal of right wing professors and administrators. Their collective efforts led to the establishment of self-governing student associations across Japan’s deeply bureaucratic and conservative university system.

The student movement was the major participant in the struggle against the Vietnam War in Japan. To young people who had grown up being told of Japan’s peaceful constitution – supposedly the only one in the world that forbade declaring war – it was a show of open hypocrisy that their country’s leaders allowed it to be used as a forward base by the United States in imperialist war.

When Tokyo University medical students went on strike in 1968, demanding pay for serving as interns in the university hospital, it was the spark that ignited a powder keg. Students from every department across universities in Tokyo barricaded their buildings and went on strike demanding lower tuition, more student participation in university administration, the removal of US military bases and – in some cases – socialist revolution.

The student strikes, unfortunately, were plagued by a number of problems. Confrontations between different political factions weakened the movement overall, while violent attacks against professors and administrators gave the police the excuse they needed to intervene. By the time the school year started in the fall of 1970, no trace of the big-character banners, barricades or hard hats worn by the student radicals was visible. The foremost activists, having been worn out by years of participation in a vibrant struggle for social change that did not result in the revolution or even an intermediate project to further that aim – largely dropped out of political life and accepted jobs in the stifling world of corporate life.

Murakami’s narrator is a case in point. Once a student radical, he now finds himself at the helm of a successful advertising business. Though he keeps his cool for the most part, it is as his business partner says: “in the old days we did work we believed in, and we took pride in it… [today] we’re just tossing out fluff” (57). Boku (the narrator refers to himself in this familiar form of the Japanese first person) remarks privately, “I just can’t get it through my head that here and now is really here and now. Or that I am really me… for the last ten years it’s been like this” – or, in other words, since the collapse of the student strikes. The alienation from himself is complete.

Soon enough, Boku is contacted by the secretary of “the Boss” (sensei). The Boss is a shadowy figure, but known as a very wealthy man with stakes of ownership in both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the mass media, which he uses to the benefit of the political far right. The Boss, who amassed his riches in Manchuria during the war, represents in the novel the continuity of the Japanese ruling class. The same forces that led Japan into a barbaric imperialist war in the 1930s, Murakami suggests, are alive and well in contemporary Japan, where they nurture and are nurtured by Japanese capitalism.

Boku is commanded by the Boss’ secretary to discover the location of a very curious thing – a white sheep of indeterminate breed with a coffee-colored star stain on its back. This creature, we discover, is what has “sheeped” the Boss in the late 1930s, the source of the “Will” his secretary refers to – “a concept that governs time, governs space, and governs possibility” (141). It is this terrifying creature that embodies the source of Japan’s murderous imperialist expansion in the war – and threatens, as in the case of Yukio Mishima, to raise its head again.

We find the sheep, at the end of the novel, to have left the Boss and taken up residence inside of Boku’s college friend, “the Rat.” Like Boku, the Rat was a student radical who, like the former, faces the prospect of adapting himself to the boring career of the salaryman – but who, instead, chooses to drop out of college and run as far away as he can get from the stifling urban landscape – to northern Hokkaido. Even here, however, the Sheep finds him and plans to put him at the top of the Boss’s empire. The Sheep asks the Rat for “everything… my body, my memory, my weakness, my contradictions” in return for the vital force it offers, “a thing of such beauty, it drives you out of your mind. But it’s hair-raising evil” (334-5).

The Rat however, declines the offer. “I guess I felt attached to my weaknesses,” he says. “My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas – if I like these things, why should I apologize” (336). He hangs himself, thus striking a deep blow against the Sheep and the forces it represents – he does the same thing, in other words, that Boku, who finds himself completely integrated into the system, finds himself to weak to do. Boku’s final contribution is to connect the wires that ignite the bomb which blows up the Rat’s home – along with the Boss’ secretary when he arrives there in search of the Sheep.

A couple things should be noted before we move on to the next work by Murakami. A description of the plot of A Wild Sheep Chase as I have laid it out here cannot possibly do justice to the novel, which not only is more intricate, but makes an advantage out of the very intuitive logic which it seems it would run aground on. The extent of the connections between Boku, the Rat, the Boss and his secretary, for instance, is a loose end that Murakami leaves untied. Similarly, the exact nature of the Sheep – surely a bizarre reversal of the Christian Lamb of Peace – is never actually revealed. “I have almost nothing to say about the sheep itself,” says the author. The Sheep merely exists, without any deeper explanation.

A Wild Sheep Chase works as a story because of, not despite, all the things it leaves unexplained. To the reader living under late capitalism, an author does not need to spell out the constant tedium of life or the sense that monstrous forces beyond our control dominate the world. That militarism – the form of capitalism that Japan has supposedly moved away from – takes the form of a sheep does not particularly tie the story up. The Japanese reader will understand this intuitively, as readers elsewhere understand intuitively the general concepts Murakami is dealing in.

“I made no story outline for A Wild Sheep Chase other than to use “sheep” as a key word,” Murakami writes. Though the novel draws on the form of a Raymond Chandler detective story, this much is representative of Murakami’s style, with a few notable exceptions. Murakami’s stories have a way of meandering along. Paranormal events, lacunae in the plot and dead time are integral to his world in that they reflect something that is frighteningly real about contemporary life. This method can delight or madden depending on the reader – but it can also succeed or fail on its own terms.

“Dance as long as the music plays…”

We leave Boku on the shore of his hometown at the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, and return to him several years later. Little seems to have changed in his life. He continues to perform dead-end journalistic and advertising work, he continues to have romantic encounters without any outward or inward signs of affection for his partner, he continues to play it cool about all of this.

Much like its prequel, Dance Dance Dance centers around a search, in this case for the woman with marvelous ears who abandoned Boku near the climax of A Wild Sheep Chase. She, however, slides in and out of the action without the least explanation. On a search for her, Boku falls in love with a hotel receptionist, and is charged with the care of a precocious adolescent girl. Boku meets a movie star he went to middle school with, hoping that this will lead to his ex-girlfriend, but before we know it he is off with the young girl, Yumi, and her dysfunctional family. His ex-girlfriend’s fate remains unclear except for a vague note that she may have been murdered by Boku’s movie-star classmate.

If the action seems random and half-thought out, it is because the main point of Dance Dance Dance is in the pauses, dead time, and descriptions. The language of commodity fetishism and alienation is intense, much more so than in A Wild Sheep Chase or any of Murakami’s other novels. At one point, for instance, Boku and a prostitute reflect on the common nature of their work:

She asked me about my work, what kind of things I wrote. I explained briefly and she said, how uninteresting. Well, it depends, I told her. What I did was shovel cultural snow. To which she responded that her work was to shovel sensual snow. I had to laugh. (154)

“Shoveling snow” – when applied to writing, one of the highest creative functions of homo sapiens, and lovemaking, the most intimate and joyous of our experiences in life – surely there could not be a better expression of what Marx means by alienated labor.

In the character of Yumi’s father, Hiraku Makimura (an anagram, of course, for Haruki Murakami), the author even manages to reflect on the status of his own books as commodities. Makimura, we are told, began by writing stories and books with “fresh prose,” then in response to criticism of staleness turned to the avant-garde and travel writing, eventually becoming famous for being famous. So much was said about Murakami himself when he broke with his earlier style by producing the startlingly realist novel Norwegian Wood. Murakami has us understand that he, just like us, is shoveling snow.

This is a good point, and one that fully deserves to be made. However, one good insight does not make a novel, no matter how many familiar characters and alienating strangeness Murakami throws at us. In the end the novel does not fully cohere. What makes Dance Dance Dance fail where A Wild Sheep Chase succeeds?

Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s translators who has written a popular introduction to his work, writes that the problem with Dance Dance Dance is that “the reader has to wait with Boku while Murakami waits for something to come to him… [Boku] strolling through the city streets, making light meals, going to the fridge for cold beers.”

However, there is plenty of dead time in A Wild Sheep Chase as well – or, for that matter, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another novel Rubin seems to approve of. It is, as I have tried to outline, part and parcel of Murakami’s intuitive writing style. Rubin is right to point out that Dance Dance Dance never manages to cohere as a novel, but here again it is among good company in Murakami’s work.

I believe, as does Rubin, that the elements of Dance Dance Dance that are supposed to get us going as readers – his affair with the receptionist, and the literal skeletons in his closet – are completely artificial. But why? In one respect, it is hard to imagine the same character who watched his marriage draw to such a speedy conclusion practically without blinking in A Wild Sheep Chase, fall head over heels in love with a nondescript and newly introduced character. As it is to try and understand why Boku is so obsessed with finding Kiki – the woman he accepted was gone at the end of the first novel.

At the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, Boku returns from his encounter with his past to the world of the living: “No matter how boring or mediocre it might be, this was my world.” “One day at a time,” he writes, “I learned to distance myself from memory” (348, 350). When we leave him at the end, there is little indication how he will go on.

A Wild Sheep Chase is a novel that reaches to the full limits of experience of the student radicals of Murakami’s generation. While there were those like Boku who chose integrating into the system they hated, there were also those like the Rat who managed to deny the system a grip over their lives – though, in Murakami’s pessimistic universe, the only way to do this is suicide.

How would someone like Boku go on? If A Wild Sheep Chase is, as I have suggested, the story of an instinctual, private rebellion against a deeply alienating and violent economic system – brought to a climax in the suicide of the Rat – what future does his friend and alter-ego have?

In a world which commodifies the product as well as the creator – no Murakami novel captures this more acutely than Dance Dance Dance – the reader cannot empathize unless we are shown something that lies outside of it, some basic human feeling or impulse that shows the possibility of resistance. Boku ends this novel by consummating his affair with the receptionist. It does not quite convince in a novel that has shown so relentlessly how even basic human desires are subject to ruthless commodification.

Conclusion

It is a well-worn cliché of leftist cultural supplements that so-and-so novel, or movie, is great, but that “it does not offer any solutions.” As China Miéville so brilliantly quips, it is not the job of art to offer solutions. In that spirit, I hope that my interpretation of Murakami has shown why his novels fail or succeed on a thoroughly political basis without judging them for not explaining the necessity for the revolutionary party.

While I have chosen to focus on only two novels here, the same criteria might be applied to Murakami’s other work. At his best – (A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) he crafts stories that show humans, with all their faults, pitted against a deeply dehumanizing system. These novels strike home with readers on that fundamental level. An individual’s search for identity, in the end, cannot be divided from the instinctual struggle against the system that puts bar codes on even the greatest intellectual efforts we produce.

His failures (Dance Dance Dance and Kafka on the Shore) are not devoid of interest to the reader. But in these novels, where his characters search for – and often find – an identity that does not involve resistance to the system that crucifies the individual, even at the most basic level, the stories fall flat.

Murakami’s work is a great expression of the current era of capitalism. If he wins a Nobel Prize this year, it will be fully deserved. But if he does, let us remember that there is more to his work than the talking cats and vanishing elephants would suggest.

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Gore Vidal: In Memoriam

Gore Vidal, one of America’s greatest contemporary authors and perhaps our best-known leftwing commentator, died this past week, leaving American letters and politics much poorer.

The grandson of Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore and the scion of a ruling class political family, Vidal was raised in Washington, D.C. as one of the people who were destined to run the United States. This was a decisive fact that would influence his writing, his politics and his personal life even after he had become a definite outsider to that class.

As a commentator, Vidal was to find his home on the extreme left of American politics. He famously said that America had a one-party system, the Democrats and the Republicans being two wings of the “Property Party,” which existed to preserve the domination and profits of the rulers at the expense of the people.

His uncompromising left-wing stances were fully on display throughout the feud between him and the right wing commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. In a legendary televised debate, Vidal and Buckley almost came to blows in a discussion on the violent suppression of the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. While Buckley resorted to homophobic slurs against Vidal, the latter (rightly) called him a racist and a warmonger.

This was the start of a lifetime dispute that went up to and included libel suits from both sides. After Buckley’s death, Vidal infamously commented that he hoped his onetime rival was burning in hell. While he was condemned for bad taste by the mainstream media, his refusal to self-censor in condemning Buckley’s thoroughly reactionary views were a breath of fresh air in a political atmosphere long constrained by the bounds of insincere “good taste” and bipartisanship.

Toward the end of his life, Vidal was an unceasing antagonist of the Bush-Cheney regime as it prosecuted imperialist war abroad and the class war against the majority at home. His essays on American politics during this era, especially those contained in his books Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War, had a deep impact on myself personally. His voice of sanity in a climate of war, racist fear mongering and jingoism reminded me as a high school student who was deeply uncomfortable with both Bush and his Democratic rivals that I was not alone.

His politics were not without their flaws. An exile from the American ruling elite, Vidal had an ambiguous relationship to the Democratic Party, on whose ticket he once ran for Congress. Even as a leftist, he claimed to support the Democrats, who were “slightly more intelligent, corrupt, and politically conciliatory” than their rivals. Long after he had abandoned any political ambitions for himself, he continued to refer fondly to his old friends John and Jackie Kennedy, even while recognizing the catastrophic policies of the former that led to the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.

Vidal will probably be best remembered as a writer. Even here, however, it would be impossible to separate his literary efforts from his politics. He first achieved notoriety for his second novel, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948. A semi-autobiographical account of a homosexual affair with a dedication to Vidal’s ex-lover, Jimmy Trimble, the book was practically calculated to provoke hostility in the intensely conservative political and moral climate in the United States – and reviews of his next five books were all banned from the pages of the New York Times. In this era, he was one of the few writers to speak openly and courageously about his homosexuality (William Burroughs being an interesting parallel.)

After a brief interlude in theater and pseudonymous mystery writing, Vidal would return to fiction under his own name in the mid-sixties. His historical novels remain some of the best radical fiction, in fact among the best fiction period, in contemporary American literature. Throughout his career as a writer, he was intensely sympathetic to the plight of history’s outsiders. His 1964 novel Julian, for instance, rehabilitated the reputation of the last pagan Roman emperor, long reviled by Christians as Julian the Apostate.

His writing in the next decades mined the rich strain of American history. The first of these, Burr (1973) was a rare sympathetic account of Aaron Burr, the second Vice President of the U.S., who today is only known for killing Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel. In Vidal’s account, Burr is revealed as one of the great figures produced by the radical democratic upsurge of the American Revolution, the founder of the democratic political system of New York state. The revered Hamilton, on the other hand, is seen as one of the most disgusting and elitist men among a very poor cast of characters including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s way of dealing with opponents was cowardly slander.

In high school, I devoured Burr and all the rest of Vidal’s novels on American history. Throughout, he pulled no punches in mocking the oppressiveness and hypocrisy of the American ruling class, even when he took as his subject the liberal icons Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (in Washington, D.C.)

The death of Vidal has appropriately inspired a host of tributes from the left and from the mainstream media, which is forced to recognize his writing and strength of character even if they despise him politically. It should be unsurprising that the Right has been just as ungracious to him as he was to their icon, Buckley – he would have hoped for nothing else.

However one obituary from Slate magazine, a liberal publication, has joined in the chorus of slander from the right. Written by David Greenberg, a Rutgers history professor, the column takes Vidal to task for supposedly being an elitist, a conservative, and an anti-Semite.

No one familiar with Vidal’s writing would deny that his politics were often compromised by a strain of elitism – such was his upbringing. His anti-imperialist stances, for example, owe more to the isolationism of the right (from his grandfather, U.S. Senator Thomas Gore, whose name he adopted) than to the internationalism of the left. In the later years of his life, he expressed racist sentiments about immigration from Latin America which were hardly in keeping with a consistent opposition to the policies of the US ruling class. This can also be seen in his wavering and contradictory stances on the Democratic Party, opposing its policies yet thinking of it as the lesser evil at a certain point.

This was true in art as much as politics. His historical novels, from Julian to Burr and beyond all are case studies, in some way, of his political landscape. While they showed a fidelity toward uncovering the hidden truths of history that has been rewritten by the powerful to suit their own interests – a quality that is rare indeed in contemporary literature and history alike – they remain what they are on the titles: biographies of Great Men of History. This is in contrast to other great historical writing, which places the masses at the center of history. The struggles of the popular masses, while he sympathized with them, never entered into his political calculus in a significant way.

But the idea that Vidal was an anti-Semite is beyond the pale. Greenberg, having no real evidence of this, is forced to disguise Vidal’s many hostile comments regarding the imperialist and genocidal policy of Israel as anti-Semitism, a tactic long recognized as the last resort of Zionist scoundrels.

Similarly, Vidal’s opinions on America’s venture into the Second World War are on the record, and can register as anti-Semitic only by a very deliberate misreading. In fact, he was doing us a great service as one of the only prominent figures (besides, once again, his fellow leftist and WW2 veteran Howard Zinn) to point out the hypocrisy of a war effort that was waged not to save European Jewry or the rest of humanity from Nazi barbarism, but to extend American dominance across Europe and Asia while stigmatizing thousands of Japanese-Americans in the process. Of course, Greenberg also neglects to mention that Vidal spent the last forty years of his life as the loving partner of Howard Austen, a Jewish man.

A literary and political titan of contemporary America, Gore Vidal deserves much better than this half-baked slander. We can and should, in fact, criticize the limits of his politics. Not doing so would be to do him a great disservice. But in the end, each one of the thousands of pages he wrote, whether fiction, theater or essays, radiate contempt for a corrupt and dictatorial elite, the American ruling class. He knew them from the inside, and because of this hated them much more than any revolutionary could express. By their very nature, his works point toward the need for an alternative way of organizing society, even if Vidal himself was silent on what that might be. His death is a great loss to the movement for that alternative.

(A version of this article has been published on August 9th in Socialist Worker).

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