Saturday, May 11, 2013

The World According to Alistair Wye. Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? reviewed by Jack Degree


Who's Afraid
of the Booker Prize?
Not to be confused with the stage play of the same name (and by the same author), the plot of Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? centres on computer-science graduate Alistair Wye, hired as amanuensis to celebrity novelist Marshall Zob. One of Wye’s first tasks is to sift through an archive of computer discs, stored emails, fax printouts, and handwritten letters and postcards. That task forms a part of Zob’s project in gathering material for a commemorative volume celebrating the life and work of his recently deceased mentor, John Andrew Glaze. Secretly, Wye also starts and maintains a personal diary, recording his reactions to life in proximity to a literary celebrity. The novel, much of whose subject matter is owed to the communications revolution, is about vanity, avarice, egotism, and self-seeking publicity. It is serious in intent, and also remarkably funny.

The narrative leans heavily on modern communications – email and so on – yet is never far from its epistolary roots. It extends the form to dramatic new limits, blurring the relationship between cult figure, messenger, reader, and it tests traditional rules of plot and composition. One of the book’s many underlying ironies is that, cast in the modern world of advanced communications, it has much in common with its eighteenth-century precursors, without being in any sense a historical or costume drama.

The world according to Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is bewildering and comic, ruthlessly examining the nature of fame and reputation, and is territory where literary research is transformed into something more akin to sordid detective work. The narrator Wye isn’t always the person he seems. As he works through Zob’s archive, he discovers secrets Zob would rather he left unearthed – often with hilarious consequences. Nothing is fixed for very long. As the plot unfolds we are forced to question whose side we should be on – on Wye’s, the tormentor, or on Zob’s, a man marred by paranoia, when the rest of the literati seem to conspire against him.

Cowlam is adamant his novel is not a roman-à-clef – he tells us as much before we have an opportunity to ask. There are strong hints that it is therefore a roman-à-clef, with the tantalising prospect of yet more to be culled from the author’s work and experience – if much of it may best be left unsaid. He excels at irony and the depiction of social mores. He inhabits his characters in a multitude of voices. He imitates their differing writing styles. He finds in modern media the perfect vehicle for his considerable talents. Most of all, he shows us Marshall Zob, fraud, demagogue and technophobe, and a writer destined to be blanked under the weight of his own commercial hype.


Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press. See Amazon purchase options: USA, UK.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hilaire Belloc – Reputation and Reappraisal, by Jon Elsby


Hilaire Belloc
Few writers can have suffered such a drastic reversal of fortune as Hilaire Belloc. In his day, he was regarded as one of the greatest living writers, an exemplary stylist, an important thinker and a public intellectual. Yet, by the time of his death in 1953, he was regarded as passé and now he has almost entirely slipped from view. His hundred or so books are largely unread and out of print and, with a couple of exceptions, seem likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The exceptions, The Path to Rome and the Cautionary Verses he wrote for children and for the few adults with a sufficiently cultivated sense of irony to appreciate them, continue to be read, though not widely.

The reasons usually given for Belloc’s comparative neglect are numerous. First, it is said that the discursive, conversational essay, the form in which he typically expressed his views, has fallen from fashion. Indeed, the fashion today is for extreme brevity, for ‘getting to the point’ with the minimum of delay. Belloc, following the English tradition of Addison, Steele, Johnson, Lamb and Hazlitt, wrote a leisurely prose, which took its time in coming to the point, and used rhetorical devices such as irony, imagery, illustration and repetition to confirm and elaborate his theses. Second, persistent accusations of anti-Semitism have damaged his reputation. (We shall examine later the question whether – and, if so, to what extent – those accusations may be justified.) Third, Belloc’s characteristic brand of uncompromising, pre-conciliar Catholicism, trenchantly expressed, and the panache, pugnacity and provocativeness with which he defended it, are unpopular, even embarrassing, in an age of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue. Catholics today are more concerned to extend olive branches to other Christians and those of other faiths than with precise definitions of doctrines or the vigorous defence of their own beliefs. Fourth, his temper and cast of mind – classical, sceptical, fastidious, subtle, mercurial, ironic – is uncongenial to the modern age and is not generally understood. An age such as ours, accustomed to crudity of expression and sledgehammer sarcasm, is not likely to appreciate delicacy, a discriminating choice of words, or irony employed as a rapier rather than as a bludgeon.

It is worth pausing a while to consider these reasons. The underlying assumption is that, however highly he was regarded in his own day, Belloc cannot be regarded as, in any sense, a major writer or a serious thinker in ours. I said that his reputation had suffered more than the usual reversal after his death. The extent of this reversal can be seen by comparing the following assessments, some by his contemporaries, others by more recent commentators. Here, first, is W N Roughead, writing in 1950, three years before Belloc’s death:

For he is a born writer if ever there was one. He seems to have found himself from the very start of his career, with a highly individual style already formed and mature, and the standard set for the splendid prose of well over a hundred books…the amazing variety of Mr Belloc’s work…. You never know what you will find next except that it will be of gold…those delightful novels of his….
Mr Belloc’s chief preoccupation as a writer has ever been the study of History, with the French Revolution as his favourite period. Of the many splendid historical biographies which he has written, his Danton, Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon will live as classics of their kind, as surely as will those great personal books of his: The Path to Rome, The Four Men, Hills and the Sea, and The Cruise of the Nona. His glorious prose, his skill in re-creating the past, his sense of History and of Tradition, his power of description…and his immense grasp of the history of Europe, give to all his historical work a vividness scarcely to be found in that of any other historian.
Everyone who writes about Mr Belloc’s work is bound to praise the lucidity of his prose, and marvel how skilfully he adapts it to any subject and mood. Its clarity reflects the vigorous expression of a strong personality, and of a mind robust, combative, learned, capable of great tenderness, nourished by the Faith that he holds and proclaims, and charged with that abundant force which is one of the marks of the great.
Here is Belloc’s friend and co-religionist, Maurice Baring, writing in 1936:
As a prose writer he has other chords to his lyre: wit, irony, vividness, gusto and above all vision…. Grave prose like the mellow tones of a beautifully played cello…solemn, melancholy and majestic….
And here is what Frank Swinnerton – no co-religionist, he – said in 1935:
Belloc will probably be ‘edited’ in a hundred years’ time, when his propagandism has become archaic, and when his extraordinary ability will shine like the jewel it is.
Here is Renée Haynes, writing in 1953:
Belloc’s own magnificent English should be less read about than read; and preferably read aloud. It is not only a flexible and sensitive and precise instrument for conveying meaning. It can give the listener a shock of auditory pleasure like that shock of visual delight with which unerring draughtsmanship is seen.
And here, writing as recently as 1970, is Arthur Bryant:
…the genius of one of the greatest and most versatile English writers of our age. The controversial, not to say belligerent, character of some of Belloc’s opinions has tended to obscure for contemporaries the noble purity of his prose and poetry. So has the astonishing range of his genius in a country where versatility is always suspect.
But the following year, David Lodge wrote this in a generally damning essay, ‘The Chesterbelloc and the Jews’, published in his collection of critical essays entitled The Novelist at the Crossroads:
Belloc is in almost total eclipse. The Modern Movement in literature, which Chesterton and Belloc either opposed or ignored, has become classical for our culture, and their own work looks thin and faded in comparison. The form to which they devoted so much of their time and energy – the whimsical, ruminative essay – is dead and unmourned. Their intellectual amateurism is unfashionable. And the ideas for which they stood have largely lost their relevance…. The Chesterbelloc’s brand of Catholicism – triumphalist, proselytising, theologically conservative, Europe-orientated – is hardly congenial to the mood of the Church since Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.
Lodge goes on to convict both Belloc and Chesterton on the charge of anti-Semitism, which he ascribes to ‘a failure of imagination’ on their part.

And, most recently of all, Father Ian Ker had this to say about Belloc in his stimulating study, The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845–1961:
He is neither a major writer nor a figure of the intellectual stature of Newman or even Chesterton.
Note the belittling effect of the word ‘even’ in that sentence.

How are the mighty fallen! What a difference there is between the earlier assessments and the later! Yet we should beware of accepting too readily the later judgements simply because they are later, without a proper examination of the evidence. The fact that judges as astute, and as different from each other, as Baring and Swinnerton admired Belloc should give us pause. Can it really be true that a writer who was so widely respected by the best judges among his contemporaries deserves the curt dismissals he has received at the hands of more recent critics? To answer this question, we must first attend to the case for the prosecution, and it is to that that I now turn.

To begin with Father Ker’s verdict as to Belloc’s intellectual stature, I must respectfully beg to differ. The evidence, in the form of Belloc’s own writings, the facts concerning his life, and the testimony of his contemporaries, is quite the other way. Belloc was a Balliol man at a time when Balliol was the foremost of the Oxford colleges, and, following a brilliant career as an undergraduate, he gained a first in history. He was also President of the Oxford Union, and his formidable gifts as an orator and debater were notable then, and remained so throughout his life – at least until 1941 when a severe stroke left him physically and mentally impaired for the rest of his days. Again, Belloc’s apologetic writings, especially perhaps Survivals and New Arrivals, The Catholic Church and History and The Question and the Answer, show a grasp of logic that exceeded Chesterton’s powers. Belloc always presents his arguments step by step, moving with inexorable logic from one step to the next. Chesterton rarely does so; and, when he does, his arguments will often be found, on careful examination, to be defective. His genius, as Belloc percipiently noted, was for ‘parallelism’ – for perceiving analogies and demonstrating truth ostensively, for the aphorism, the epigram, or the brilliant aperçu – rather than for the strictly sequential reasoning of logical argument. Intellectually, Belloc was a match, and more, for any one of his age. His polemical writings, both political and theological, show that in English literature he has few equals in terms of reasoning ability or sheer intellectual power – and very few, if any, superiors. He wrote too much, and some of his later works, especially, were potboilers, written to make money. They were careless and repetitive, and doubtless helped to undermine his hard-won reputation. But perhaps it is time we made a serious and determined attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is undeniable; but so is the wheat. We should not allow the existence of the former to prevent us from appreciating the latter.

Was Belloc a major writer? Not, perhaps, if one considers his works individually, genre by genre. And certainly not if one compares him as a novelist with his great European contemporaries – with, for example, Mann or Hesse, Proust or Gide. Or if one compares him as a poet with Yeats, Pound or Eliot. Yet his novels bear comparison with those of Peacock, and his poetry with that of Housman. And if one looks at his output as a whole – the historical works, the biographies, the apologetics, the polemics, the satires, the poetry, the travel books, the essays, and even the novels, which are without doubt the least important and most dispensable of all his works – it is difficult to resist the impression of a creative and analytical mind of exceptional capacity and fecundity. He is also, as several of the writers cited above noted, a major English stylist. Given that a writer is, first and foremost, an artist whose medium is language, and whose first duty, therefore, is to display a complete mastery of the language in which he writes – its words and their precise meanings and connotations; its grammar, syntax, cadences, rhythm and structure; its argumentative, discursive, descriptive, poetical and rhetorical possibilities – this is not a negligible consideration. Nor should it be forgotten that his English and Irish contemporaries were almost unanimous in regarding him as a major figure. As those contemporaries included Shaw, Russell, Wells, Chesterton, Bennett, Galsworthy, Ford and Forster, with the older generation including Hardy, James, Kipling and Conrad, and the younger Woolf, Joyce, L H Myers, Wyndham Lewis, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, their verdict should not be lightly dismissed. To shine in that company, and without the aid of modern advertising, cannot have been easy. Belloc had dual nationality, and it is interesting to speculate on how his reputation would have stood today if he had chosen to be French instead of English. One thing is certain: the French would not have held either his versatility or his fiercely polemical Catholicism against him. I suggest that he would be as celebrated as Sartre. Among Catholic writers, he would rank with Bernanos, Claudel and Péguy.

It is also noteworthy that, since Belloc’s death, Robert Speaight, A N Wilson and Joseph Pearce have found it worth their while to write substantial biographies of him. All three are, or were, prolific and well regarded literary biographers. Speaight’s other subjects included Bernanos, Mauriac, Teilhard de Chardin and Eric Gill; Wilson’s, Tolstoy, Betjeman and C S Lewis; and Pearce’s, Chesterton, Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn, none of whom are minor figures. It seems unlikely that biographers of this calibre would have bothered to write about a subject they regarded in that light. Nor would publishers, who are nothing if not commercially minded, have been willing to issue a biography of any writer in whom there was no discernible public interest. I conclude, therefore, that there is a continuing interest in Belloc and his work, and that the final verdict on his place in English letters has yet to be given. Interestingly, the same applies to his late Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian contemporaries. It seems probable that, for example, many of the writers mentioned in Frank Swinnerton’s classic survey, The Georgian Literary Scene, will be subject to critical re-assessment, and at least some of them will emerge as unaccountably neglected major figures. Conversely, many of the writers currently admired will vanish without trace in the long term. We are still too close to the picture to perceive all the details.

Turning to Lodge’s essay, it is disappointing to find a generally perceptive and generous critic – one who is himself a distinguished novelist – writing carelessly and superficially. ‘The Modern Movement in literature […] has become classical for our culture.’ No; it has merely become fashionable. To become classical takes much longer. Chesterton’s and Belloc’s work looks ‘thin and faded’. Exactly what work does he have in mind? And in comparison with what? Leaving Chesterton aside, as we are here concerned only with Belloc, in comparison with what later works of religious apologetics do Belloc’s writings in that field seem ‘thin and faded’? Which later poets have invalidated Belloc’s epigrams, which are as fine as Martial’s, or his lyric verse, such as Ha’nacker Mill or On A Sleeping Friend, or his satirical verse, such as The Modern Traveller? Which later writers on French history or the Reformation have equalled, let alone surpassed, Belloc’s superb narrative sweep, his magnificent prose, his comprehensiveness and breadth of vision? Who has a better claim to be considered, as a literary historian, the successor of Carlyle and Macaulay? Which later political commentators have analysed capitalism and socialism as penetratingly as Belloc did in The Servile State? ‘The whimsical, ruminative essay is dead and unmourned.’ In the first place, it is not. It is now simply known as the article or the editorial. In the second, even if it were dead, so is the mediæval romance; so too is the epic poem. Are Le Roman de la Rose, Le Chanson de Roland, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost therefore to be dismissed as ‘dated’ or ‘irrelevant’? ‘Their intellectual amateurism is unfashionable.’ If so, why is journalism still read? Why is there a market for books like The God Delusion, which contains an evolutionary biologist’s very amateurish views on theology? Chesterton, in the foreword to The Everlasting Man, defended ‘the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists provide’. He was surely right to do so. The alternative is to promote ever narrower cliques of specialists, increasingly unable to communicate with the outside world, imprisoned in their ivory towers, and intelligible only to others within their specialism. ‘The ideas for which they [Belloc and Chesterton] stood have largely lost their relevance’ and are ‘hardly congenial to the mood of the Church.’ But all this talk of fashion, congeniality, mood and relevance is itself irrelevant. Nothing is so ephemeral or mutable as fashion – unless it is mood. And there is no logical connexion between, on the one hand, fashion (whatever happens to accord with the passing tastes of the moment) and, on the other, artistic merit (what is of enduring value) and truth (what corresponds to the facts). Any final judgment on Belloc’s stature as a writer must await a more careful and judicious appraisal than this.

Was Belloc anti-Semitic? He and Chesterton were both charged with anti-Semitism in their lifetime and both denied the charge. The evidence is equivocal. Both had Jewish friends. Both expressed admiration for traits that they thought, rightly or wrongly, typical of Jews in general. Both were strongly critical of the virulent anti-Semitism of fascists and Nazis and others. On the other hand, both considered that there was ‘a Jewish problem’, which implies the need for a solution, and both expressed opinions that, as far as the majority of people today are concerned, would be judged anti-Semitic. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the evidence but I would offer two suggestions. First, the attitudes towards Jews evinced in the works of Chesterton and Belloc were not unusual for Englishmen of their age and class. They were late Victorians, born in 1874 and 1870 respectively, and if one considers the way Jews were depicted in Victorian literature, it is clear that a moderate anti-Semitism was normal in Britain at that time. Trollope’s portrayal of Jews in Nina Balatka and The Way We Live Now is certainly not unprejudiced. It took the massive generosity of Dickens to create the kindly Riah in Our Mutual Friend and the scrupulous intellectual fairness of George Eliot to create the eponymous hero of Daniel Deronda. For the majority of Victorian Englishmen, the stereotype of the Jew was Fagin, not Riah; Augustus Melmotte, not Daniel Deronda. In this context, the sort of ‘anti-Semitism’ that expressed itself in what seem today slightly distasteful jokes or comments about Jews would have been entirely normal. It would have been considered acceptable by the standards of their day (and it is obviously unfair to apply to Chesterton and Belloc the very different standards of ours – especially if, for that purpose, we single them out from their contemporaries). And second, many other writers against whom similar allegations have been made with at least equal justification – writers such as T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, D H Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis – have been, if not exonerated, at any rate forgiven. There is an obvious analogy with the way in which black people were alluded to in English and American literature throughout the nineteenth and earlier centuries, and even as recently as the 1960s. No one would seriously maintain, or even tentatively suggest, that the fact that writers like Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Ronald Firbank and Flannery O’Connor customarily referred to black people as ‘niggers’ was a valid reason for not reading them. It is time that critics of Belloc and Chesterton stopped using their alleged anti-Semitism as a pretext for condemning, disparaging or ignoring practically everything they wrote, including much of their best work.

It is undeniable that Belloc habitually expressed himself with more force than diplomacy. It was not in his nature to care much what others thought of him. That he was combative, it would be idle to deny, for the evidence is both abundant and compelling. Ronald Knox, in his panegyric at Belloc’s funeral, said, ‘No man of his time fought so hard for the good things,’ which implies both that his heart was in the right place, and that he made enemies, as doughty fighters tend to do. If Catholics nowadays are more eirenic towards ‘separated brethren’ (or ‘heretics’, as Belloc would have called them), they should nevertheless be grateful to, and for, this courageous, outspoken and articulate defender of the Faith.

Finally, we come to Belloc’s cast of mind. He was a good classical scholar with a lifelong love of the languages, literature and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity. He was also as much at home in the French language, history and culture as in English. A keen and proficient sailor and an indefatigable walker, he was well travelled, not in the superficial, ‘touristy’, modern sense, but in the sense that he had truly come to know and understand countries other than his own, especially the Catholic countries of southern Europe: France, Spain, Italy and south Germany. He also had a good grasp of mathematics and logic and a habit of precision in thought. He took for granted both that his readers would be as well versed in classical, mediæval and modern European culture and history as himself; and that they would share his love of truth and exactitude. Few modern readers meet these criteria. Even fewer are alert to his subtle irony and mercurial humour. He is as easy to misunderstand as Nietzsche, and at least as often misunderstood, despite the extreme clarity of his style. Casual, lazy and superficial readers have also damaged his reputation, as have those who prefer ‘off-the-peg’ opinions to taking the trouble to form views of their own, based on first-hand evidence.

Probably the real reasons for the decline in Belloc’s and Chesterton’s respective reputations are, first, the unquestioned primacy now accorded to the novel as the dominant literary form of the age; and, second, that particular form of slavish conformity and intellectual dishonesty we know as ‘political correctness’. The first would have seemed incomprehensible to an educated Victorian. For him, serious reading meant the Bible, the classics (Greek and Latin), history, philosophy, theology and poetry. The novel was mere recreation, like a film today. Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris, Newman and Arnold were serious writers. The Mills and Spencer were serious writers. Dickens, the Brontës, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Trollope and Thackeray were entertainers. The high seriousness with which the novel is regarded today has resulted in a marked elevation in the reputations of the Victorian novelists while, conversely, the sages and social philosophers, who were highly regarded by their contemporaries, have suffered a reputational decline. But neither Belloc nor Chesterton is seen at his best as a novelist. Their novels are a minor part of their oeuvre. Their great works are to be found, not in fiction, but in the fields of literary criticism, biography and apologetics, in the case of Chesterton; and history, biography, travel, apologetics and political polemics in the case of Belloc. They should be seen as successors, not to the great Victorian novelists, but to the social philosophers, sages and thinkers. Then their work may be justly appraised and, perhaps, finally given its due. As to the second reason – political correctness –nothing that originates in unthinking conformity to social norms, or in any form of intellectual dishonesty, including self-deception, is to be admired or defended.

I hope I have said enough to show that I have a reasonable ground for regarding Belloc as a writer and thinker deserving of respect and serious consideration. That is the moderate proposition I wish to advance. I do not say – yet – that Belloc definitely was a major writer, or that his contemporaries were right in their judgments and we moderns are wrong in ours: I merely say there exists a reasonable ground, an as yet unexamined case, for regarding Belloc with respect as a writer and as a thinker, and for taking his views seriously and considering them with proper care. Now to the particular aspect of his thought that made him of interest to anyone inquiring into the claims of the Roman Catholic Church and the question how far those claims might be accepted as true.

Four points emerge from a close study of Belloc’s apologetic writings, viz.:

Belloc, following his mentor Cardinal Manning, regarded all human conflicts as ultimately theological. Chesterton made this same point in a different way when he said that the most significant thing about anyone was his view of the universe, because from that followed his views of everything else. The great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, in his view of Christianity, was far removed from the Catholic orthodoxy of Belloc or Chesterton, but his definition of religion as ‘ultimate concern’ is consistent with their view of a person’s religion determining everything of consequence in his life: his manners and morals; his relations to God and to other human beings; his views of ethics and aesthetics; and his stance on social and political questions. For Belloc, as for Chesterton, ‘religion’, ‘philosophy’ and ‘worldview’ were interchangeable terms – each signified a person’s ultimate concern: his fundamental view of, and attitude towards, the great questions of human existence: to truth, beauty, goodness and justice.

For Belloc, the Faith was not a theory or an abstraction, but a Thing, a concrete reality. It was the light by which he saw, the standard by which he judged, and the measure by which he calculated, everything else. It was the truth on which all else depended. The Catholic Church was the embodiment of the Faith, the concrete form in which the Faith appeared in the world. And he had arrived at this view because he found it to be in accordance with the evidence of history, scripture and tradition, and supported by valid philosophical arguments. His ground of belief is most fully set out in his apologetic masterpiece, Survivals and New Arrivals, and is also set out in summary form in a shorter work, The Question and the Answer.

Belloc saw that any culture is based on, and underpinned by, its religion. Thus religion is not itself a product of a culture. On the contrary, a given culture’s religion determines the form that the culture itself takes. And the culture of Europe – that is, of the geographical area formerly known as Christendom – was grounded in, and shaped by, the Catholic Faith. This view Belloc developed most fully in Europe and the Faith and The Crisis of Our Civilization.

Belloc viewed truth, beauty and goodness as forming an indissoluble logical trinity of absolutes such that an attack on (or the abandonment of) one of them would lead ineluctably to an attack on (or abandonment of) the others. Each was unique and supreme in its own sphere, an end in itself, not something that required justification by reference to some superordinate good.

These four points seem to me unquestionably true and crucially important. But to many, especially today, they will seem controversial, if not incomprehensible. It is worth taking a little time to examine them in more detail and to consider what may be said in their defence.

All human conflicts are ultimately theological

Human conflict covers a wide spectrum, from wars to fights between rival gangs, from arguments between opposing political parties or factions to disputes between neighbours. Can it really be maintained that they are all ultimately theological? Yes: in the sense that, for the Christian, the two fundamental commandments that comprehend all the others are the commandments of Jesus himself: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’; and all human conflict results from, or entails, a breach of at least one of these commandments by at least one of the parties. Indeed, if these two commandments are taken seriously, then a Christian can never take a proactive part in any conflict – which is to say, s/he can never initiate a conflict. S/he may respond appropriately to the aggression of others, and that may involve fighting back, or taking up arms, either in self-defence or in the defence of others who are being oppressed. But a Christian is not permitted either to initiate aggression or to hate those who do. Christians who break these commandments are guilty of the gravest transgression. They have traduced the Faith they profess. An atheist, however, will not consider himself bound by such duties and prescriptions, but will rather suppose himself free to initiate conflict wherever he sees fit: wherever, that is, to do so accords with his private judgment. That is the sense in which all human conflicts are ultimately theological.

The Faith is not a theory or an abstraction, but a Thing, a concrete reality, which is embodied in the Catholic Church

This was the most fundamental proposition of Belloc’s faith. There was, in his view, no such thing as Christianity. There was not even such a thing as Catholicism. There was only the Church. The Church was founded by Christ himself, commissioned by him to continue his work on earth, entrusted by him with the preservation and transmission of his teaching, and promised by him the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit, which would preserve Her from error in matters of the Faith and morals. The Church was, and is, the Body of Christ on earth. It was therefore necessary, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, to ‘hold in veneration / for the love of him alone / Holy Church as his creation / and her teachings as his own’. Hence the need to subordinate one’s will to the Church’s teaching, and to submit one’s conscience to the tribunal of the Church’s judgment. Without the Church, there is nothing to guide, nothing to teach, nothing authoritatively to distinguish right from wrong or good from evil, except one’s own private judgment, and one’s own personal interpretation of the data of experience, including scripture. The Church is therefore the Rock of Faith. Everything else is unstable and changeable – and therefore undependable. Nothing in such a state of flux can provide an adequate foundation for a human and humane moral or spiritual life.

Any culture is based on, and underpinned by, its religion

It is worth recalling here that, for Belloc, terms such as ‘religion’, ‘philosophy’, and ‘worldview’ were interchangeable. With this in mind, it is instructive to compare the three dominant cultures of the last hundred years and their correlative geo-political entities: namely, Christendom, the Islamic world, and the Communist bloc. What are their respective achievements in the great departments of culture – in art, literature, music, philosophy and theology; in law, jurisprudence, government, statecraft and politics? The first thing to note is that, in Christendom, there is much more political freedom for the individual than in either of the other two. Moreover, such freedom is protected and safeguarded by a framework of political constitution, law and governance. This freedom has certain important consequences for the arts. It has positive consequences in terms of the liberty for artists, philosophers, theologians, scientists, cultural theorists and other thinkers to explore new concepts, develop new ideas, theories and paradigms, and frame hypotheses to account for any newly discovered data. It has negative consequences in terms of the licence it implicitly grants for the unfettered exercise of private judgment, which then becomes the de facto measure of all things, including objective truth and falsehood. The second thing to note is that this freedom follows from the evolving understanding of the moral precepts of the Christian faith. These moral precepts entail (1) a separation of powers between Church and State, and (2) a respect for the unicity and inviolable dignity of the human person. Neither Islam nor Communism respects the freedom of the individual to anything like the same degree or acknowledges a separation between spiritual and temporal authority. Both place a higher premium on the welfare of the collective than on that of the individual. The immense cultural achievements of Christendom in all art forms (with the solitary exception of calligraphy, which is regarded as an independent art form in the Islamic world and in parts of the Far East, but not in Christendom) are predicated on the greater degree of freedom and respect accorded to the individual, and far exceed in quality, quantity and diversity the products of either the Islamic world or the Communist bloc over any comparable period. The negative consequences I have referred to are merely the price of purchasing the positive ones.

Truth, beauty and goodness form an indissoluble logical trinity of absolutes such that an attack on (or the abandonment of) one of them would lead ineluctably to an attack on (or abandonment of) the others

According to Belloc, each element within this logical trinity is, in its proper sphere, the goal or summum bonum. They are thus three aspects of the same thing: the highest good. The source and guarantor of all goods is Almighty God in Whom alone is the perfection of goodness to be found. And this is why an attack on one entails an attack on the others. The truth of this may clearly be seen from a study of the cultural history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First came the attack on objective truth by Nietzsche. Then came the same author’s attack on Christian morals (i.e. the then prevailing concepts of good and evil, right and wrong). Finally came the attack on beauty, which, having commenced with movements such as Dada in the visual arts and atonality in music, reached its logical culmination in the hideous monstrosities of twentieth-century art, music and architecture and the deliberate cult of the ugly that has characterised so much of modern popular culture (for extreme examples, consider punk rock, or heavy metal, or the revolting garbage annually submitted for the Turner Prize).

There are many books by Belloc that do not deserve the neglect that has been their lot: the Collected Poems, Belinda, The Mercy of Allah, The Cruise of the Nona, The Servile State, Survivals and New Arrivals, The Question and the Answer, The Catholic Church and History, Europe and the Faith, The Crisis of Our Civilization – all these and, no doubt, many others of his hundred or so books deserve to be rediscovered and read by a new generation. He needs, and deserves, to be reassessed – carefully, objectively, and without regard for the dictates of fashion – as a poet, a novelist, an historian, a travel writer, a biographer, a Christian apologist, a political theorist, a cultural critic, a controversialist, and an essayist. His extraordinary versatility, his range as a writer, his rigour as a thinker, his persuasiveness in argument, his breadth of learning, and his brilliance as a stylist should assure him of a discriminating readership as long as some people care more for literary excellence and clarity of thought than they do for fashion and ephemera. How long that will be, in this age of witless diversions, instant gratification, X Factor-type talent shows, computer and video games, is anybody’s guess.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vladimir Nabokov, The Tragedy of Mister Morn, Dramatic Reading, Pushkin House, 26 June 2012, reviewed by Peter Cowlam

The Tragedy of Mister Morn
The Nabokovian filter over the coup Morn has successfully repelled is that of aesthetics rather than political discourse, with the distortions of social unease just a spectre to be poeticised over. It is Morn, who is secretly the King, who has delivered what Tremens, the revolutionary leader, could and would not – four years of peace and prosperity. That figurehead of revolt, played by Peter Eyre in a breeze of world-weariness, has ensured his survival only in feigned denunciation of himself – at least as the action opens – having entered a tacit pact with the King, whoever that personage is. The sole image the people have of their monarch is masked, such as that appearing on coins of the realm. His royal presence permeates his nation through pageant and ritual, while his carriage is probably empty when out on official procession, explaining why its blinds are permanently drawn. That veil on the actuality is what facilitates the King’s other life as Morn, a man free to walk the city and judge the mood of its market squares, and know what his people think.
To Tremens – a man who deplores previous ages of revolution – that amorphous concept of ‘the people’ is all a wasted effort. History’s worst outcome has been the elevation of the common man, whose gift to the world is the debased culture a long issue of Nabokovian characters has subsequently debunked and satirised. Tremens is not motivated politically to deliver a better world, which disposes of the need the play might have to engage with revolutions, with why they occur, and with how new leaderships emerge in their aftermath. Tremens carries with him a brand of Schopenhauerian insistence on blind will, a force infusing everything, one that reduces all before it to poetic, romanticised ruin. In Ganus, a fellow-revolutionary, who has escaped exile, who is on the run, who has come to believe the revolution was a mistake, there is an absence of that true calling. Perversely nihilism has its own optimism, when Tremens adds that ‘somehow I sense…hidden within him…that spark, that scarlet comma of contamination, which will spread the wondrous cold and fire of tormenting illness across my country: deathly revolts; hollow destruction; bliss; emptiness; non-existence’ [I.1, ll 320–25].
Morn’s is not the only disguise. Ganus, in his conjectures of adultery, agrees to attend his wife Midia’s soirée, made up and costumed as Othello (Othello, consumed by jealousy and suspicion). Once there he gets himself quietly drunk in a corner, having to put up with Morn, the central guest, who shows as a force for good with a lightness of touch and a poet’s sensibility. He happens also to have infatuated Ganus’s wife, Midia, who is played with chic scheming astuteness by Emily Sidonie. There are other things Ganus has to tolerate. The century (the twentieth) is characterised as a northern country (like Zembla, one assumes, ‘a distant northern land’), a remoteness of visions, bombs, churches, golden princes, revolutionaries in raincoats, and blizzards. Ganus/Gradus suffers also the revolution’s poet, Klian, a coward ultimately, and a man locked into ancient structures, where genius cannot thrive without the eroticisation of its Muse. Other outpourings are from Dandilio, a rationalist buffoon, who has defined human happiness according to scientific theory. The tragedy of Mister Morn is his flirtation with Midia, Morn challenged to a duel when Ganus can stand it no more. In the drawing of lots to establish who will take the first shot, that etiquette is subverted by Tremens and Dandilio, who engineer matters in Ganus’s favour. The King’s bodyguard and confidant later lets him know who Morn really is, but he’s saved the bother of committing regicide when Morn elects to shoot himself. Easier to say than do. Morn, a force for life, now rues his liaison with Midia – ‘a shallow woman’, he says – then in an abrupt volte-face is prepared to sacrifice his kingdom for her. When he flees, renouncing his kingship, Tremens urges his rebels to further destruction. When Ganus thinks the King is dead, he is quiescent; when he learns he is not, he vows to kill him. By now he’s fully in the Othello role, but without make-up.
So these self-deceptions perpetuate themselves. Morn without his kingdom wastes in lassitude, conforming less and less to the cult that has given him artist status. Midia is exquisitely bored, both with him and with the rebellion, whose destruction hardly touches her consciousness. She throws him over, in favour of Edmin, the King’s confidant, a man whose presence has the air of apology. Into that debris of human relations Ganus arrives, at the point where Midia and Edmin have just eloped. He aims his pistol at Morn just as Act IV’s curtain falls.
Act V. ‘The people’, that amorphous entity above, fight back against the rebels, because it’s rumoured the King isn’t dead. Dandilio has worked out who Morn really is. Soldiers close in. Klian pleads for his life, and says he will serve the King. Tremens and Dandilio philosophise ludicrously. All ends ambiguously, with Morn declaiming the illusory nature of statecraft, then receding into the night, either to shoot himself, or end Morn’s delusion once and for all and resurrect himself as King.
Therein is also the curse of pseudo-democracies.
§
Written in the winter of 1923–24, The Tragedy of Mister Morn first appeared in book form in Russian in 2008. Its verse translation into English is by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Mix Up, the Rhythm Factory, 22nd April 2010, reviewed by CP James

One of those instant drawbacks of freelance journalism is that the events you must cover are very often not the ones you wish to write about. On the morning of the 22nd I phoned round all my tame editors at the capital’s newspaper offices, and asked what, if anything, I could do for them – I’d a few bills to pay, and not much by way of spondulicks coming in. The first, a very old friend, said ‘Please, nothing about the election!’ Those prime ministerial TV debates, and the surprising Clegg phenomenon, had got practically every hack in Christendom on the hustings circus, telling us everything from the precise sprinkling of sugar on Mr Cameron’s breakfast grapefruit to the Machiavellian truth underpinning Lord Mandelson’s latest public utterance. I would have to say everyone else I phoned took much the same view, until someone – not unconnected with The Guardian – suggested I take a little trip to the Rhythm Factory, a music venue in Whitechapel, and report on the evening’s events there, where it was rumoured Pete Doherty would be putting in a surprise appearance.

Well, surprisingly, Pete Doherty didn’t (put in a surprise appearance). Instead we had the Mix Up, a showing of up-and-coming talent on the music scene, in a venue space suitably blacked, but radiant with spots and strobes, and a procession of latter-day jongleurs strutting their stuff on stage. These ranged from Sam Ward, with his CD launch, ‘alternative, ambient, guitar and bass’; Andy Mathew, a reggae and soul singer; guest act and punk knockabout Corporal Machine and the Bombers; the smooth sophistication of Salary Man, in a tight rock-jazz-soul suit; and finally to J-Soul, a Dilla-inspired beat-maker, with soulful electro beats from his debut EP Electric Formulas, who at the night’s end had a decibel count halfway to the stars, and a clutch of devotees hogging the dance floor.

It was as I said to one of my editors on the morning of the 23rd: ‘Yeah – much, much better than the election…’

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kisses on a Postcard, by Terence Frisby, reviewed by CP James

Playwright, actor and director Terence Frisby’s most famous play is There’s a Girl in My Soup, the West End’s longest running comedy. He and older brother Jack, aged seven and eleven respectively, were WWII evacuees, in the Cornish hamlet of Doublebois, where they lived with ‘Uncle Jack’, a former Welsh miner with good old-Labour views, and his warm-hearted wife ‘Auntie Rose’.

The brothers remained in Cornwall for three years, and fully entered the rural life there, whose outstanding personalities ranged from Miss Polmanor, a starchy Wesleyan Methodist, to Miss Polmanor’s charge Elsie, a highly sexualised teenager, who succeeded in getting herself impregnated by one of the many American GI’s billeted here throughout the course of the war.

As a kind of watermark permeating the whole living texture of this charming wartime memoir is the benign presence of Uncle Jack and Auntie Rose, two very warm-hearted, gentle and generous people, for whom Jack and Terry’s well-being is uppermost – one imagines not automatically the fate of child evacuees in wartime.

The story has previous incarnations as a play, Just Remember Two Things: It’s Not Fair and Don’t Be Late, and as a stage musical based on that play.

What critics and bloggers have said:

‘Terence Frisby has done something difficult: he has made good times and good people more fun to read about than any melodrama, in a book that leaves one feeling grateful and happy.’ Diana Athill

‘I will say it again, a lovely lovely lovely book.’ Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover

‘Frisby’s book is an antidote to those misery memoirs which crop up everywhere.’ Stuck in a Book

‘Perhaps the best sign of how enchanting this book was to me, I didn't want it to end.’ Banter Basement

The video promo was put together from the first ever production of the musical, performed at the Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple in 2004.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Painter's Revenge: RB Kitaj and the Tate War, by Kasper

Can a painter fight back against hostile critics and 'win'?

In 1877, James Abbott McNeill Whistler took umbrage over John Ruskin's comment in Fors Clavigera, the art critic's journal, that Whistler was 'a coxcomb' who asked two hundred guineas for a picture and had flung 'a pot of paint in the public's face.'

Whistler sued Ruskin, and after an infamous trial, prevailed, winning damages of one farthing. Whistler emerged psychologically damaged and financially burdened from having to absorb court costs.

With RB Kitaj, it was slightly otherwise.

Over a decade ago, in 1994, RB Kitaj, American expatriate painter and resident of England for nearly forty years, was awarded a large retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, an honor accorded few living painters.

Kitaj had enjoyed just and consistently favorable treatment from English critics before. But surprisingly, the critical reaction to Kitaj's lifetime opus was overwhelmingly negative, even former supporters of his art as well as a cadre of new detractors flinging raw insults his way.

He was judged 'pretentious', 'pseudo-intellectual', 'a name-dropper', 'a poseur' (for his assumed identity of the persecuted 'Diasporist Jew') and 'full of Hemingway/Gauguin bullshit'.

The Diaspora, as Kitaj conceived of it in his 1989 pamphlet on the subject, was a wide-open refuge for outsiders, and welcomed feminists, persecuted blacks, homosexuals and Marxists, as well as Jews.

In this manifesto, as in his 'prefaces', explanatory glosses for his paintings, Kitaj had trespassed into the territory of art critics who reserved to themselves the linguistic definition of his work. RBK even went so far as to characterize recent paintings of his as belonging to his 'late style', a loosened departure from his earlier, more naturalistic work.

It was not for the artist to proclaim anything about his own style, the critics glared back: such taxonomies were for them alone to formulate.

Coupled with this critical rancor was an irreversible personal tragedy for the artist: his beautiful and talented wife, Sandra Fisher, died at age forty-seven from a sudden aneurysm about the time of the Tate show. Kitaj, who had been in America as his mother slowly ebbed away and died under his hands, rushed back to England just in time to see Sandra into the next world.

His paintings for nearly the next ten years are, in some ways, a commemoration of his and Sandra's love together -- diaphanous expressionist yearnings for his forever lost, angelic muse.

But before the moving images of Sandra and the artist pictured in erotic duets came the 'revenge paintings'.

Kitaj refers to this period as the Tate War.

One work in particular, exhibited first in the Royal Academy (London) show of summer 1997, 'The Killer Critic Assassinated by his Widower, Even' (1997), implies that the strain and ignominy from the art critical onslaught may have been a partial cause of his wife's death.

The painting is based on Manet's famous 'The Execution of Maximilian'(1868) and quotes other modern masterpieces: Picasso's cubist portraits, Duchamp (in the parody of RBK's title as well as formal elements), and of course, Manet.

The critic is pictured as a bulbous, pulsating tick-like entity, whose yellow ticker-tape tongue is scribbled with the phrases: 'yellowpress kill, kill, kill the heretic always', 'kill heresy'. The 'monster critic' is in the process of being executed by a duo consisting of Manet himself and Kitaj the painter, whose head is represented by the Hebrew character for his surname.

Kitaj attributed part of the critical salvo he suffered to '...garden variety anti-semitism...' since he has taken Judaism, its critics, prophets, tormentors and geniuses, as his subject matter in recent years. 'The Killer Critic...' is banded with a 'predella' of paperback books at its bottom; one cover reads: 'An Enemy of the People: Antisemitism' by James Parkes. A quotation by Paul Celan, a Jewish poet harassed and tormented by the Nazis, streams down a weeping angel blazoned on the 'RBK executioner'.

And thus Cleveland, Ohio-born Ronald Brooks Kitaj, reincarnated as the British Diasporist vigilante RBK, sought to even the score for a betrayal by his adopted country.

Belittled (like Whistler) for selling 'empty' and 'bloated, pretentious' canvases for outrageous prices, Kitaj concluded his swipe at the critical establishment by pricing 'The Killer Critic...' at £1,000,000, a price he quickly received.

In 1997 he returned to America and Los Angeles to paint and draw pictures of bungee-jumpers and lovers in automobiles. But Kitaj had never been one to blench from hanging a picture of God's back next to one of baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax.

The 'Sandra Series' and other visionary, brightly colored works followed. Finally Kitaj was able to rejoin his children and begin to live a normal life.

Still a crusader at nearly seventy, Kitaj doesn't turn away from a scrap. 'When someone shoots, I shoot back,' he declares.

And his Diasporism still shows itself in odd ways, though he has retreated a bit from his original 'Manifesto' of 1989.

He still names himself a 'Jewish artist' and tries to represent the Diaspora as all-inclusive:

'I'm right behind black people who want to use their negritude (he says fiercely), I'm right behind them.'

Maybe it seems a bit unrealistic or politically skewed to make such a declaration as a privileged white man, a world-famous artist, very comfortably well-off and living in a large house in the hills of Westwood that once belonged to the actor Peter Lorre.

Today Kitaj does paintings of his private swimming pool, which he calls 'My Walden'.

But unlike Whistler, he has come away emotionally damaged but freshly defiant from his confrontation with the killer critics. His work is still crisp and original, perhaps a bit looser but even more resolute and mature than before.

(Note: I am indebted to Brendan Bernhard, David Cohen and Marco Livingstone for some facts and quotations in this article.)

See other articles by Kasper. Learn more about Kitaj.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Zadistically So: Christina Colquhoun recalls a lecture at the Royal Society of Literature by a palely fired Nabokovian

All these various waves about how to pronounce Nabokov remind me of a lecture I went to last year held by the Royal Society of Literature in London. I should have written to the List at the time [NABOKOV-L], but I thought the lecture was so god-awful that I hesitated in spitting too much unnecessary rancour out into cyberspace. The, in my opinion, truly overrated Zadie Smith had decided to talk about Pnin. Her preamble opened with: 'There are many ways of pronouncing Nabokov...' Hmm. Funny. I thought there was only one. 'And I have chosen...' She listed some 'alternatives' and proceeded rather haughtily to inform the audience that she had chosen 'Naba-cough'. Ms Smith then read out from a prepared bunch of papers for forty minutes in a mind-numbing monotone. By her own admission Ms Smith is not a Russian speaker nor does she have knowledge of any foreign language, which showed up as a substantial impediment to her 'approach' to Nabokov (this may seem obvious, but I hadn't realised quite how much it really means).