Tuesday, November 01, 2022

NOTES ON ENGLAND


Because France doesn’t understand the communist candy orgy that is Halloween, and because Adam is a boy who loves a monster mask like French boys love kicking a soccer ball, we resolved to go to England and give Adam a proper trick or treating.  A concocted a costume to Adam’s specifications, which consisted of orange long johns and a burlap bag face, as sported by Sam, the  killer child in Trick r Treat. If you don’t know Trick r Treat, join the majority of the world – normies which the fans of Fangoria heartily despise.

Thus, we awoke early, prepared our bags, and went to the Gare du Nord, there to take the train to London. It is a rather amazing thing, going to London from Paris on a train. There are people for whom the Chunnel is not a novelty. Who were born with the fact that there is a tunnel under the channel as one of the many facts, like Mount Everest being the highest mountain and the like. Me, I’m impressed and will always be.

So light, darkness, light, and we ended up at St. Pancras.

I last saw London nine years ago, when Adam was a crawling beastie with not a whisp of a thought about trick or treat or goth culture in his head. At the time, I have a confused memory that we stopped at another station. In the nine years we’ve been gone, the UK broke itself off from the EU, elected a series of clown P.M.s, imposed austerity as its plutocratic overlords asked, and ended up with a prime minister who threated to make the whole Island Argentina in the 80s. So I expected smoke and burned out buildings, rats in the street chased by wolves. But from St. Pancras to the City, which was roughly our trek, I saw a muscular stretch of contemporary architecture that said to the world: we are the world’s real Dubai. And it is true: milling trillions in securities and instruments that have no use, and that add a considerable portion of rentseeking and misery to the economy, is an excellent way to get rich. And so say all of I.

There’s no comparable stretch of Paris, which saddens Macron’s black heart. But I did rather like it. Plus, the music of English, which makes me want to imitate it. Although A. warns me not to. And means it. We had pizza, made it to the train for Cambridge at Liverpool station, and felt like we were navigating the country. On the train for Cambridge we heard the same recording, which advises people who “see something” to fink something to the cops, where they will “sort it.” This, if it weren’t so normal sinister, could be an outtake from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Brazil seems to be the film about the condition of England that is always relevant.

We got to Cambridge, where we are staying with A.’s sister. Her daughter led us around the dark streets and mews of Cambridge, giving Adam his first trick or treat experience since he was five and we’d go roving Brentwood for the Mansion-fare. The givers were so sweet to Adam, and all complimented the costume, though none had the vaguest idea who he was supposed to be. And Adam, well trained, thanked them every time. We are raising a boy who is much more polite than me!

Home, candy counting, and the parents got part of the loot. Then to an early bed. That ironcast English night.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Notes on Orwell's apocalypso

 

I binged on Orwell when I was seventeen. They forced 1984 down our throats in my Cold War era highschool – it was the golden age of warning the kiddies against Utopia, so Huxley’s … and Golding’s Lord of the Flies were thrown in for good measure – and I, little rebel, did not read these books. In fact, I’ve never read 1984 and Lord of the Flies. Chinks, no doubt, in the  armor of my reading. I read Zamyatin’s We instead.

But I binged on Orwell when I was seventeen, when I systematically checked out of the library the edition of his essays and letters in three volumes, edited by Sonia Orwell. The volumes were entitled – the last one bore the wonderful title In Front of Your Nose, underlining the touch Orwell, the truth teller, the prophet.

Orwell was an almost preternaturally bad prophet. In contrast to his ability to envision the past and the present – he had the gift for reducing the “mental atmosphere” of an era (or at least of his favored chronological unit, the decade) into ten or more rich pages, the great longform writer’s gift – Orwell’s sense of the future consisted of a rather mechanical extrapolation of the horrors of the interwar and World War II period. Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism was applied, like cheap paint, by Cold War intellectuals to Stalin, Khruschev, Brezhnev, etc. – thus missing the huge changes in the Soviet system.

I think I, as a seventeen year old, turned to the essays because of a remark of Kurt Vonnegut’s, who used one of Orwell’s sentences in his series of Letters from England for the Partisan Review as the very model and exemplar of how to begin an essay. As I remember it, the sentence was: As I write, highly trained men in  technologically sophisticated airplanes are trying to kill me with bombs. Something like that. The perspectival shift – which was, as well, Tolstoy’s great trope, per Skhlovsky – is admirable. One can see how Kurt Vonnegut learned from it. It is was absorbed into American literary culture more, perhaps, than British, where comfortably sliding into your subject is still the preferred intro. The violence of ordinary British life goes more into their popular music, in the Cold War period, than into the novel, with its easy relapse into realism.

I periodically re-read Orwell with the same appetite that I periodically re-read Raymond Chandler. It is not that I agree with Orwell about very much, but I think he is one of the true inheritors of the plain speech style. And, as is proven by such essays as Inside the Whale, he has a rare capacity to appreciate other, radically different prose styles – Henry Miller’s, for instance.

Inside the Whale was written in 1939. While Orwell was reading Miller, war broke out, and the sophisticated airmen started their bombing raids. Although not on the scale expected; that is, during the phoney war. And not gas bombs, finally. The great fear at the beginning of the war was of mustard gas. It is odd that Britain prepared for the mustard gas attack by stocking up on masks while leaving the question of Germany’s development and manufacture of gas warfare entirely off the table in the 30s. But of course, Britain was undecided if Germany was really an ally against the great Bolshevik Satan or an enemy itself. Hence, the treaty that Britain struck with Germany, behind France’s back, which allowed Germany vast leaway to rearm. A treaty that has, somehow, gotten much less of the spotlight than the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. And we know why…

Inside the Whale has a very fine analysis of the “mental atmosphere” of the modernist twenties, of which Henry Miller is definitely a product, even if Tropic of Cancer was published in the thirties. Orwell met Miller, and was astonished and fascinated by Miller’s theory, or rather attitude, that he would just accept what comes. Orwell rightly sees that the didactic leftist writers of the thirties failed to understand the ordinary forms of life under capitalism, fascism and Stalinism, which was to hide your head and eat your breakfast, if you had it. Miller, by contrast, with all his rebellion against the ”air conditioned nightmare”, saw his life and others as fluxes in a stream, the general course of which is far outside the powers of the individual to affect.

This attitude, Orwell implies, is necessary for literature as an object in its own right. Comfort, the protection of ordinary life, the essential liberalism – outside of these parameters, Orwell thought, literature as a modern institution couldn’t exist. The ending paragraphs of Inside the Whale are Orwell at his most apocalyptic, and compare with Adorno’s famous phrase that poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.

But from now onwards the all-important fact for the creative writer is going to be that this is not a writer’s world. That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism. … It [Miller’s attitude] is a demonstration of the impossibility of any major literature until the world has shaken itself into a new shape.”

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...