8 August 2010

Sun TV News

       Pending approval by federal broadcasting regulators--not a done deal, by a long shot, at the time of this writing--Canada is to have a new all-news television channel, called Sun TV News, intended to knock the socks off the CBC and CTV networks. 
       Kory Teneycke, front man for the Quebecor media empire (which publishes the Canada-wide Sun tabloid franchise), said at a recent news conference that the channel will definitely be unlike the CBC ("boring news by bureaucrats for elites and paid for by taxpayers") and CTV (ditto, minus the taxpayer’s dime).
       “We're taking on the mainstream media," Teneycke said. "We're taking on smug, condescending, often irrelevant journalism. We're taking on political correctness....Sun News will be controversially Canadian."
       Analysts of the Canadian media scene have already begun to wonder whether Quebecor can effectively take on anything. Unlike the mainstream news broadcasters, they  note, Sun TV won’t be able to rely on a national string of local television stations to provide footage--and without pictures, TV gets dull very fast. Will Sun TV then be a steady parade of talking heads? We’ll have to wait until it gets on the air to find out.
       Also, the field for an insurgent player is pretty small. Between them, experts say, the CBC and CTV garner only 1 per cent each of overall television audience share. Even if it successfully bucks the odds and steals a significant portion of the watching public from the major networks, Sun TV News will still have only a small number of people to sell its advertising to.
       Practical considerations aside, however, maybe Canadians are ready for a vociferous, opinionated, deliberately provocative home-grown network along the lines of Fox News in the U.S.
       Maybe a lot of us are bored to death with the responsible, carefully researched reporting of Canadian and international news we get on the CBC and CTV.
       Maybe some have gotten tired of the image of Canada spread abroad by the mainstream media: that of a small, peaceable power in the world, largely free (as so much of the world we see on TV is not) of ethnic and political violence, and much given to solving problems by muddling through them, instead of declaring war on them.
       If all my “maybes” are in fact true, then perhaps Canadians deserve the chance to try out a so-called “news” cable channel as unabashedly biased and ideologically strident as Fox. I’m all for letting the ratings decide who delivers the best cable news to Canadians.
       But if Sun TV News does turn out to be a kind of Fox North, and catches on with a sizeable segment of the Canadian viewing public, it will be a bad day for journalism in this country, and for the country itself.
       Not that Canadian journalism is especially healthy these days, even without Sun TV News. Loud-mouth celebrity commentators are more in vogue in print and on television and radio than at any time since I joined the profession, 30 years ago. No matter how flashy or trashy it gets, reporting in tabloids or on tab TV can never be trivial enough for the editors. Cable television led the way, but even traditionally mainstream newspapers seem to be getting lighter and lighter. 
       Canadians should be proud that the CBC and CTV are holding the line against the deadly trend of popping-down. We should be less jaded by careful reporting, and much less hungry for the high-spiced fare that Sun TV News will likely offer.

26 June 2010

Our Streets


Photo by Erin Mays

       As I am writing this, the world leaders gathered in Toronto for the G20 summit are dining on Alberta beef at the Royal York Hotel. Some may have heard from aides that their host city is under attack by the police and a small band of hooligans, though I doubt if the news was communicated to them in so many words. Rather, they would almost certainly have gotten the official version that has been emerging in the media throughout the day: The scuffles in streets across downtown are the work of violent anarchists disguised as ordinary citizens. To quell this outbreak of mayhem, the police have been arresting and beating and manhandling many apparently "peaceful" demonstrators, in order to clear out the most rabid agitators. The threat they pose to civic peace justifies the $1.1-billion spent on the leaders’ security; it's merely the price of doing business in a civilization menaced by anarchists and terrorists.
       Sober distinctions--the difference between vandalism and the personal violence that deserves the name, for example--appear to have escaped the police spokesmen and television commentators in their rush to sensationalize the events of the day. Also interesting, in a bad way, was the sweeping description of everyone out on the streets as demonstrators. There was indeed a large traditional demonstration and march by organized labour and other groups, which began at Queens Park in the early afternoon. By evening, however, the crowd marauded on by phalanxes of riot police on Queen Street, College Street, Queens Park and elsewhere looked to me like ordinary citizens who were trying to walk the avenues that, until today, they believed were theirs.
       They were finding out otherwise--that, in fact, we are allowed to use the streets just so long, and to the exact extent, that our doing so does not interfere with the desires of our rulers and their employees, including the police. The citizens’ long-abiding custom, which we took to be a right, was everywhere violated by the police, who blocked streets and arrested people far from the fenced-off security area; and the walkers were understandably angry. The rulers, not the citizens at large, chose to turn the streets of Toronto into a zone of contest this weekend. Their militarization of the city was a provocation that showed many, in brutally frank ways, how baseless and how easily ignored is the conviction of many Torontonians that we own our streets.
       As for the notion that a small group of foreign infiltrators was causing all the trouble--an idea put about by the mayor, the police chief, and the media: Do the spokesmen of state power really believe the citizens can be fooled into agreeing with this proposition? I think they do, and their campaign to win minds to this viewpoint is well under way.
       But if the rhetoric is familiar to anyone who lived through the Red-baiting of the Cold War era, the content of the message--the preferred label for the besetting evil--has undergone a significant shift in recent years away from communism, to anarchism. It is now anarchism that is the rot at the heart of our culture, a dangerous. conspiratorial force that is out to subvert the “Canadian way of life,” as a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office put it today. I have no way of knowing how many real anarchists were newly minted in Toronto during this second day of the G20 conference. But I am sure that today the streets became a school of anarchism, whose lessons about power will be pondered for a long time in this city.

13 June 2010

The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer

       Jack Unterweger was an Austrian convicted of the 1974 murder of a teenaged girl. While serving a 25-year prison sentence for this crime, he took up writing, churning out short stories and poems, and an autobiography. These texts won him a gaggle of (mostly) female fans, as well as the heavyweight support of Nobel laureates Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass, who may have imagined themselves to be the Sartre-like discoverers of a new Jean Genet. (They shouldn’t have bothered. Unterweger’s writing, according to those who’ve read it--I have not--is self-serving twaddle.)
       After a flood of petitions for pardon from establishment backers and intellectuals, Unterweger was released from jail in 1990. Thereupon he turned himself into a minor media personality by hosting television programmes about criminal rehabilitation and working as an investigative reporter. He also began to kill again. By the time he was arrested, in 1992, he had brutally murdered at least nine prostitutes, and probably more. Unterweger hanged himself on the same day in 1994 he was condemned to life imprisonment for the prostitute killings.
       In his interesting musical stage-play performed last evening at Massey Hall--it’s a feature in the Luminato arts extravaganza now under way in Toronto--Viennese director and playwright Michael Sturminger brings Jack Unterweger back to life to flog his new book, The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. (The title of the book and of Sturminger’s theatrical piece are the same.)
       Every writer who has ever been on a book tour, and every reader who has attended an event of this kind, will immediately know where he is, simply by looking at the standard set-up Sturminger gives us: a mostly bare stage, a baize-covered table pushed to be edge of the stage and stacked high with books ready to be signed. Then the author (played in this case by the American stage and screen actor John Malkovich) appears to general applause, dressed smartly, but casually, in a white summer suit. He loosens up the audience with a few jokes and local references. The audience--we, I should say--play along with clapping and laughter, because we know the script of even very serious celebrity book-signings. The start-up jokes are part of the evening’s entertainment.
       An early indication that this is going to be no ordinary author’s event, however, occurs when a beautiful young soprano walks into the light, and, accompanied by a full baroque ensemble (the Vienna Academy Orchestra), begins to sing Mozart’s aria “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” By the song’s end, Unterweger is kneeling at the soprano’s feet, clutching her in rapt adoration.
       This stage business is surprising. But the business becomes startling a few moments later, when another soprano, while singing Beethoven’s “Ah, perfido” (the cry of a woman betrayed in love), is strangled with a brassiere by Unterweger. She revives to sing again--death arias by Haydn, von Weber, Mozart and Beethoven punctuate Unterweger’s monologues and rants--dragging the audience back and forth between high baroque musical art and the author’s vulgar banality, and wrenching the usually sedate book-launch format into ruin.
       At stake in this play is the question of truth. The title of both show and book promises a tell-all, a final unveiling that will reveal the workings of the killer’s mind. But who is to be believed? Wikipedia? The police? Or Unterweger, the presumed authority, who tells us the only thing he regrets about his career in crime is that he lied for show-biz effect, and that some of these lies got into the Wikipedia article about him? In the end, we find that even the title of the book, which he screams at us to buy, is a lie: every copy is blank. Unterweger tells his audience nothing about his motivations or inner life. The whole book tour, we discover too late to escape feelings of being taken for a perverse ride, is nothing more than an opportunity for the dead author to bask again in the spotlight of celebrity, and to do more of the coarse spouting-off that won him, in life, such handsome notoriety in Austria and beyond. 
       If the audience of the Massey Hall show felt ripped off at the end, it’s because they thought they would get the real goods proffered by the title and, instead, got nothing.
       Sturminger’s play, and Malkovich’s bright, intelligent and sinister performance of it, are sharply focused attacks on this audience, and on the millions of people who buy books with titles like The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, who watch “reality television” and television’s talking heads, all out of curiosity about sensational crimes and the forces that drive men and women to commit them. It is also an assault on the huge media industry (writers, publishers, film and TV producers, actors and many other aides) that profitably panders to this trashy mass-cultural taste, even as the real Jack Unterweger successfully gratified it during his brief season of celebrity. The play is cruel, but not as cruel as the vast cultural phenomenon it so savagely exposes.

22 May 2010

Anselm Kiefer’s Palmsonntag at the Art Gallery of Ontario

       Like some Baroque depiction of a saint’s martyrdom (and like Picasso’s Guernica), Palmsonntag defers immediately to an occasion, a text, that lies largely beyond the margins of the work.
       The event, in this case, is the liturgy of Palm Sunday. On that day in the Christian calendar, the Church recalls the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to observe the Passover, and marks the opening of the New Testament story that climaxes first with the catastrophe of Good Friday, then with the good news of Easter. Palm Sunday is a festival of yearning, of waiting and unknowing, of expectation coloured by both dread and uneasy hope.
       Palm Sunday is also the site of a great misunderstanding that modern Christians (and all political activists) would be wise to heed. The mob who hailed Jesus with palms at the city gate apparently believed that he came to overthrow Roman colonial rule, establish a new political order and put himself on the throne. They had not heard or had not believed Jesus when he told the crowds following him (again and again) that the coming Kingdom of God would be sacred anarchy (to use theologian John D. Caputo’s phrase for it) in which nobody has sovereignty or ultimate power, and in which the last--prostitutes and street people, tax collectors and lepers and the like--are first.
       You don’t have to know, let alone believe, any of this to enjoy Palmsonntag: Kiefer’s way of working here, as always, yields up objects (a fallen palm tree cast in fibreglass, 44 large painted and collaged panels) that give much aesthetic pleasure. But understanding all that Kiefer is up to in this piece involves some knowledge of the narratives that breathe in and around it.
       Why, for example, are the mud grounds of the panels in this installation so dusty, so parched and cracked? A clue lies in the scriptural prayer, handwritten by the artist in Latin, that hovers over the surface of some collages: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above and let the skies pour down righteousness.” Teasing out the strands of meaning that Kiefer has plaited together, we see how his multivalent, deeply biblical vision plays out in visual form: The ground he protrays is agricultural land that is thirsty for rain; it is also an oppressed nation thirsty for liberty, a world thirsty for justice and righteousness.
       But this is, we remember, Palm Sunday, not Easter. There is no sign of rain on the horizon. We cry out with prayers and tears in the words of another scriptural text Kiefer has inscribed on Palmsonntag: “Let the earth open and bring forth salvation!” But nothing happens. The earth is still closed, barren, dry. The sky pours down neither rain nor righteousness. The kingdoms of this world (real kings and kingdoms, along with such regimes as patriarchy and militarism) remain obsessed with holding on to what they’ve got, bewitched by the illusions of power.
       The sacred anarchy of the Kingdom of God is coming, in other words, but not yet. It is in this not-yet that Kiefer’s Palmsonntag is situated, and where we find ourselves--in a concentrated image of the present world of expectation and frustration--when viewing this resonant work.

2 May 2010

The Flying Dutchman


       A Dutch sea-captain doomed to wander the world’s oceans for eternity, a Norwegian girl on shore (Senta) who is erotically obsessed by the portrait and legend of the captain, a young hunter (Eric) desperately in love with the girl: From this explosive mix of compulsion and dark myth, Richard Wagner spun his early music-drama, The Flying Dutchman.
       The play’s essential tragedy is Senta’s. Her rejection of reality is nearly complete as the curtain rises on Act I. And throughout the drama, she repeatedly renounces the ordinary human passion she could enjoy with the earthy Eric in favour of an adolescent fantasy, an otherworldly fancy gone sick and horribly wrong, in which she saves the ghastly Dutchman from his exile by a pledge of undying love.
       Wagner is a superb portrayer of women deluded by romantic unreality: Senta is the soul-sister of Isolde. And like Isolde, Senta is fated by her delusion to come to a bad end--though, in a rather forced effort to give his opera a happy ending, Wagner allows her faithfulness to the Dutchman unto death (by drowning in the original poem, by a bullet from Eric’s gun in the Canadian Opera Company’s current revival) to release the captain from his curse and send him into heaven at the last. (In the more psychologically convincing conclusion of Tristan und Isolde, nobody gets redeemed from anything.)
       I liked Allen Moyer’s visualization--sombre, severe, tinged by a kind of hovering neurotic foreboding wholly appropriate to the tale, occasionally splashed with lurid colour--when this COC production of the Dutchman was new, back in 1996 and 2000. Ten years on, the visual envelope of sets and costumes still provides an effective container for director Christopher Alden’s jagged theatrical tableaux.
       COC music director Johannes Debus, who is conducting The Flying Dutchman for the first time, gets from his orchestra an engaging, confident sea-symphony. But on the musical side of this revival, my top marks go to the singers: especially soprano Julie Makerov (Senta) and bass baritone Evgeny Nikitin (the Dutchman), whose strong, handsome voices brought their characters to vivid, tormented life.

6 January 2010


        I first heard black gospel singing in the fields of my father’s cotton farm, deep in the American South. No sound was more Southern: slow, serious and melancholy, like the lives of those hard-up blacks who worked in the cotton patch. In one sense, this sad, unforgettable music was foreign to a white child spending the day with his father in the fields. Yet in another, it was close, familiar: for Southern rural religion in those days, whether black or white, was very much a matter of supplicating the beloved Jesus for deliverance from the sorrows and tribulations of life. It probably wasn’t exactly orthodox, this near-exclusive adoration of Jesus, and corresponding neglect of the remote Father and ungraspable Spirit. But such religion sprang from a true place in the heart, especially the hearts of rural black Southerners, and found expression in their sincere and devout melodies.
       When I heard the music, in the mid-1940s, the old world of the rural South was falling into twilight. Blacks and whites alike were decamping from the countryside, its poverty and hardship, and taking their chances in the cities of the South and beyond: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Blacks were settling into large urban churches, and discovering elements of urban culture--from electric guitars and the blues to recording studios and the fiery evangelistic delivery of their ministers--that would transfigure the rhythms of their sacred music forever.
       This new black religious reality of the 1940s and beyond is wonderfully captured in the new three-disc compilation from Tompkins Square records entitled Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007). Compiled by U.S. writer, critic and gospel fan Mike McGonigal, this album features 80 songs harvested from many sources: old 45s and 78s issued by labels long-forgotten by all but aficionados, field recordings done by folklorists, and near-contemporary cuts that carry on post-war traditions of what McGonigal calls “sanctified blues.” 
       Always tacitly imagined and sometimes explicitly named in the lyrics, the enemy of all the musicians here is rock ‘n’ roll. That, with its new-fangled celebration of unbridled sensuality, the older gospel singers could not abide. But, remarkably, every other popular American musical style--blues, soul, honky-tonk jazz, Nashville country, you name it--could be, and was, baptized and put to work in the service of the Lord. (My guess is that the appeal of these non-rock forms lay in their rootedness in hurtin’ songs, which embodied a realism about the human condition often absent in classic rock music.)
       The results of this black synthesis, as we hear them in Fire In My Bones, are often rough-cut, but brilliant and very various in tone and thrust. There are incantatory solo laments for lost loved ones, roistering quartet exultations in the love of Jesus, immensely moving “dialogues” between cantor and congregation, songs of longing for the peace that only Christ can give. This is an album for the connoisseur of popular music out of the mainstream, but it also belongs in the record libraries of Christians interested in the ways God works in and through the culture of our time.
       While different in mood and setting from the music I heard as a child in the cotton fields, this post-war urban music similarly has its centre of gravity in the worship of Jesus. More orthodox Christianity surely has arresting virtues: magnificent liturgy, music that is among the wonders of Western culture, an imposing, complex architecture of moral and theological beliefs. But Fire In My Bones is a welcome message from Christians who know that, in whatever form Christianity is found, Jesus himself is always the great and final attraction.

 4 December 2009

About Art Criticism

       The other night in Kensington Market, the vivacious Toronto writer and television personality Nadja Sayej convened a large gathering of mostly young, eager Toronto critics, artists and editors to talk about art criticism. I came along to this event largely from curiosity about what’s on the minds of new critics these days. Here are a few questions they were asking, with some answers of my own devising.
       What’s the reason for writing about art?
       Art criticism is a form of city-building, quite as much as urban design, architecture or community activism. It is a contribution to urban intelligence, a strengthening of the public space in which citizens meet and recognize each other as parts of the civic whole. In the absence of a clear commitment to urban civilization on the part of the writer, criticism deteriorates into the nattering of coteries, trivial point-scoring and bookish monologue. 
       Whom are we writing for?
       The best criticism is written for only one person. It is up to the writer to decide who this person should be. Of the thousands of art reviews I have written over the last 40 years, the most effective, in my view, have been the great many silently addressed to my sister, Erin. (I have always gone wrong when I tried writing for a “general reader.”) Erin is a traveller; she is socially active, interested in art and writing and architecture, and open to new experiences, but not easily impressed. I have always believed that, if I could convince Erin that such-and-such an artwork or work of architecture was worth her attention--if I could argue my way past her flourishing scepticism--then I could convince anyone. I would urge every new writer to adopt this approach--to find one questioning person to write for, framing every review as a fervent message to him or her. 
       What constitutes solid criticism?
       Baudelaire’s answer to this question, in an 1846 essay, has never been surpassed: “To be just, that is to say, to justify its existence, criticism should be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view that opens up the widest horizons.”
       Partial: rooted in the concrete circumstances of the critic’s experience, convictions and abilities. Adopting a stand-point of Olympian objectivity dooms criticism to irrelevance. One’s judgements of a given artwork should emerge from among the other urgencies of the critic’s life--sexual, social, political, intellectual. 
       Passionate: radically and sensuously engaged with the work at hand, with what it tells us about the artist’s engagements and passions. This involves self-surrender to the artwork, a willingness to be delighted, angered, even frightened by what the work argues. Cultural theory is the poetry of the present moment, with indisputable pleasures and allures. But it should never be used as a mechanism for protecting the self from the dangerous seduction at the heart of all critical practice that matters.
       Political: in both the broadest and the most basic sense--grounded, that is, in the critic’s role as an actor in the urban political economy, as an engaged witness to the permutations of life in the city. Art criticism must be an ongoing diagnosis of the pathologies and signs of health within the body politic, if it is to have any claim at all on the attention and imagination of the citizens.
       Should art criticism be more negative?
       This question came up several times during the critics’ session. I think Baudelaire’s strategy suggests an answer: By addressing artworks with partial, passionate and political attention, the critic will inevitably come to conclusions about the worth-whileness of the enterprise at hand. These conclusions may be either “negative” or “positive”; but, if argued clearly and persuasively, they will certainly become valuable contributions to the public discussion of art and culture. I believe, in other words, that for the critic to start out with the intention of being either “negative” or “positive” is a mistake. The outcome will be determined in practice, and only there.

The discussion continues: See Leah Sandals' blog here.

25 November 2009

The Deer

       All Toronto was fascinated this week by the female deer that suddenly appeared near Union Station, wandered north among the skyscrapers of the financial district, and finally lay down in a green patch beside an office tower up Bay Street. The capture of the lovely doe had the atmosphere of a hostage-taking. Crime-scene tape cordoned off the area where the bewildered animal had come to rest, streets were closed and many police and other officials were on hand, including an emergency task force in their bullet-proof vests. When struck by a tranquillizer dart, the doe bolted, but she was quickly subdued by a jolt from a stun-gun. The drama ended when she was released into the inner-city lakeshore wilderness of Tommy Thompson Park, on the city’s east side.
       Toronto is no stranger to wildlife. Skunks and racoons ramble freely through our neighbourhoods. Coyotes stalk the parks and railway corridors, and foxes make their dens in the ravines. Wolves have been sighted in the Rouge River valley, in the city’s north-eastern reaches, and bears can be nuisances in the most far-flung northern suburbs. What made this week’s incident remarkable, of course, was the arrival of so large a forest animal in the very heart of the metropolis.
       There has been speculation in the media about how the doe made her way downtown from the nearest places where deer are commonplace. But a glance at the city map resolves some of the mystery. Though we don’t tend to think of it this way, Toronto is one of the greenest large cities in the developed world. Long fingers of forest penetrate deep into the urban fabric alongside the many streams and little rivers that flow southward across the post-glacial landscape, opening avenues for all manner of wild things to travel around town. It was probably only a matter of time before some large wild animal found itself amid the banking towers.
       Quite rightly, the doe became an instant celebrity in these parts, photographed and videotaped and documented lavishly by curious onlookers and news people. But she was more than that. Her appearance came as a welcome reminder of how close Toronto still is to the rough country that once covered its site, and how much of that green gift still exists within the bounds of the great city.

21 November 2009

Rob MacDonald at Gallery 345

       Looking at Picasso’s Cubist pictures of guitars, I have wondered what music these instruments would make, if they could be lifted from the fractured paint pavements and played by an expert musician. Now, after tonight’s performance of Tōru Takemitsu’s Into the Woods by guitarist Rob MacDonald, I know.
       The music would be Takemitsu’s angular, skilful mix of episodes, some from the late nineteenth-century Spanish repertoire popularized by Segovia; others are others cascading fragments of piquant tone rows in direct descent from Webern, an early influence on the composer. The musical result, like one of Picasso’s depictions of guitars in grey and brown from around 1912, is both familiar and strange, recognizable and tilting toward the abstract--subtly charged with romance and a certain melancholy, yet articulated with the spartan clarity that was classical modernism's gift in all the arts.

        MacDonald’s mindful rendering of Takemitsu’s lovely three-part piece let me hear something I had only seen in art, and never, before tonight, really understood.

 10 November 2009

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

      The Kandinsky retrospective now on view at New York’s Guggenheim Museum is among the best chronological surveys of a modern artist that I have ever seen. Astutely curated and edited, the show argues for Kandinsky’s high creative attainment at every stage in his career, including his output in Paris at the end of it, which some critics have found weak. (I remain unconvinced about this late work--though almost everything that precedes it in this exhibition is persuasive.)
       I decided to use this show as an occasion to read Kandinsky’s tract Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). Studying this little book as I did, right after seeing the retrospective, was surprising. In sharp contrast to the agile, highly original and athletic struggle so powerfully evident in the contemporary paintings, the basic philosophy of the book is a melange of trendy notions popular in its optimistic pre-war moment.
       Many Europeans at the time, from social theorists to missionaries and imperialists, believed that a new era of peace and prosperity was about to dawn. Following the contours of a very old trope in Western religious culture--a new spiritual Sun rising and putting to flight the shadows of ignorance--Kandinsky asserts that the long night of materialism is drawing to a close; a new and more spiritual day will succeed it. Or, as he puts it: “After the period of materialist effort, which held the soul in check until it was shaken off as evil, the soul is emerging, purged by trials and sufferings.” He quotes Madame Blavatsky approvingly: “”The earth will be heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with what is now.”
       Humankind will be led from darkness into this new sunny landscape by artists, yet to emerge, who possess unique refinement, a surfeit of “finer feelings.” For, no matter how deep the emergency of materialism may be, “there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision....Scorned and hated, he drags after him over the stones the heavy chariot of a divided humanity, ever forwards and upwards.”
       With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how dangerous European hankerings for visionary leaders turned out to be in the post-war decades. But there is a prior problem here, having to do with the yearning for the “spiritual” itself. Kandinsky’s use of the word throughout the text is slippery, taking on connotations, in different contexts, of “sensibility,” “refinement,” the “innerer Klang” of the soul freed from materialism. Unlike older traditions of Western spirituality, Kandinsky’s version is outside history, without roots in an ethic that proposes an effective practice of social engagement. I am not saying that such a rootless spirituality cannot exist; only that I cannot imagine it.

14 October 2009
The Secret Agent

       The London terrorists of the 1880s portrayed in Joseph Conrad’s imperfect 1907 novel The Secret Agent are chiefly remarkable for their appalling simplicity of spirit. 
       Verloc, described by Conrad as "undemonstrative and burly in a fat-pig style,” is settled comfortably into petty-bourgeois family life behind his soft-porn shop on a shabby side-street; his spying for a continental embassy (perhaps Russian) makes him duplicitous, of course, but not complex. Michaelis has emerged from 20 years in prison morbidly obese, the pet of a high-society woman Conrad sarcastically calls “the great lady,” and obsessed by a single tatter of an idea--a kind of crude historical materialism--ripped from the whole fabric of Marx’s thought.
       Then there is Karl Yundt. Throughout a long career in anarchist circles, this toothless, “senile sensualist” has earned a reputation as a flamboyant ranter. “The all but moribund veteran of dynamite wars had been a great actor in his time,” Conrad tells us, but “the famous terrorist had never in his life raised personally as much as his little finger against the social edifice.” He is noisy, then; but ineffectual.
       Anyone who lived through the campus tumults of the 1960s, as I did, will immediately recognize Comrade Ossipon: the conceited radical whose lyrical revolutionary chatter is largely intended to get young women into bed, and to part them from their money. The Professor, on the other hand, is a figure more obscure, eerie: a nihilist technician without visions of the future or theories about the past in his head, whose ambition is simply to fabricate the perfect bomb detonator.
       Conrad hates these characters; he hates their terrorist cell, its blood-curdling bombast, its mental paralysis and empty posturing. But despite the author’s animus, which occasionally coarsens his narrative, we glimpse at once in these figures the terrorists and would-be terrorists now among us and abroad in the world: men and women who see only what is repulsive about bourgeois culture, and defend themselves against its blandishments with tiny, violent ideas; who have never succumbed to the temptations of beauty in complex Western literature, music, art, architecture.
       Though Conrad does not feel it, there is something alluring about people who practice such total rejection of Western culture. Bourgeois society can never have enough of these pseudo-heroes of renunciation. The outsider, the misfit, daring bank robber, dashing revolutionary, the sexual renegade: Each is despised and feared at the outset (as the Islamist terrorist is despised and feared nowadays), each in turn is eventually embraced, depicted on T-shirts, celebrated in film and television shows, until at last discarded in favour of some newer fodder in this insatiable cycle of consumption. The attraction of the rejectionist lies, surely, in the promise of innocence and simplicity he represents, the possibility of the longed-for freedom from Western crime, anxiety and complicity with evil. Such freedom does not exist. To believe it does is to live in the illusion that begets anarchism and terrorism. To these facts, Conrad bears consistent witness.

22 October 2009

       While writing the note above, I came across a new offering by Semiotext(e) entitled The Coming Insurrection. According to the title page, the author of this little book is a group calling itself The Invisible Committee, though police in France believe it to be the work of a Frenchman named Julien Coupat, 34. Coupat and several associates were detained in November, 2008, for allegedly sabotaging the French national railway’s high-speed TGV line. The Semiotext(e) translation contains an introduction written since the arrests.
       The Coming Insurrection, in imitation of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, falls into two parts: a long analysis of the contemporary culture of capitalism, and a somewhat shorter scheme of action. These sections are remarkable for their brisk updating (and, occasionally, abandonment) of traditional Marxist scrutiny and prescription to suit the circumstances of post-industrialized, networked Western society. The revolutionary potential of the proletariat, for example, is presumably extinct. Instead of the workers, disillusioned and disaffected youth, organized into like-minded, horizontal constellations of “communes” and armed with the means and methods of sabotage, retaliation and massive urban disruption, are to be the vanguard of the revolt against the capitalist order.
       As I read these recommendations, the 130 years separating us from the world of The Secret Agent seemed to collapse into no time at all: We can imagine Conrad’s terrorists revelling in nearly identical fantasies of their world-historical role, at least when they were young, and before prison and age turned them into the flabby gas-bags we meet in the novel. 
       As usually happens in futuristic books of The Coming Insurrection’s sort, the most interesting pages turn out to be those devoted to the present age and its ills. The purview of the author (or authors) is wide and generally up to date, and the analysis is penetrating, though cursory: This is, after all, a manifesto, not a detailed treatise. The critiques of schools (especially in France, though the commentary is more widely applicable), various ecological and environmental movements, contemporary ideas of urbanism, and other topics will probably strike many readers, not just extremists, as humane, apt and serious.
       But the book loses me--well before it gets on to urging terror--at the point it rejects the West out of hand. Everything about the West is wrong; its landscape is filled with what the authors call the “temples” that enshrine this wrongness: by which they mean, I assume, not only police stations and jails and schools and corporate headquarters, but also the museums and universities I treasure. “In our time of utter decadence,” they write, “the only thing imposing about temples is the dismal truth that they are already in ruins. [Emphasis in the original.] Annihilating this nothingness is hardly a sad task. It gives action a fresh demeanour.” And elsewhere: “To decide for the death of civilization, then to work out how it will happen: only decision will rid us of the corpse.”
       Such denunciation of the West is, of course, a very Western thing to do. No civilization in history has more vigorously criticized itself than the modern West--renounced itself and all its works, pronounced itself decadent, dying or dead. Holding ourselves, our institutions and ideas, up to doubt and attack is apparently something we Westerners need to do in order to stay alive, and to keep our culture alive; and, indeed, the fact that we continue to do so with great energy is one sign that the West is still very much alive. The Coming Insurrection, despite its valiant attempts to make a clean, apocalyptic break with the West--or, rather, exactly because of them--is a work of imagination within an important Western tradition, and, for that reason, invites our attention.

 2 October 2009

The Castle

       In the blizzard of commentary that swirls around the name of Franz Kafka, the reader frequently encounters the claim that The Castle (published posthumously in 1926) prefigures the future. This proposal usually specifies which future Kafka foresaw: the regime of soul-withering, body-destroying terror and violence unleashed against domestic populations within a decade of the book's appearance in both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. My problem with this conjecture is that it puts The Castle conveniently behind us in history, and implicitly congratulates bourgeois society for having gotten beyond all that. I do believe Kafka was prophetic in this book; but his foreknowledge goes to a condition that is still in our future, and that no-one now alive will probably live to see.
       In the village K. enters at the outset of The Castle, one imagines, there had been a liberal revolution: The courtiers who had once attended Count Westwest were replaced at this time in the distant past by bureaucrats and technocrats, the rational, energetic men of a newer age, the ancestors of those “gentlemen of the Castle” we encounter in the novel. By the time of K.’s arrival, the earlier will to rationalization has vanished, giving way to the dead-end culture of these gentlemen, with their endless “interviews” that benefit no-one, pointless heaping up of information, incessant and onanistic busywork.
       The police regimes of National Socialism and Stalinism had their “interviews” and ceaseless compilations of dossiers, of course; but both systems were radical and revolutionary to the end. In The Castle, there is no violence, no strong dialectic between the oppressed and their oppressors: All the tensions in class society have been resolved into a general stagnation and stasis accepted by both the villagers and the gentlemen of the Castle as normality. This is the future to which The Castle points us: that state of affairs in which the last great impulses of political and cultural modernization that came surging out the Enlightenment--secularization and emancipation, democracy, the displacement of aristocrats by citizen-bureaucrats in the running of the state--have become exhausted, leaving merely the dry husks of the institutions that modernization brought forth.