Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

 

Marx, Shakespeare, King Lear and the modern precariat
Saturday, 31 March 2018 11:52

Marx, Shakespeare, King Lear and the modern precariat

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell outlines a Marxist reading of Shakespeare, and illustrates it with an analysis of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Among Marxism’s core insights is that all history since the end of the primitive society has been a history of class societies and class struggle. Art does not arise in a vacuum; it is an integral part of the historical process and of human comprehension of the world. Therefore, the most appropriate way of reaching the core of a work of art is to understand it in the context of the time in which it originates and the social forces of that epoch.

With Shakespeare an art arises that is historically self-aware, conscious that the reality it represents is historical. Historical change is rooted in Shakespeare’s plays. They are built around a historical conflict. The task of interpretation – in both theatre and criticism – is to grasp this basic conflict. Any serious attempt to comprehend Shakespeare’s plays is to understand the time from which they come, the late Renaissance, early 17th c England: the early modern period as a time of epochal upheavals, the formation of the first phase of bourgeois society in which Shakespeare’s theatre originates.

In his tragedies, Shakespeare presents the fundamental conflict of opposing historical forces that arose after the collapse of the medieval world and the rise of the early bourgeoisie. These opposing forces within the bourgeoisie – in terms taken from the Renaissance – are humanism and Machiavellianism; humanism in the sense of an Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, Machiavellianism after Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the famous breviary on gaining and retaining power.

A third force involved in the basic constellation are the representatives of the old order, the mediaeval-feudal world. The fourth player in this overall constellation is the plebeian element, the working people, who are given a voice for the first time as gravediggers in Hamlet. The conflict of the tragedies originates within these forces.

A Marxist reading of King Lear

The main social forces in the play:
Lear (doubled by Gloucester) is an absolute feudal monarch who has lost touch with his people and with his own understanding. His is the strictly ordered feudal world, where a person’s place within the hierarchy was clearly defined and could not be changed. Lear is incapable of understanding the kind of disrespect shown to him by his elder daughters. Their disregard for him and for his dignity once he has handed over his power and his kingdom to them shatters his world completely. When he abandons the society he has known, and is indeed ejected from it by these daughters, he enters the heath as a naked man, a man who has lost everything.

The tempest that rages on the heath is symbolic of what is going on in Lear’s head. In the middle of this violent storm, in the territory of the poor and “mad,” Lear gains a profound understanding of the condition of the dispossessed. Before he enters the hovel he prays for “you houseless poverty” for the homeless. He realises:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

As he is exposed to the poor and the homeless, the evicted, he realises that this is going on in his own kingdom and that he has not taken an interest in the wretched. This insight is not madness but the opposite of madness. When Lear encounters Edgar, who pretends to be a mad beggar dressed in the most meagre of rags, if not indeed naked, his insight goes further again:

Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.—Off, off, you lendings! Come. Unbutton here. (tears at his clothes)

Here he discovers essential humanity, “the thing itself,” “unaccommodated man.” This is a crucial moment in Lear’s development. Symbolically, to emphasise this new understanding he tears off his clothes. Of course, there are also expressions of genuine madness, sometimes simply for comic relief; but very often there is hidden reason in these, such as in Lear’s mock trial of Goneril and Regan, with Edgar and the Fool as judges. He asks:

Then let them anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?

Lear here seeks a scientific, objective examination of what makes hard hearts. He has come a long way. Later in the play, when Lear meets the blinded Gloucester near Dover, he continues to be “unhinged,” commenting on social injustice:

A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?

Or he observes:

Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

Edgar too recognises Lear’s deep new understanding, remarking: “Reason in madness”. This is a profound growth in humanity in Lear. Lear’s destruction means the loss of his new understanding of the plight of the dispossessed, his appreciation of the fundamental equality of human beings, the loss of his new humanity. This makes his death tragic.

Goneril, Regan, Edmund and Cornwall are the self-interested younger-generation Machiavellians in this play. It is clear to the audience from the start that they are adept at deception. However, just how inhuman they are is revealed only in their actions over time. In many ways they seem quite modern to us in their thinking and acting. Genuine affection, honesty and loyalty mean nothing to them; personal gain is everything, even if it costs the dignity and life of others.

Cordelia and Edgar are established as independent, loyal characters (Edgar after being initially deceived by the Machiavellian brother), willing to sacrifice their lives for justice. Cordelia and Edgar embody the tradition of Renaissance humanism; they are wise, honest and loyal and have a sense of the common good. Although Cordelia dies as a result of Edmund’s machinations, Edgar, who is proclaimed king by Albany, vows to rule in her spirit.

What is the play about?

The threat of a new Machiavellian order
A major theme in this play is the cataclysmic clash of social orders: the old absolute, feudal monarch is deprived of his royal status and power, his dignity, his right to house and home, by his elder daughters, the new Machiavellian generation. Alongside the dangerous, indeed murderous new power there are humanist forces that are in a position to lead society forward in an inclusive, honest and humane way.

Good kingship or leadership
In this play, as in Hamlet and Macbeth, Shakespeare brings to the fore the question of what makes a good leader, or king. Such leaders must be, above all, honest and wise and must act in the interests of the common good. Good leaders must be willing to sacrifice their lives in the defeat of evil forces.

The fundamental equality of humankind
Lear, the anointed king, is driven into a space outside this new society. At that moment, he shares his life with the naked wretches of his realm, recognises and affirms their common humanity. This in turn makes him realise the enormous social inequity and corruption in his kingdom, wrongs for which he is responsible. Ultimately, his experience leads him to understand that only a fair distribution of wealth can remedy this.

Social injustice created by social hierarchy
All the outcasts on the heath arrive at an understanding that the way things are in England is wrong. All of them describe corruption, the ignorance of the powerful, and the indifference towards the poor. They all envisage the possibility of a different kind of society, one in which, as the Fool says, the world will be put on its feet. This theme of a utopia, of what might be, is inherent in the central themes of the play.

Shakespeare is still relevant today. His plays are not about some hazy universal human condition – unchanging and unchangeable. His tragedies are rooted in history, in early capitalism. They are about his times and therefore about our times.

In an expression of their new historical place in early 17th c Britain, the bourgeoisie developed both a humanist and a Machiavellian rationale. These are two sides of the same society, its potential for both a utopian and a totalitarian direction. In the tragedies both potentials are put on stage, as well as characters caught in between. Interestingly, while we see a number of “pure” Machiavellians, few characters are cast as “pure” Christian princes or princesses, in Erasmus’s terms; examples might be King Edward I in “Macbeth” or even Cordelia in “King Lear”. These characters are often in the background, like a moral compass.

Instead, Shakespeare finds the idealised Renaissance image of humankind scattered among a number of people. The human potential that many of his characters show combines into a future vision of a social order commensurate with the needs of humankind and so points into the future of humanity. In this respect, Shakespeare’s positive characters are of their time and also born before their time in terms of their potential.

The Machiavellians present the greatest danger to the common good. They are depicted as dangerous and murderous. In each case their inhumanity causes the downfall of the tragic hero. Shakespeare’s historical optimism at the beginning of the era in which we still live allows him to end his tragedies with the destruction of the Machiavellians.

By revealing the nature of the epoch Shakespeare alerts us to the dangers. He points to who is the enemy of humanity and who fights to preserve it. In this sense, Shakespeare is not simply of historical interest, he has something valuable to contribute when we think about the times we live in now and our future.

King Lear takes the gravediggers’ understanding of human equality in Hamlet to a different level. Lear’s literal nakedness on the heath marks an unparalleled insight into common human nature and identification with the poorest of the poor. Lear discovers human dignity when he is stripped of everything.

In today’s world, the plight of the precariat and of refugees comes close to what Shakespeare was illustrating. Lear’s recognition of human dignity, of social injustice, and the need for an equal distribution of wealth, has lost none of its urgency. By putting before his audience the very essence of his time, and thereby ours, Shakespeare shows how it can and must change. This is what makes his plays so important for us now.

Jenny Farrell is the author of “Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies. A Comprehensive Introduction.” Nuascéalta, 2016.

Paul Robeson: activist, communist and spokesperson for the oppressed of the earth
Saturday, 31 March 2018 11:06

Paul Robeson: activist, communist and spokesperson for the oppressed of the earth

Published in Music

On the 120th anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth, Jenny Farrell tells the story of his life. 

"The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

- Paul Robeson at a rally in London’s Albert Hall on 24 June 1937, in support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic.

Paul Robeson, son of an escaped slave, was born into apartheid America on 9 April 1898, 120 years ago. Best known as a bass-baritone singer, he was also an outstanding actor and consummate athlete, fighting against racial discrimination in sports. He was a fearless political activist in the struggles for emancipation at home, a supporter of all liberation movements, a friend of the Soviet Union and the socialist world. He sang in over 20 languages, including Chinese, Russian, and African dialects. He was the first singer to perform an entire programme of spirituals and songs of the African-American experience, giving them the recognition of a concert stage and making them known worldwide. Robeson was also the first to refuse to perform before segregated audiences. He was the first African-American actor to perform as Othello in the US, based on his ground-breaking interpretation of this character and the first in Britain since Ira Aldridge in the 19th century. He was the most significant African-American actor in the US on stage and screen and first African-American actor to gain international prominence, bringing dignity and respect to African-American characters. He was a worldwide symbol of the artist as activist and spokesperson of the oppressed of the earth.

When he died in 1976, he lived in seclusion with his sister in Philadelphia, standing firm on all his political convictions, yet never having fully recovered from the enormous pressure of the witch-hunt against him. The responsibility for this tragic trajectory lies with the racism and anti – communism of the McCarthy era.

Robeson met and married Eslanda (Essie) Goode, first African-American analytical chemist working at Columbia Medical Center in New York, activist, writer and orator, in 1921. When it became clear he could not work as a lawyer because of racism, he began his singing career in the mid-1920s with radically new interpretations of spirituals. The spirituals express the hardship of slavery in biblical language, and often contain veiled messages and resistance. Thus, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, not merely expresses Robeson’s own experience of losing his mother at an early age, but also describes the severance of families through slavery. Further, Robeson’s interpretation adds his father’s experience of those African-Americans who fled the South to escape from slavery. Another spiritual, “Go Down Moses”, celebrates the release of the Israelites from captivity, something Robeson’s audience understood referring to their own freedom.

A turning point in Robeson’s life were his years in London, 1927-39. Here, he formed his outlook on world affairs, became an internationalist, fully embraced socialism, identified with the oppressed working class, regardless of colour. In London he discovered Africa and forged life-long friendships with Jomo Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Azikiwe (also, the future Indian leader Nehru) – and African seamen in the ports. Robeson began to study African culture, learn African languages, and embrace languages as gateways to the nations of the world: “It is fascinating … to find flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius”. He also came to realise that alongside “the towering achievements of the cultures of ancient Greece and China there stood the culture of Africa, unseen and denied by the imperialist looters of Africa’s material wealth … and I came to learn of the remarkable kinship between African and Chinese culture.” Robeson indeed went on to develop a theory whereby a universal pentatonic tonality links musical folk cultures across the continents.

Robeson worked as a celebrated actor and singer in London, playing Othello and other important roles. During these years, he came to realise one could not rely on middle-class African-Americans in the emancipation struggle, recognising their dependence on their White masters. Robeson grasped that the lives of the oppressed were connected, evident in their music, and that alliances must be forged across geographical and racial differences, along the lines of class. He joined the working-class Unity Theatre in London, in an effort to help build workers’ theatres and develop a working-class culture in its full meaning.

Concomitantly, Robeson became active in the political issues of the time: the Spanish Civil War, anti-fascism, and the liberation struggles in Africa and Asia. Indeed, he became the supreme emblem of this global battle for emancipation. Through his interest in Africa, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union, which had overcome the backwardness of Czarist Russia. He first went there in 1934, struck by “a place where coloured people walked secure and free as equals” - he arranged for his son to attend school in Moscow for two years, a fact cited later as a reason to withdraw Robeson’s passport. Robeson learnt Russian to perfection and felt great empathy with the USSR.

Robeson sings the Song of The Volga Boatmen

Robeson’s journey to Spain in 1938 was a milestone in his life: “I sang with my whole heart and soul for these gallant fighters of the International Brigade. A new, warm feeling for my homeland grew within me as I met the men of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion … My heart was filled with admiration and love for these white Americans, and there was a great sense of pride in my own people when I saw that there were Negroes, too, in the ranks of the Lincoln men in Spain.”

His partisan involvement in the Spanish Civil War shows Robeson’s courage in the international struggle against fascism. In beleaguered Madrid, the Republican forces used Robeson’s music as a weapon, broadcasting it through loudspeakers to the fascist trenches.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Robesons returned to the struggle in America, only delaying for Paul to finish filming The Proud Valley, a film about an African-American becoming one of a mining community in Wales, filmed on location in the coalfields. This film, he “was most proud to make”, forged a deep bond between Robeson and the Welsh.

Back in the US, acting was an important source of income, e.g. playing Othello in the incredibly successful Broadway production in 1942/43, whilst continuing his political commitments.

In the US, Robeson used his celebrity effectively, in a prolonged campaign against segregation, heralding the boycotts of the civil rights era. He headed the anti-lynching movement, leading a delegation to the White House. When Truman refused to act, Robeson, in December 1951, presented a petition “We charge Genocide” to the United Nations, on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress, charging that the U.S. violated Article II of the U.N. Genocide Convention by failing to prevent the lynching of African-Americans.

At the Paris Peace Convention in April 1949, he stated: “It is unthinkable that American Negroes could go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity.” This speech resulted in a witch-hunt against him. In August 1949, the notorious racist and anti-communist assault took place at Peekskill, thwarting a concert which had been organised with Howard Fast and Pete Seeger. It left many seriously injured.

peekskill riots 

Angry locals from Westchester County, New York shout hate-filled insults at the carloads of concert-goers arriving to hear the singer Paul Robeson, the most famous African-American of the day, perform at an open-air concert in Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill, on September 4th, 1949. A state trooper smirks and does nothing. Photo: History Today.

This his unyielding stand on the rights of African-Americans, and Robeson’s continued support of the USSR and world peace, led to his silencing. The state department withdrew his passport, and that of his wife and son, denying him the right to travel.

By 1952, Robeson was, according to Pete Seeger, “the most blacklisted performer in America”. No commercial hall was available to him, no producer promoted him, and his acting career finished. The FBI threatened concert organisers, shops and radio stations banned his records. From the height of fame, Robeson was turned into a non-person. From a career of intense activity he was blacklisted, deprived of public life and the source of his income. The African-American bourgeoisie failed to support Robeson, and colluded in this campaign.

He fought back by giving famous concerts, which circumvented the travel ban. He sang on the Canadian border to audiences on the other side. He gave transatlantic telephone concerts in England and Wales. The national ‘Let Paul Robeson Sing’ solidarity committee, the British Actors’ Equity Association and 27 MPs organised for Robeson to sing by telephone. This epic concert in St Pancras Town Hall on 26 May 1957, unforgettable for anybody who witnessed it, increased the pressure on the US government to return the passport.

 JF St Pancras town hall

In June 1958, years after taking his passport, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny a US passport on political grounds. Robeson immediately embarked on a worldwide tour, flying first to London. He sang to millions on television and radio and became the first lay person - and the first non-White - to take the pulpit in St Paul's Cathedral, with 4000 spectators inside and 5000 outside.

In the late 1950s, the world was changing, with African nations beginning to achieve independence. Robeson’s last concert tour in 1960, took him to Australia, where he gave the first recital at the Sydney Opera House - to the trade unionists who were constructing the building. He was the first to speak publically here about the oppression of the indigenous people by Europeans.

In Australia and elsewhere, Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River”, one of his best-known songs. Robeson changed the words of this song, originally written for The Show Boat, transforming it from acceptance of oppression to a song of resistance: the desire for freedom would prevail:

There’s an old man called the Mississippi,
That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.
What does he care if the world’s got troubles?
What does he care if the world ain’t free?

Tote that barge, lift that bale,
You show a little grit an’ you lands in jail.
But I keeps laffin’ instead of cryin’;
I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’,
And Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.

I would like to thank Christine Naumann, former curator at the Academy of the Arts Berlin, Paul Robeson Archives, for her advice.

A witness to ruthless oppression: Maxim Gorky
Monday, 05 March 2018 22:36

A witness to ruthless oppression: Maxim Gorky

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell introduces the life and poetry of Maxim Gorky, who was born 150 years ago, and presents his poem Storm Petrel, prophesying revolution.

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, or Maxim Gorky, was born 28 March 1868 in Nizhny Novgorod (named Gorky,1932-1990), and died 14 June 1936. He was a Russian and Soviet writer, the founder of socialist realism in literature, and a political activist.

Gorky’s father, a carpenter, died of cholera aged 31. The transition to his grandfather’s world of poverty and violence shocked him. His uncles stabbed their wives to death; one of them sent to Siberia. When Gorky visited the house of his childhood many years later, he could not enter it. Memories were too traumatic. Gorky owed his survival to his illiterate grandmother Akulina, whose storehouse of legends and fairy tales was inexhaustible.

Gorky’s grandfather taught him to read from the prayer book. The impoverished owner of a dye-house, he moved the family to the outskirts of town, where they lived among the outcast. The harshness of this existence stayed with Gorky for life.

His mother read secular books with him. Nearly nine in early 1877, he started elementary school, leaving it due to poverty, aged ten. All his life Gorky was aware of his lack of a formal education.

Only ten years old, he contributed to the family’s livelihood by collecting rags, nails, and horseshoes, or stealing wooden boards. His mother died of consumption that year, aged just 35. Alexei had to leave the house.

Along the Volga, he observed labourers and boatmen; he witnessed child prostitution in the towns. Depictions of violated women are among the most shocking scenes in Gorky’s writings.

Books increasingly captivated Gorky. He read secretly by night, loved Byron’s rebellion, and above all Dickens, who truly loved people.

Gorky’s stay in Kazan became a turning point. Here, he met people who not only suffered, but also fought to change social conditions. He felt inspired by the populists, or folk friends, members of a revolutionary movement of the 1870s. Stirred by passionate belief in the people, they sought political renewal; the more radical of them advocated revolution.

When the students went on strike at Kazan University, Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) was among them. Gorky joined a study circle, discussing emancipation. Serfdom had recently been abolished. The group debated Tolstoy’s ideas and asked Gorky to seek his advice on the creation of an agricultural colony.

In autumn 1888, Gorky began his years on the road, desiring to learn more of Russia and its people. After these travels, Gorky began writing. His story ‘Chelkash,’ about a harbour thief was an immediate sensation and Gorky was hailed the voice of the people. His pen name Gorky stems from that time. His father, Maxim, had been called the bitter one (“Gorky”) because he told people the bitter truth.

Gorky worked as a journalist and published the 3-volume ‘Sketches and Stories’ (1898-1899). He wrote with compassion and optimism about the barefooted and outcasts. His strong, colourful, keenly observed characters, affirm life and the power of humankind. He understood and depicted realistically their social context, at times, glorifying the rebels. At this early stage, Gorky met and befriended Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Lenin. Chekhov encouraged him to try drama, which resulted in his most famous play, ‘The Lower Depths’ (1902), based on his stories of outcasts, and without an individual hero. Stanislavsky directed the play in Moscow and it became an instant success in Europe and the US. Max Reinhardt’s theatre in Berlin, staged the play on 500 consecutive evenings. It became one of the most performed plays of world literature.

Gorky’s descriptions of the barefooted gained him a place in Russian literature. In the early 1890s, there were five million barefooted in Russia, due to the great famine. Many died of starvation, or perished in dirty hostels and overcrowded prisons. While in the past, the barefooted had been dismissed as wretched drunkards, thieves and murderers, Gorky describes them as confident people, rebels even, who defy the yoke of serfdom. Gorky’s hatred for the establishment had grown with his travels. He had experienced enormous class differences in Russia and ruthless oppression.

The first translations of Gorky’s work appeared in 1899: two years later Gorky was known worldwide. He made friends with the painter Repin, and the singer Shalyapin. His play “The Philistines”, the first time the working class appear on the Russian stage, was performed under police observation.

Gorky, exiled to Arzamas, central Russia, in 1902, met radicals there and supported the Social Democrats with money from his publications. He set up an illegal printing press, began publishing radical leaflets and hoped to achieve a united front of the working class and liberal intelligentsia. Russia’s war against Japan had shown that the Czarist Empire was on its last legs, opposition movements gained impetus.

On Bloody Sunday, 9 January1905, Czarist forces in St. Petersburg killed over a thousand demonstrators. Gorky’s arrest and imprisonment caused an international outcry, contributing to his release. Unrest spread across the country, students and workers went on strike, and the battle ship Potemkin’s crew mutinied. A general strike paralysed the country. The Czar had to introduce civil rights and convene a legislative assembly, the Duma. Gorky’s apartment looked like an arsenal. Workers rose, but surrendered after an eleven-day struggle.

In early 1906, Gorky travelled secretly to Finland where the Finns welcomed him enthusiastically. He met Lenin in Helsingfors. They decided that he should leave Russia and act as an unofficial ambassador for the new Russia, collecting money for the revolution. The US seemed suited for such a fundraising tour. American Socialists had put forward the plan. Sympathisers like Mark Twain and Jack London promised their Russian colleague help. Gorky topped the bestseller list and the Metropolitan Theatre played ‘The Lower Depths’ to a full house.

Gorky travelled via Berlin. He met with leaders of the German social democracy, Bebel, Kautsky, Liebknecht and Luxemburg. He saw Max Reinhardt and played Luca in ‘The Lower Depths’ at the Deutsches Theater. He urged all Western countries not to lend Russia money, warning it would go towards greater oppression.

For millions of Americans, Gorky’s name stood for Russian liberation. The trip was to be a goodwill tour from coast to coast. Arriving 10 April 1906, many greeted Gorky. Mark Twain called for support for the Russian Revolution. Gorky spoke of his enthusiasm for Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain. He praised the liberty of the American people. However, his support of the trade union leaders charged with murdering a former governor in Idaho and, worse, the revelation that Gorky had travelled to America with his partner Maria, while still married to Katya was too much for puritan America. Even Mark Twain objected, as did William Dean Howells, and Roosevelt refused to receive him. One year later, George Bernard Shaw refused to go to America because of Gorky’s treatment.

Only John Martin and Prestonia Mann, leaders of the American Fabian Society, welcomed him in their home. Gorky went on a lecture tour through the USA, speaking in Williamsburg, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Increasingly, he criticised American society, and was sensitive to the Native Americans. He continued to praise Walt Whitman, pioneer of freedom and beauty, who filled his poems with a pagan love of life. He wrote several pamphlets commenting on the fetish of the dollar.

American publishers now no longer published Gorky’s books, mainly because newspaper magnate Hearst held the exclusive rights. Here in America, Gorky finished his play “Enemies” and began the novel “The Mother”. Both works deal with the workers’ unrest in Russia. In “Enemies” (1906) Gorky depicts class antagonism in capitalist society and the determined struggle of the proletariat. “The Mother” became the foundation text of socialist realism and one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. Gorky showed the rise of the workers’ movement, its revolutionary development under party leadership. For the first time, the proletarian revolutionary movement found realistic representation. With Pavel Vlasov, Gorky created a hero of the era – a proletarian revolutionary and party worker. The mother’s character vividly shows the growth of a revolutionary among the people.

Gorky’s attacks on the Russian government meant he could not return home. He received political asylum in Italy. He arrived in Naples on 26 October 1906, unaware that Italy would be his home for almost eight years and that he would write more than half of his works here. Gorky was already famous in Italy and his plays were performed to full houses. In November, he moved to Capri, where he received an invitation to the Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in London. The congress opened on 13 May1907 at the Southgate Brotherhood Church in Islington and lasted until 1 June. Lenin, Trotsky and Plekhanov attended. Gorky lectured on contemporary Russian literature in Hyde Park.

Many Russian writers visited him on Capri, as did Repin, Rachmaninov, Shalyapin and Stanislavski. He felt especially close to Shalyapin, compatriot from Nizhny Novgorod, who sang about the strength and beauty of the Russian homeland.

Gorky lived in Capri until 1913, when the Russian Duma passed an amnesty act to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Together with Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, he set up a “Party school” to educate working class leaders. Gorky lectured in the history of Russian literature. At that time, Gorky was close to Bogdanov, who advocated a “religion of socialism,” and Gorky coined the term “God-building,” combining religion with Marxism. Lenin disapproved, opposed the school and founded his own in Paris. Lenin rejected religion outright and thought Gorky a romantic.

On 31 December 1913, Gorky returned to Russia and helped establish the first Workers’ and Peasants’ University, the World Literature Publishing House, and Petrograd Theatre. He published the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy, “My Childhood” (1913-14), followed by “In the World” (1916), and “My Universities” (1922). In these, author-narrator Alyosha Peshkov, describes growing up in a Volga River town, and his youth.

When World War I broke out, Gorky lampooned the jingoism and ostracised his adopted son Zinovy Peshkov for joining the army, calling on conscripts to refuse military service.

In 1915, he founded a publishing house for children’s books, to promote children’s interest in good literature and giving them a sense of the purpose of life. He also intended to publish a series on outstanding people.

In 1921-22, Gorky fought against famine, cooperating with Fridtjof Nansen to bring food to Russia. He stated in an interview with the Daily Herald that there was no reason not to recognise the Soviet Union, and lifting the West’s economic boycott would save lives.

Gorky left the USSR again in October 1921. He was unwell, overworked, and he didn’t always see eye to eye with the Bolsheviks and Lenin. He travelled via Finland, Sweden and Denmark to Berlin. In Helsingfors, he promoted Russia aid and arrived in Berlin in November. More than 100,000 Russians lived in Berlin with many Russian publishing houses. In Berlin, a doctor found his condition serious. Between autumn 1916 and winter 1922, Gorky had not written a single line. Now, he finished “My Universities” and some novels. The situation in the USSR became increasingly insecure, with a trial against 34 members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Gorky settled in Sorrento. Gorky’s return to his homeland in the summer of 1928, was motivated in part by the opportunity to participate in its cultural life.

In “The Artamonov Business” (1927) Gorky began his post-revolutionary social-psychological analysis of capitalism. Based on three generations of a merchant family, the novel depicts the rise and fall of capitalism in Russia between 1863 and 1917. His play “Yegor Bulychov” set on the eve of the October Revolution, demonstrates the moral decline of the bourgeoisie. A subtle psychological analysis of bourgeois individualism between 1870 and 1917 makes “Klim Samgin” a masterpiece of socialist realism. In it, Gorky created a comprehensive tapestry of the political movements over forty years of Russian history and showed how the hero’s middle-class intellectual life ends in historical fiasco. The communist character Kutuzov meets Klim Samgin with true humanity. Gorky portrayed the new heroes, and heroism at work emerges as a key moral criterion.

Gorky’s socialist realist method is his ground-breaking world literary achievement. His works remain widespread on all continents and contribute to the consolidation of proletarian class-consciousness. They continue to be a touchstone and benchmark for socialist writers all over the world.

Storm Petrel

by Maxim Gorky

High above the silvery ocean winds are gathering the storm-clouds, and between the clouds and ocean proudly wheels the Stormy Petrel, like a streak of sable lightning.

Now his wing the wave caresses, now he rises like an arrow, cleaving clouds and crying fiercely, while the clouds detect a rapture in the bird’s courageous crying.

In that crying sounds a craving for the tempest! Sounds the flaming of his passion, of his anger, of his confidence in triumph.

The gulls are moaning in their terror – moaning, darting o’er the waters, and would gladly hide their horror in the inky depths of ocean.

And the grebes are also moaning. Not for them the nameless rapture of the struggle. They are frightened by the crashing of the thunder.

And the foolish penguins cower in the crevices of rocks, while alone the Stormy Petrel proudly wheels above the ocean, o’er the silver-frothing waters.

Ever lower, ever blacker, sink the storm-clouds to the sea, and the singing waves are mounting in their yearning toward the thunder.

Strikes the thunder. Now the waters fiercely battle with the winds. And the winds in fury seize them in unbreakable embrace, hurtling down the emerald masses to be shattered on the cliffs.

Like a streak of sable lightning wheels and cries the Stormy Petrel, piercing storm-clouds like an arrow, cutting swiftly through the waters.

He is coursing like a Demon, the black Demon of the tempest, ever laughing, ever sobbing –he is laughing at the storm-clouds, he is sobbing with his rapture.

In the crashing of the thunder, the wise Demon hears a murmur of exhaustion. And he knows the storm will die and the sun will be triumphant; the sun will always be triumphant!

The waters roar. The thunder crashes. Livid lightning flares in storm-clouds high above the seething ocean, and the flaming darts are captured and extinguished by the waters, while the serpentine reflections writhe, expiring, in the deep.

It’s the storm! The storm is breaking!

Still the valiant Stormy Petrel proudly wheels among the lightning, o’er the roaring, raging ocean, and his cry resounds exultant, like a prophecy of triumph –

Let it break in all its fury!

Source: M. Gorky: Selected Short Stories Progress Publishers, 1955;
Online Version: Maxim Gorky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002;

USSR stamp, 1956
Monday, 01 January 2018 19:36

Our common humanity: Robert Burns and For A' That

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell discusses the focus on our common humanity in Robert Burns's For A' That, and the way it foretells the 'programme which will govern the world of liberated humanity'.

Every so often, history presents us with an amazing affirmation of our common humanity, a sense of continuity, the passing on of the torch. This applies supremely to Robert Burns’s song For A’ That.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. He lived in an age of revolution: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolution in Haiti and an agrarian revolution in Scotland, to name some landmark events. The capitalist modernisation of agriculture brought with it financial gain on the one hand, and social polarisation on the other – wealthy tenants versus a rural proletariat.

JF Dean Castle in 1790 Ayrshire 3

Dean Castle, Ayrshire, 1790

A class struggle in the modern sense ensued. Those owning the means of production, providing food to the battlefields and the industrial centres, made enormous profits. The poor had too little to live on, and financial crisis, hunger and tuberculosis swept over Scotland.

The dispossessed of Scotland, among them Robert Burns, warmly welcomed the new ideas coming from across the Atlantic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, was joined a few years later by the French declaring a new era of liberty, equality and fraternity. At this time, in 1795, not long before his early death aged 37 in 1776, Burns wrote his most famous song For A’ That, a song celebrating and affirming the idea of the universal brotherhood of the dispossessed:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,  = we pass by the coward who is ashamed of his poverty
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,  = aristocratic rank is only the face stamped on a coin
The Man's the gowd for a' that.        = gold

At the heart of all of Burns’s poetry are the concerns of the ordinary people of Scotland. By addressing the specifics of their lives, Burns achieves a universality that applies to all working people. He gives voice to milkmaids and ploughmen, weavers and farmers’ wives, soldiers and travelling musicians, creating a cosmos in which ordinary folk can recognise themselves as part of a whole community. Such complete and realistic portrayal of the people asserts their common humanity and engenders pride in themselves, and a hatred for their enemies. Depictions like these help Burns’s readers to feel the conflict between their humanity and the misery they endure.

Ultimately, this portrayal of ordinary people points to the need for revolutionary change. This prophecy of communism – in the sense of a common cause, expressing the essential commonality of working people – lies at the core of Burns's poetry, and is perhaps most clearly articulated in For A' That. It reflects a sense of dignity, a scorn for the rich and a longing for universal brotherhood. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are no abstract slogans, but already extant, rooted in the lives of the people, logical projections of their humanity.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.                = take the prize
For a' that, an’ a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Ferdinand Freiligrath, a poet of the German bourgeois revolution of March 1848 to July 1849 (later a renegade), first translated For A’ That into German (Trotz Alledem) in 1843. Freiligrath, who knew Marx and Engels, was a member of the Bund der Kommunisten (Communist League - founded in London in 1847), and a member of the editorial board of the revolutionary daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Marx and Engels between 1848 and 1849.

Freiligrath picked up Burns’s torch of revolution.He changed the text of Trotz Alledem to suit the German situation, whilst retaining the title, rhythm, and main idea, and it was printed in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 6 June 1848. This text survives in the German political song movement to this day.

JF Rheinische

The final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, printed in red ink. Its editors were threatened with arrest or exile. Marx emigrated to London.

On 8 November 1918, the German sailors’ mutiny in Kiel sparked revolutionary revolt across the country. When it reached Berlin, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a free socialist republic of Germany. On the 9 November, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded a new daily revolutionary paper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) as the paper of the Spartacus League, of which they were the leaders, and shortly afterwards of the Communist Party, founded on 1 January 1919. Two weeks later, on 15 January 1919, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered.

Liebknecht wrote the editorial for 15 January the previous day. It is his final public statement, and his legacy. The article, seizing the torch of revolution, is entitled Trotz alledem (For all That) and ends:

The defeated of today will be the victorious of tomorrow. (…) The German working class’s way to Golgotha is not over ... we are accustomed to being flung from the peak into the depths. Yet our ship keeps a straight course firmly and proudly to its destination. And whether we will still be alive when this is achieved - our programme will live; it will govern the world of liberated humanity. For All That!

 JF window


This window can still be seen in the former GDR Council of State building in Berlin

For A’ That

by Robert Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

The Aleppo Room: a lost world of cultural harmony
Saturday, 23 December 2017 21:23

The Aleppo Room: a lost world of cultural harmony

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell shows the poignant seasonal relevance of the wonderfully inclusive art in the Syrian Aleppo House.

With everything that is happening in the world at the moment, it might seem facile to think of this season as one of good will. And yet Christmas is as good a time as any to reflect on a magnificent piece of art, exhibited in the Berlin Museum of Islamic Art. It is a wood panelled interior of the reception room from an in early 17th century Aleppo House, which expresses supremely good will to all. What makes this so special and poignant is its cultural and religious inclusiveness.

A prosperous Christian citizen, the Armenian merchant Isa ibn Butrus (Jesus, son of Peter), in the town of Aleppo, commissioned the painted panels of the walls of the reception room in his house in 1600. This was the room into which his guests would first arrive, so it had a representative and expressive function.

The paintings in what is now known as the Aleppo Room are the oldest collection from a Syrian residential house from the Ottoman period. The Christian owner engaged craftsmen from the best workshops of the time to paint a variety of themes. (The name Halab Shah ibn Isa, one of the craftsmen, appears on the cornice.) These are based on Islamic book illustration of that time, floral and geometric designs, and are executed in the best Ottoman tradition. Christian themes from the Old and New Testaments, including a depiction of Mary with Child, have their place alongside courtly scenes based on Persian book illustrations. The selection of decorative Psalms, Arabic proverbs and Persian principles which frame these scenes deepen the impression of a community of different religious beliefs living together peacefully. The room is a visual expression of this harmonious diversity.

JF the aleppo room

The central panels are located at the back of the room’s main section, to both sides of a wooden cabinet door set into the wall. Middle Eastern courtly scenes are painted on the left-side panel, including a royal sitting on a throne, a hunt and a hunting party with a prince holding a falcon. Old and New Testament biblical themes portrayed on the right-side panel involve Salome’s dance in front of King Herod, the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Isaac. What adds to the interest of these images is the fact that they reflect the Middle Eastern origins of Christianity and the natural inclusion of this religion into the regional culture. It makes complete historical and cultural sense to the Aleppo artist to depict the characters in the paintings in Middle Eastern dress. 

Other panels inside the room display more individual illustrations from either Middle Eastern courtly and hunting scenes, or Christian subject matters. They also show illustrations of the Arab love story of Leila and Majnun of Nizami (1141–1202) from the Haft Paykar, or the Virgin Mary and Child, or Saint George. Fantastic and real animals are depicted alongside these.

JF AR 2

The inclusivity of the themes of these paintings make these earliest surviving wall panels such a significant collection. They are evidence of a peaceful plurality of culture that could perhaps only have arisen in the Syrian trading town Aleppo.

In a world of growing economic inequality and exploitation, and the inevitable cultural accompaniments of suspicion, xenophobia and downright racism, it does not take a cynic to point out that such cultural inclusivity and harmony has been utterly lost, in a time when it is so badly needed for the survival not only of Syria, but of all of us.

 

Swift's satires of English colonialism
Monday, 11 December 2017 09:52

Swift's satires of English colonialism

Published in Fiction

On his 350th anniversary, Jenny Farrell outlines how Jonathan Swift's books expressed and strengthened Ireland's cultural struggle against English colonialism.

Jonathan Swift was born 350 years ago, on 30th November 1667.

Swift belongs to both the literature of Ireland and to that of England. Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal formulate and express a radical Irish position inside an English-dominated literary culture. They express the resistance and criticism of a literary oppositional culture, and so is part of Ireland's cultural struggle, intertwined with its political struggle against English imperialism.

Modern Irish literature in English begins with Swift, and Gulliver's Travels is its first work. It is Swift's 'Irish point of view', his concern with Ireland, particularly with Ireland's colonial status and with Irish liberation, which defines Swift's literary radicalism.

The dominant culture in eighteenth-century Ireland - that of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, to which Swift belonged - was not a specifically Irish culture. It was a culture that had more in common with English eighteenth-century culture than with that of the ordinary Irish people. It was an English-controlled culture, and its function was to ensure English hegemony in Ireland.

JF Jonathan Swift satire master proposal w636 h600 high

Swift’s commitment to the cause of Irish liberation and his passionate sympathy with the common people of Ireland developed over time, after moving to Dublin when he became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in June 1713. Sixteen years later, with A Modest Proposal (1729), he had become the champion of the common people of Ireland, the masses of the Irish poor. A Modest Proposal is among the most vehement indictments of a ruling class in all literature, literally suggesting that the rich are cannibals - that they eat the children of the poor.

In his earlier book, Gulliver's Travels, too, Ireland's colonial status and the relationship between Ireland and England is paramount. In Part III of this book Swift describes a visit to the flying island of Laputa ('the whore') and its enslaved neighbouring continent and capital Lagado and in chapter 3, he discusses "insurrections".

The king has three ways of dealing with insurrection: either to "inflict the inhabitants with Dearth and Diseases", or to "pelt them from above with great Stones", or to let the island "drop directly upon their Heads which makes a universal Destruction both of Houses and Men". However, this latter measure would destroy the King's own "Demesne", and the foundation stone on which it rests might "crack" or "burst" and "the whole Mass would fall to the Ground". Swift suggests that resistance and insurrection are commonplace in colonies and that such colonial war might end either with the de-struction of the oppressor, or with the annihilation of both sides.

The reader is also presented with the parable of a successful Irish revolution. The inhabitants of Lindalino (Dublin) who "had often complained of great Oppressions" successfully rebel. The resistance they offer is so effective that the king, though "determined to reduce this proud People", "was forced to give the Town their own Conditions". "I was assured by a great Minister", the parable comes to a close, "that if the Island had descended so near the Town, as not to be able to raise itself, the Citizens were determined to fix it for ever, to kill the King and all his Servants, and entirely change the Government".

Swift's sympathies lie clearly with the "proud People" of Lindalino. There is nothing in the text that would imply a criticism, or even a 'distancing', of their methods and intentions. Unsurprisingly this whole section was omitted from all editions (including the first) until 1899.

The parable of an Irish Revolution anticipates a successful rebellion. Swift envisages complete national freedom and, by implication, the destruction of the oppressing island, the killing of the king, and an entire change of "Government". Historically, the parable anticipates the ideological position of the United Irishmen, i.e. that of revolutionary Republicanism at the end of the eighteenth century.

Colonial oppression and exploitation are major themes of the Travels, commenting on the condition of England. The most bitter indictment of the colonial system, is at the end of the book, after Gulliver's return to England. Gulliver gives the reasons for his hesitation to deliver "a Memorial to a Secretary of State" concerning his journeys. It is a passage of savage irony, anticipating the sarcasm of A Modest Proposal:

To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with relation to the distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For Instance, a Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither; at length a Boy discovers Land from the Top-mast; they go on Shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for the King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a Couple more by Force for a Sample, return home, and get their Pardon.

Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity; the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust; the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: and this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.

Swift’s satire is first and foremost aimed at the condition of England. Part I criticises English society in dystopian terms: England seen as ruled by an oppressive, unjust, and "ambitious" royal family, assisted by a vain, selfish oligarchy, implicitly opposed to the idea of "a free people".

JF gulliver winter houyhnhnm yahoos

 This is further developed in Part II where the satire gains considerably in depth and sharpness, in the ironic dialogue between the King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, which reads as utterly relevant to our own times. Take, for example, the theme of war. Gulliver is the ironic spokesperson of progress - in truth the point of view of an aggressive, expanding bourgeoisie - when he informs the king of the tremendous "Progress" made in Europe by the invention of gunpowder. He offers him the "Secret" of this invention. The king, however, is "struck with Horror" at its barbarity.

The condition of England question is revisited in Part IV. In chapter 5, Gulliver informs the rational horse of the "State of England", the "Causes of War among the Princes of Europe" and begins to "explain the English Constitution". Swift's criticism is devastating - its principal object is the existence of war. The 'civilized' world is presented as permanently at war, ruled by the wolfish principles of selfishness, lust for power and profit, and aggression - the true motives and causes of war. The reference to Ireland again is obvious:

If a Prince sends Forces into a Nation, where the People are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to Death, and make Slaves of the Rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous Way of Living.

JF Gulliver u Hvajninimů Grandville

Any satire implies or presents some kind of ideal norm. Gulliver's Travels, too, contains a number of positive values Swift believed in. There are positive characters, e.g. the rational horse in Part IV, the farmer's daughter in Part II and the kind captain who rescues Gulliver at the end of Part IV. They are demonstrations in terms of practical living of how humans should act. The most radical statement of humanist political ethics is in in chapter 7 of Part III, where Gulliver sees Alexander and Hannibal, Caesar, Pompey and Brutus. Here, Swift lists positive moral and political qualities, which have lost none of their importance today.

Thus, Swift's radicalism is expressed in his devastating satire and total rejection of ruling-class culture, and in his passionate quest for a society free from exploitation and domination. Behind the attack on aggressive English colonialism is a vision of a society in which human liberty is a reality, and a social order exists that deserves the name of humanity.

 This article is based on Thomas Metscher, The Radicalism of Swift (2015), Connolly Books Dublin.

 

Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio before the Gravediggers, 1843
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 11:04

Shakespeare’s Gravediggers – the first appearance of working people on the world stage

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell discusses the prophetic politics of the Gravedigger scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which class-based justice and fundamental human equality are discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' by revolutionary upheaval. The scene is the first appearance of working people on the world stage.

There is hardly a country or a language in the world that is not familiar at least with Shakespeare’s name. His poetry has had an impact on the English language like no other. How can this enduring and all-encompassing popularity be explained? Has Shakespeare anything to say about the times we live in?

Hamlet is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet one scene in it is hardly ever fully played out, and when it is, it is considered a piece of comic relief: the gravedigger scene at the beginning of the tragedy’s final act. A closer look at this scene reveals much of what Shakespeare is about and what he has to offer a 21st-century audience.

Act 5 opens with the first appearance of working people as independently acting persons on the world stage. They are two gravediggers discussing corruption in society, their own worth, and the equality of all humankind. The significance of this can hardly be overestimated.

The scene begins with the gravediggers, entirely on their own and completely self-sufficient, chatting and commenting on social injustice. Suicide victims were not normally buried in a churchyard in those days. The gravediggers comment how this rule does not apply to the nobility and how lawyers ensure this: “Crowner’s quest [coroner’s inquest] law.” They laugh at their own logic that therefore the wealthy have more reason to kill themselves than their ordinary fellow-Christians: “Great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian” (their equals).

This train of thought quickly moves on to an astonishing expression of self-respect: “There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.” A connection is being made by the gravedigger to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

These words, spoken at the time of the peasant rising in a sermon at Blackheath, near London, became legendary. The next sentence is: “From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.” John Ball deduced the equality of humankind from their common descent from Adam. He advocated social equality for all, and the gravedigger develops this idea. A gentleman’s coat of arms is swiftly reinterpreted to mean physical arms as the only arms worth having. They enable people to work and to build. This in turn leads to banter about a gravedigger building the most permanent of houses: “The houses that he makes last till doomsday.” 

The working people in this scene are given more space than the actors in a previous scene. They are more clearly drawn as individuals; they have a direct and unromanticised relationship with their job, which Hamlet and Horatio comment on. They are superbly confident. The humour they bring onto the stage acts as a comic relief to the mounting tension of the main plot, but it is far more than that: it is a manifestation of the absolute integrity of the gravediggers.

The gravediggers are even more radical in their understanding of death than Hamlet. Hamlet had displayed a profoundly materialist concept of death (i.e. physical without reference to a soul) at the time of Polonius’s death, yet he is taken aback at first by the unceremonious treatment of human bones by the singing gravedigger.

The gravedigger’s throwing about of skulls, irrespective of whose they might be, parallels Hamlet’s earlier statements about the levelling role of death, suggesting the natural equality of all humankind. This is an instance of doubling, or restating of an idea. In addition, Shakespeare is making the point that the working gravediggers have reached the same insights as the university-educated Hamlet through their work, their lives, and independent thinking.

Hamlet vents his disgust at double standards with Horatio (more doubling, as the gravediggers just discussed the same) before he addresses the gravedigger. But he is in for a surprise when he begins talking to the gravedigger. This man is his equal in the important matters of punning speech, honesty, and absoluteness.

The theme of a fundamental common humankind-ness, a kind of emotional communism, is underlined as Hamlet joins the gravedigger, along with Horatio. They all occupy the same space and have a scientific discussion about the process of decomposition, linking it with Hamlet’s comments about death at the time of Polonius’s demise.

At this time, in the graveyard, we see representatives of the working people together with the humanist prince and the humanist middle-class scholar. They understand each other fully and without hierarchy. At the level of language they are equals: no-one can outwit the gravediggers. Basic human equality is emphasised, and social criticism made, as they toss around the skulls.

When Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, he vividly recalls him and alludes once more to the perfectibility of humankind as well as the material nature of death. Hamlet, Horatio and the gravediggers are natural allies. There are only a few occasions in the play when Hamlet feels relaxed and with his own kind of person - a person of integrity and honesty. This scene is one of those moments; another is when he interacts with the actors.

When asking ourselves why Hamlet finds it difficult to “set right” his time, we must consider what allies are available to him. They are all gathered in the churchyard. It becomes clear that his undertaking is all but impossible, and that a solution lies in the future. It would be another forty years or so before similar characters would be a strong enough force in English society to challenge and execute their king, or form movements whose objectives included a more just and equal society, in the English Revolution of 1640–1660.

In this context the function of the scene within the tragedy becomes extraordinarily clear. It expands our understanding of Hamlet’s alternatives, which are historical and linked to class forces as well as personal, even if their time has not yet come. It is clear that in this episode social inequality and human equality are being discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' - by revolutionary upheaval. In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, which was the first successful take-over of state power by representatives of workers and peasants (including gravediggers), the episode is more relevant than ever.

Jenny Farrell’s book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Comprehensive Introduction (2016), published by Nuascéalta, is available online.

 

The Art of Revolution
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:39

The Art of Revolution

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell celebrates the democratising power of Revolutionary art.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dispossessed took control over their destiny, for the first time in history. How did artists respond to this liberation?

Artists from all artistic movements worked with Soviet power. The revolution offered the state and the arts a real opportunity to merge their programmatic ideas. Lenin saw social and cultural revolution as inseparable and the artistic avant-garde embraced the new opportunities.

The arts were to be democratised, artistic production transferred from the private to the public sphere, and ‘the streets to be turned into a celebration of art for all’. The 1918 May Day celebrations were a first impressive manifestation of this.

The next major assignment was the decoration of Moscow and Petrograd for the 1918 October celebrations. Over 170 artists participated, exhibiting an immense range of artistic expression. Alongside images of workers, soldiers and peasants, there were ambitious modernist projects, such as Altman’s transformation of the Alexander column on Petrograd’s Palace Square into a ‘Flame of the Revolution’ devouring the symbols of tsarism. Altman fused geometric structures in shades of red to create a dynamic composition, which attracted international attention.

 JF 1 nathan A

Nathan Altman, sketch of the Palace Square monument (1918)

Great artistic variety marked the time immediately after the revolution. From the early 1900s, there was a significant Russian avant-garde. Many of these artists engaged with the challenges of a new society. The constructivists, for example, criticised bourgeois ‘embellishments’, demanding a truly new era in art beginning with ‘the new houses, the new streets, the new commodities’ created by the proletariat. Art was not to be a ‘sacred temple’. The new starting point was to be labour, the factory, producing art objects for all. This innovative art was inspired by left-wing futurism. Meyerhold pursued a similarly original approach in the theatre, and the modern medium of film with Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s outstanding productions took its triumphant course. A mass audience turned the art of the avant-garde into a broad movement.

The ‘poster and meeting period’

Lenin was keenly aware that the revolution depended on overcoming the cultural backwardness of the vast country, with a small working class and millions of largely illiterate peasants; education was a primary cultural task. Some ethnic minorities had no modern script. Lunacharsky became commissioner of Education and Culture.

Lunacharsky oversaw the early ‘poster and meeting period,’ in which experimental artists pursued revolutionary innovation of various art forms, aiming to enhance the political possibilities of art. Poster art blossomed, exhibiting a whole range of design principles - Dmitry Moor’s world famous ‘Have you enlisted?’ and his poster ‘Help’, occasioned by the famine on the Volga, are composed in concise, expressive pictorial language.

The ROSTA windows

In an effort to respond quickly to current affairs, Mikhail Cheremnych put a hand-painted poster in the window of the Russian telegraph agency (Rosta) in Moscow in 1920. This initiated the satirical Rosta windows, of which painter and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky became the chief representative. Over a hundred assistants reproduced the hand-painted Moscow posters using templates, often making 300 copies. Stencils were sent to other cities. In the days before radio, these windows announced news faster than newspapers.

JF7 Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky 2

Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky

In over two years, more than 1,600 posters were produced; Mayakovsky supplied the texts for almost all of them. This work necessitated direct communication at the centre of his art, reaching out to the new reader. A new “language” combined word and image. Over-dimensional characters dominated and images accentuated words.  Mayakovsky’s rhythmic language and appeal influenced the entire collective of Rosta artists.

JF 2 Vladimir Lebedev

Vladimir Lebedev: Work needs the rifle beside you. Petrograd Rosta window 1920

In his poetry, Mayakovsky also revolutionised language, infusing the energy, confidence and stride of the revolution and displaying this on the page:

My most respected
                            comrades of posterity!
Rummaging among
                             these days’
                                             petrified crap,
exploring the twilight of our times,
you,
      possibly,
                    will inquire about me too.

And, possibly, your scholars
                                           will declare,
with their erudition overwhelming
                                                     a swarm of problems;
once there lived
                        a certain champion of boiled water,
and inveterate enemy of raw water.

Professor,
             take off your bicycle glasses!
I myself will expound
                                 those times
                                                   and myself.

I, a latrine cleaner
                          and water carrier,
by the revolution
                         mobilized and drafted,
went off to the front
                              from the aristocratic gardens
of poetry.

Mayakovsky invested enormous energy in touring the USSR with his verse and reciting it to large audiences.

Imagery and tradition

Given an 80 per cent rural and up to 75 per cent illiterate population, visual imagery was paramount. Motifs came from Russian fairy-tales, folk art paintings and even Russian orthodox icons. The ‘new masters’ were symbolically represented as giant figures, wrapped in red tunics or shirts, clearly surpassing the ‘old days’. They were especially popular.

JF8 AGC F 001439 0000 209x300

Marc Chagall’s ‘Peace to the Shacks, War on the Palaces’ (1918-1919)

Art had to take effect among the people, as Mayakovsky stated: ‘The streets are our brushes, the places our pallets. To work, futurists!’

Proletkult (proletarian culture) aspired to a revolutionary working class art, inspired by the building of a modern industrial society in backward, rural Russia. In October 1917, Bogdanov founded a cultural organisation of the proletariat, encouraging workers to write, furthering proletarian culture.

Red memorials

JF9

Obelisk to the Revolutionaries

When the revolution suffered foreign military intervention (from February 1918), Lenin initiated ‘monumental propaganda’, to communicate the ideas of the revolution through monuments. Among the first assignments was to redesign the tsarist Romanov Obelisk in Moscow to commemorate great revolutionaries, inscribing on it Marx, Engels, More, Winstanley, Stepan Razin, Owens, Saint-Simon, Bakunin, and many more. This declared the international character of the proletarian revolution. (The obelisk recently reverted to its pre-revolutionary form.)

Revolutionary tableware

Agitation porcelain holds a special place within ‘agitation and mass art’. Petrograd artists discovered in 1918, in the imperial porcelain manufactory, large quantities of unpainted white plates, which they designed with slogans and original ornaments. These china objects took on an indoor poster function reflecting the artistic nature of the outdoor posters. This revolutionary tableware still conveys the spirit of those years. The variety of these works of art is overwhelming. Avant-garde artists decorated traditional delph, constructivist and suprematist artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky or Suetin designed cups and jugs of the future.

JF4 Red ribbon

Chekhonin: Red Ribbon (1919)

A new aesthetics arose from artists identifying with revolutionary transformation. Representing individuals not as separate but as part of their people, depicting them as torchbearers of a new humanity. This was a singular achievement of the revolution. Never before had the dispossessed been presented in art as the decisive factor in historic change, never before had they been made artistically worthy on such a scale. In this sense, the art of revolution began with some new forms, and above all with a new central character.

 

 

The Art of Revolution
Sunday, 12 November 2017 19:12

The Art of Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

Jenny Farrell celebrates the democratising power of Revolutionary art.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dispossessed took control over their destiny, for the first time in history. How did artists respond to this liberation?

Artists from all artistic movements worked with Soviet power. The revolution offered the state and the arts a real opportunity to merge their programmatic ideas. Lenin saw social and cultural revolution as inseparable and the artistic avant-garde embraced the new opportunities.

The arts were to be democratised, artistic production transferred from the private to the public sphere, and ‘the streets to be turned into a celebration of art for all’. The 1918 May Day celebrations were a first impressive manifestation of this.

The next major assignment was the decoration of Moscow and Petrograd for the 1918 October celebrations. Over 170 artists participated, exhibiting an immense range of artistic expression. Alongside images of workers, soldiers and peasants, there were ambitious modernist projects, such as Altman’s transformation of the Alexander column on Petrograd’s Palace Square into a ‘Flame of the Revolution’ devouring the symbols of tsarism. Altman fused geometric structures in shades of red to create a dynamic composition, which attracted international attention.

 JF 1 nathan A

Nathan Altman, sketch of the Palace Square monument (1918)

Great artistic variety marked the time immediately after the revolution. From the early 1900s, there was a significant Russian avant-garde. Many of these artists engaged with the challenges of a new society. The constructivists, for example, criticised bourgeois ‘embellishments’, demanding a truly new era in art beginning with ‘the new houses, the new streets, the new commodities’ created by the proletariat. Art was not to be a ‘sacred temple’. The new starting point was to be labour, the factory, producing art objects for all. This innovative art was inspired by left-wing futurism. Meyerhold pursued a similarly original approach in the theatre, and the modern medium of film with Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s outstanding productions took its triumphant course. A mass audience turned the art of the avant-garde into a broad movement.

The ‘poster and meeting period’

Lenin was keenly aware that the revolution depended on overcoming the cultural backwardness of the vast country, with a small working class and millions of largely illiterate peasants; education was a primary cultural task. Some ethnic minorities had no modern script. Lunacharsky became commissioner of Education and Culture.

Lunacharsky oversaw the early ‘poster and meeting period,’ in which experimental artists pursued revolutionary innovation of various art forms, aiming to enhance the political possibilities of art. Poster art blossomed, exhibiting a whole range of design principles - Dmitry Moor’s world famous ‘Have you enlisted?’ and his poster ‘Help’, occasioned by the famine on the Volga, are composed in concise, expressive pictorial language.

The ROSTA windows

In an effort to respond quickly to current affairs, Mikhail Cheremnych put a hand-painted poster in the window of the Russian telegraph agency (Rosta) in Moscow in 1920. This initiated the satirical Rosta windows, of which painter and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky became the chief representative. Over a hundred assistants reproduced the hand-painted Moscow posters using templates, often making 300 copies. Stencils were sent to other cities. In the days before radio, these windows announced news faster than newspapers.

JF7 Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky 2

Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky

In over two years, more than 1,600 posters were produced; Mayakovsky supplied the texts for almost all of them. This work necessitated direct communication at the centre of his art, reaching out to the new reader. A new “language” combined word and image. Over-dimensional characters dominated and images accentuated words.  Mayakovsky’s rhythmic language and appeal influenced the entire collective of Rosta artists.

JF 2 Vladimir Lebedev

Vladimir Lebedev: Work needs the rifle beside you. Petrograd Rosta window 1920

In his poetry, Mayakovsky also revolutionised language, infusing the energy, confidence and stride of the revolution and displaying this on the page:

My most respected
                            comrades of posterity!
Rummaging among
                             these days’
                                             petrified crap,
exploring the twilight of our times,
you,
      possibly,
                    will inquire about me too.

And, possibly, your scholars
                                           will declare,
with their erudition overwhelming
                                                     a swarm of problems;
once there lived
                        a certain champion of boiled water,
and inveterate enemy of raw water.

Professor,
             take off your bicycle glasses!
I myself will expound
                                 those times
                                                   and myself.

I, a latrine cleaner
                          and water carrier,
by the revolution
                         mobilized and drafted,
went off to the front
                              from the aristocratic gardens
of poetry.

Mayakovsky invested enormous energy in touring the USSR with his verse and reciting it to large audiences.

Imagery and tradition

Given an 80 per cent rural and up to 75 per cent illiterate population, visual imagery was paramount. Motifs came from Russian fairy-tales, folk art paintings and even Russian orthodox icons. The ‘new masters’ were symbolically represented as giant figures, wrapped in red tunics or shirts, clearly surpassing the ‘old days’. They were especially popular.

JF8 AGC F 001439 0000 209x300

Marc Chagall’s ‘Peace to the Shacks, War on the Palaces’ (1918-1919)

Art had to take effect among the people, as Mayakovsky stated: ‘The streets are our brushes, the places our pallets. To work, futurists!’

Proletkult (proletarian culture) aspired to a revolutionary working class art, inspired by the building of a modern industrial society in backward, rural Russia. In October 1917, Bogdanov founded a cultural organisation of the proletariat, encouraging workers to write, furthering proletarian culture.

Red memorials

JF9

Obelisk to the Revolutionaries

When the revolution suffered foreign military intervention (from February 1918), Lenin initiated ‘monumental propaganda’, to communicate the ideas of the revolution through monuments. Among the first assignments was to redesign the tsarist Romanov Obelisk in Moscow to commemorate great revolutionaries, inscribing on it Marx, Engels, More, Winstanley, Stepan Razin, Owens, Saint-Simon, Bakunin, and many more. This declared the international character of the proletarian revolution. (The obelisk recently reverted to its pre-revolutionary form.)

Revolutionary tableware

Agitation porcelain holds a special place within ‘agitation and mass art’. Petrograd artists discovered in 1918, in the imperial porcelain manufactory, large quantities of unpainted white plates, which they designed with slogans and original ornaments. These china objects took on an indoor poster function reflecting the artistic nature of the outdoor posters. This revolutionary tableware still conveys the spirit of those years. The variety of these works of art is overwhelming. Avant-garde artists decorated traditional delph, constructivist and suprematist artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky or Suetin designed cups and jugs of the future.

JF4 Red ribbon

Chekhonin: Red Ribbon (1919)

A new aesthetics arose from artists identifying with revolutionary transformation. Representing individuals not as separate but as part of their people, depicting them as torchbearers of a new humanity. This was a singular achievement of the revolution. Never before had the dispossessed been presented in art as the decisive factor in historic change, never before had they been made artistically worthy on such a scale. In this sense, the art of revolution began with some new forms, and above all with a new central character.

 

 

The sinful greed of the rich: Bosch's painting of The Haywain
Thursday, 19 October 2017 07:16

The sinful greed of the rich: Bosch's painting of The Haywain

Published in Visual Arts

On the 500th anniversary of Luther's revolt, Jenny Farrell gives us a critical appreciation of Hieronymous Bosch's famous painting The Haywain, a coded criticism of the ruthless extortion by the ruling religious and secular elites in mediaeval society.

Hieronymus Bosch, the famous Dutch Renaissance painter, died in 1516. A year later, on 31 October 1517, 500 years ago this month, Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses against the widespread practice of selling indulgences, clerical corruption. He attacked the Church’s claim to be the sole interpreter of the word and intentions of God and defended ordinary human entitlement to God’s grace without Church involvement.

The Roman Church was the greatest landowner and represented the central force of European feudalism. Its increasing greed, the ruthless extortion of everybody including the poor, caused discontent. The sale of indulgences, claiming to ensure clear passage to heaven, were used to finance the upper clergy’s affluent lifestyle and ever more splendid Church buildings. Such plundering deprived all territories of their financial resources and became an obstacle to early capitalist development.

It is in this context that Bosch’s painting must be understood. One of his very famous pieces is a triptych entitled The Haywain. In it Bosch breaks the conventions of the religious triptych at the time. A triptych comes in three parts, with a main, large picture in the middle, in those days usually with a religious scene, flanked on either side by smaller panels depicting more pious images. When the two side panels were closed over, this front usually displayed yet another religious picture.

JF Haywain by Hieronymous Bosch latest

In The Haywain, Bosch goes with convention in depicting the Garden Eden on the left hand panel, illustrating the fall of angels from heaven and their changing into insect-like demons, the creation of Eve from Adam, her temptation by the snake and Adam and Eve's rejection from Eden. In Bosch's painting, however, Adam seems to challenge the Angel over their dismissal. The centre image is very unconventional indeed, as it is dominated by an enormous Haywain.

There are different theories concerning the symbolism of the hay. In the context of the painting, I think it represents money: The mountain of hay on the cart is too even and smooth to be 'real' hay -compare it to the real hay in the foreground of the picture, where mendicant nuns stuff a sack with hay for the gluttonous monk. Also, there is a German saying for the very rich, that they have money like hay.

Behind this high, laden cart follow leaders of Church and State. They have stacked the cart with the hay (monies) from high taxes and indulgences. It is pulled towards hell by demons, who physically move from the main 'earth' panel into the right-hand 'hell' panel: it is an uninterrupted image – the ‘walls’ between earth and hell are not fast. We know the cart is pulled by demons as they are creatures that are half animal and half people, it is the way Bosch painted demons.

Over the middle 'earth' section we can spot a rather helpless looking Christ, displaying his wounds, looking down on a sinful population, who do not look up to him. All kinds of folk, including monks, women and men, old and young, also suggestions of non-Europeans (see the turbans) are all clamouring to get what they can from the load with their hay forks from all sides. Some kill and deceive. Others get caught under and crushed by the cart wheels.

This image of greed and sin is continued in the foreground of the main middle section. One man may be a kidnapper, a quack pulling teeth has ‘hay’ in his purse and a nun offers more hay to a bagpipe player, dressed in a blue garment, echoing the demon atop the hay cart. Bagpipes alluded to promiscuity in Bosch’s day as did the jug tied to the pole.

Only on top of the hay are some lovers, the only people not engaged in sinful behaviour, albeit depicted ironically with a demon and a voyeur on either side of them - only one lost angel looks up at Christ. 

Echoing the division into three of the triptych, there are three horizontal levels, with the unobserved Christ at the top, the hay cart, pulled into hell by the demons in the centre and then smaller scenes in the forefront of further impious activity.  The demons pulling the cart into hell, are accompanied by more symbols of sin, but these double as indications of violence and war: the carrying of pikes, bodies pierced by arrows, a severed, blindfolded head.

My suggestion that the hay probably represents money is underlined by the fact that there is something constructive going on in hell: the building of a tower – most probably an allusion to St Angelo's Castle, which was being built in Rome at the time, paid for by the indulgence monies extracted from people across Europe. The torched city in the background would have been a familiar sight in the Netherlands of the day, as wars were an ever present reality, including the hanged man amid the blaze and a sliced open, disembowelled body on a pike in the foreground.

Is Bosch cynical of humanity? The panels of the Haywain triptych could lead the viewer to a degree of dismay regarding life and the predominance of greedy and sinful behaviour. However, when the triptych is closed, we do not see the expected religious scene, but the depiction of a wayfarer. Images behind him illustrate his perilous life: his path has taken him past the gallows, a bagpipe player, a woman, outlaws and now threatened by a dog with a spiky collar and images of death and decay. There is no allusion to Christ or heaven here, nor is there to hell. This picture presents the hapless life of the dispossessed in the world that unfolds when the panels are open.

JF Haywain by Hieronymous Bosch

Bosch’s date of birth is presumed to be around 1450. He was born into a family of painters called van Aken, after the German town of Aachen. Bosch in all likelihood attended the same school as Erasmus of Rotterdam, the famous humanist scholar of European standing. Both Dutchmen employed irony when commenting on the Renaissance society of their day.

Perhaps it is a sign of Bosch's attitude to the hegemony of German Kaiser Maximilian that he changed this name to that of his Dutch hometown, 's-hertogenbosch, or as the Dutch call it, den Bosch, the (pine) Forest.

Bosch's paintings are intriguing and partly obscure at the same time. Many symbols, easily understood in his day, have now become less readable. Nevertheless, we can still look at Bosch's paintings today, enjoy them and understand his overall meaning, reflecting the time just before one of the greatest upheavals in European history, the Reformation and the event this inspired – the Peasant War in Germany.

Page 7 of 8