Monday, 2 April 2012

Poor Choices

You want to be free?  Stop reading the newspapers!  You won’t?  OK.  Prepared to be trapped, yes trapped, within another’s worldview - the corporate media’s; following their lead even as you resist against it; led by the mouth even as you bite at the bit.  Obsessed by the news they feed you, though convinced of its paucity and bias, which you want to shout out to the world, you will, using your finite time and most of your resources, be able only to react against it; too feeble, after the effort, to create a universe out of your own design.  The result?  You accept the general framework that the press provide, seeing the world through their viewfinder, only to give it a different spin; so that each news story generates its own battle; and every event becomes an ideological prison; the opponents shouting at each other from their different wings.

Newspapers.  They are the lazy man’s view of the universe; giving us the illusion of the quick intellectual fix.  Africa explained in a few paragraphs; Lenin reduced to a phrase…  knowledge made into a production line of carefully packaged columns; thrown away almost soon as they are written.  It is the game show view of history – reality reduced to a few randomly selected facts, to be called up in conversation or spilled out at the Christmas quiz. 

The press appeals particularly to the armchair critic, an effect the internet seems to have encouraged; think of the Guardian’s Comment is Free site; the perfect game for the incorrigible kibitzer.  Its success depends upon inciting an emotional response; and the very nature of the short column or news report ensures this result: reality is framed into overly simple and schematic forms; which inevitably distort and twist the source material.  We get so upset!  And so we comment away…  on the Guardian’s site, about a Guardian story, and we are moderated by a… Guardian editor.  Into the prison we walk, unable to see the walls for our outrage.

It seems the essence of news stories to force the reader to have an opinion, which today can be broadcast across the globe.  But how many of these media events are we really interested in?  How much of us know anything about Syria, the Sudan or Burma?  Outside a few images, and a fact or two, we know, for the most part, nothing.  In December no one cares about Libya; in August that is all we type about; only to forget it again come the following July…  And yet everyone must have an opinion, and always it must be for or against, pro or con the West and its latest target; all the commentators dressing up in their different uniforms.  Each public event becomes its own battlefield; entrenching positions that cannot accommodate a no-man’s land; for in these wars no one can be neutral; no one must show disinterest or unconcern; or be undecided.[i]   And suddenly we are hyped up and morally indignant; and yet most of us are still ignorant about what is going on, and too lazy to investigate sources outside the press we criticise; although we know the journalists are poor on the history, and report the wider geo-political scene through a narrow ideology and corporate self-interest.  We are not even interested in finding out more…  And thus the commentariat proceeds, like ambulance chasers after every dead body, so desperate for their moment of moral outrage; those few seconds of transitory fame on the page or computer screen.

An interesting effect of such behaviour is the number of unconscious assumptions they exhibit; because these views are based mostly on opinion and not on knowledge, and are mostly rapid responses to immediate events, containing little reflection.  In the London riots the assumption was that the poor are an essentially criminal class; a premise accepted by both sides; the one condemning it morally, the other supporting it politically.  What is often overlooked, because camouflaged by the different political positions, is that both these sides suffer the same class bias – the commentariat is overwhelmingly from our middle orders –, and their ideas are based on little understanding of what the poor are really like.  Rosamond Lehmann has caught this mindset well:

I feared the caterwauling noises that floated up in the evenings to the nursery window; I shrank from the drawings and inscriptions upon the pillars of the railway arch…

I never thought of the back lane kids as children like myself: they were another species of creature, and yes, a lower.  I imagined their bodily functions must in some nameless way differ from my own.  (The Gipsy’s Baby)

Her sister Sylvia does not share Rebecca’s fear and dislike; instead she is the benevolent despot, organising the poor children like a scout leader or schoolmistress.  These are the two extremes of middle class prejudice; which this story captures so well, as it does the awkwardness and inhibited behaviour of the poor Wyatt children who exhibit their own fears and self-consciousness when inside a house of wealth and privilege.  In one scene the Wyatt children come to dinner and against all of Rebecca’s expectations they do not ravenously consume the food; that is, they do not behave like hungry animals.  They eat hardly anything; partly because they don’t like it (taste is often differentiated along class lines); and partly because they are very conscious of Rebecca’s image of them: so they have to self-consciously show that they do belong to the same species as her.

A different species.  Such honesty is rare from especially the liberal or bohemian middle classes, who tend either to patronise or idealise the working poor; projecting their own needs and longing onto a people that do not exist – the working class an abstraction, wholly of their own making.  Rebecca and Sylvia have absorbed certain images of the lower orders, wild beasts or helpless victims, which take on a reality when they meet, and around which both parties have to navigate; creating much shame and guilt; and a lot of confusion as the Wyatt children refuse to conform to stereotype.  For these are very simple constructions based on very limited evidence; a few exceptions standing in for the whole.  This story illustrates this point almost perfectly: the contrasting behaviours of the individual children, and the transformation of Wyatt’s cottage by a new tenant, showing that the family is not representative of anyone beyond themselves.  It punctures the myth that there is such a thing as a poor person’s mentality.   Even within the Wyatt family there are wide differences, with Chrissie’s “immoral” behaviour arising not out of some familial likeness but from her essential difference and isolation - from the rest of her family.  It is not because she is poor that she acts the way she does, but because she is odd; an alien within her own environment; and therefore not so strictly bound by its codes and inhibiting customs. 

The Gipsy’s Baby is interesting in another way.  It shows how the gossip that circles around the central act obscures it with its own bright and hallucinating colours; satisfying an intense need to make a melodrama out of a novel incident; and in this respect is reminiscent of much of the commentariat.  Understanding an event less important than the horror stories it can generate so as to scare both the public and ourselves.

Patrick Hamilton’s The Plains of Cement undermines another common theme of middle class prejudice: that the working class are a wild people.[ii]   This is another idea that plays out across the spectrum of middle class life and thought; between left and right, and between the respectable professionals and the bohemians, with these abstractions either condemned or lauded, depending on preference – irresponsible animals who take our benefits to graze on fast food before daytime TV; or free spirits who kick out the authorities and are morally promiscuous.  I have heard such accounts at first hand and they have always amused me.  For the performance is nearly always the same: the confident assertion of what is assumed as an absolute fact coupled with the complete ignorance of what is being talked about.  The two, of course, are linked.  I will give just one example: once I was told that the working class are no good with money.  They spend it as soon as they receive it, and they never save, or put any cash aside.  Profligate and thoughtless; hardly human one would think.  Although this description was believed to be a compliment; for it showed that the poor were not trapped by the petty money worries we associate with the middle classes.  They were free from all such trivia!  In reality it was an attempt, as is usually the case, to justify a lifestyle by reference to some authority.[iii]  In this case the supposedly authentic behaviour of the poor; as against the artificiality (and imposed constriction) of middle class life.  As I listened I was thinking of my own family, my old friends and their relatives; all of which belonged to the lower orders – until the age of 18 outside of teachers at most I met a dozen people from the middle class; and none from the aristocracy.  There were men and women who fitted his description for sure; but the overwhelming majority would have laughed at my interlocutor and called him a fool, so little did he know about their life.  For of course historically the poor have often been great savers, for they have needed money to survive the very worst of days.[iv]

Ella, a barmaid at the Midnight Bell, has to be very careful with money, so as to protect her mother from the excesses of her exiguous marriage:

Though, thanks to her mother, everything was fairly (fairly) clean inside, the long and steadfast grip of poverty showed itself everywhere and Ella never came up here without a slight sense of shame at being in such a “good place” and wearing such fine clothes – a sensation from which she got hardly any relief in the fact that out of her weekly salary, which was twenty-two shillings, she kept only twelve, and gave the other ten to her mother.

Ella is intensely aware of the value of money because of her family’s impoverished circumstances.  It forces her to be careful about her finances and highly protective towards her personality; she is a woman who is very self controlled, and who believes in the social conventions and moral taboos of both her society and class; which exist to inhibit and restrain behaviour that could destroy those who do not have the support of big bank accounts and a wealthy family.  Freedom, or to be closer to people like Ella’s real meaning – moral licence - is for the rich and utterly destitute.  It is something the middle classes can occasionally afford, but is too expensive for the working poor.  Ella is no free spirit.  Her life is much closer to the image of the hard-working bourgeois, who is neither sexually or financially incontinent: the rigid patriarch who controls himself and his family to ensure their continuing success; casting out the occasional failure.  In this novel it is the well-off Mr Eccles who is the potential corrupter of hard-working innocence.  It is he who wants to kiss and cuddle, and slip his hands in amongst Ella’s skirts…  It is her rigid moral code that he must overcome.  Without looks or youth, or personality, he has only his money to recommend him.  It is a lubricant to ease off those moral corsets… 

This book echoes the themes of the previous novel in the trilogy, but here the woman being seduced is morally much stronger; and with her own codes and her reserved personality we see her struggle with the animal desires of a prosperous but lonely old man.  Although the book suffers the shortcomings of Hamilton’s often poor style – his repetition and his fixation on a few tropes, like Mr Eccles’ umbrella, which becomes laboured through over use – it offers us an intimate portrayal, a real insight, into the workings of a poor girl’s mind when confronted with the opportunities of financial rescue; of comfort and security:

[Why was she so affronted?]  It probably arose from the very fact that she had had so few admirers in her life – and that now one had appeared on the horizon, he should have such a dull, self-conscious, unattractive, and above all middle-aged exterior.  If it was a feather in her cap, what a miserable feather – and was it a token of the only sort of feather she was ever fit to receive?

After a few paragraphs where she tussles between her recognition of her own plainness and her hopes that she is wrong:

…the common-sense thing to do, and she prided herself on her common-sense, was to accept her fate, and gain every ounce of comfort she could from what homage she could get.  And was it not an acknowledged fact that there were enormous compensatory comforts for those who forsook or had no access to the intemperate ecstasies of beauty and delight?

That word comfort.  He had used it himself.  He had made a fool of himself in his pains to make her understand that he was a comfortable man.  What lay behind that ungainly attempt?  The hint, surely, of dim possibilities that she might shower that comfort upon her…

There are now reflections on the possibility of Mr Eccles marrying her.

Well, suppose he wanted to marry her?  A comfortable man would be making a comfortable offer to a practically penniless barmaid who desired comfort and stability above all things else in life.

Again she wondered what his standards of relative comfort were, how that occult comfortable Something put by, would present itself to the material eye in the form of £.s.d. per annum. 

She now meanders around the size of his prosperity, calling up a generalization about wealthy men proposing to plain girls – because they afford them?

Naturally Ella’s dream of earthly happiness was a home of her own, with the comforts and the permanent orientation thereof; and she had often thought that she would be prepared to make almost any sacrifice to gain it.  Would she, then, be doing her duty by herself if she was always going to be so squeamish and to flee from such opportunities.

She thinks of her mother, and whether marrying a moneyed man might not the best way to help her; until finally her thoughts return to Mr Eccles in all his concrete detail.

An old, or elderly man.  But might not his elderliness (to imagine oneself, since this was all sheer imagination, to be perfectly wicked and unscrupulous) be an ultimate advantage?  For apart from her visualisation of a home of her own, Ella had another dream of happiness.  This was of the proverbial but unspecified portion of the Country, with her mother and herself in rose-surrounded residence.

What of an elderly and mortal Mr. Eccles unscrupulously viewed as a route to a Cottage?

But then she was not unscrupulous, and anyway this was all nonsense.  She wondered whether anyone in the world let their imagination run riot as she did.  She composed herself to sleep.

What is curious about these reflections is her doubts as to Mr Eccles’ intentions; which appear so obvious to the reader: of course he wants to marry her.   Psychologically, though, they are correct, for although Ella is not in love with him, Mr Eccles has created a storm of emotional and mental confusion within her, and through which she finds it hard to navigate – she can no longer read the signs that the rest of us see so clearly.  The passage is one of many where Ella balances her pragmatic needs with her emotions and ideals; and is the tension around which the novel revolves.  Which will be stronger? 

Ella is the mirror image of Jenny; while this book mirrors the first one, Midnight Bell; where Bob vainly chased a chimera.  Here we see what it is like from the inside to be courted by someone you do not love; the mixture of thoughts and feelings it creates – even just by the physical proximity of someone, their need for us – generating both repulsion and a sympathetic animal response; signs which can be read in some many different ways; as with Bob in the first book.  Ella isn’t cold and cynical, and therefore responds to the approaches of Mr Eccles; yet at the same time she tries to remain detached, confused as to what she wants; and indeed at the end it is only a contingent meeting that decides the issue; so entangled are her mind and emotions only an external stimulus can push her into making a decision.  That conclusion feels psychologically right, and is prefigured here in Ella’s musings: the mind obsessed by a few words, that revolve around and around it (comfort, scrupulous etc), the attempt to distance herself, the fluctuations between self-interest and sacrifice, mingled with hope (even a “miserable feather” is better than nothing) and the fear of actually settling for an old and unattractive man. 

It is book that shows the uncomfortableness of love.  How it invades one’s territory, grits up the machine, causing agony and pain; in this case the pain of responsibility; the shame of accepting and the guilt of refusing; and how easy it is to fall into an affair, and how hard it is to get back out again.  Bob in Midnight Bell at one point reflects how little he had seen of Jenny, about six to eight meetings, yet how much time seemed to have passed since they first met – with all that intensity of first love, our entire being centred on one person, the hours both rapidly contract, when we are with them, and expand when we are not; so that time takes on a much larger dimension, and the affair feels like a lifetime, and further binds us to the loved one; it as if we’d married them for years.  This is precisely what Ella finds, that sudden and inexplicable intimacy, which she doesn’t like it; uncertain now about what to do.

Only at the end, when she makes her decision, can she rest.  But, as she and we know, there is no rational calculation here (as there was not in Jenny before her fall, described in the trilogy’s second book); the decisions that have to be made are too big for that; too multiform and too contrasting to resolve into an easy formula, by an argument or some simple fact.  How do you compare a full wallet with an ugly face, when you yourself want both love and comfort?  What measurement can you possibly use that will cover them both?  There isn’t, and you can’t, of course, and so the agony goes on and on, until that decisive moment when an angel appears, and solves it for you. 

Hamilton writes about the common man and woman and the compromises they have to make: not attractive or talented enough to enjoy absolute power or pleasure, they have to make hard decisions, that offer the possibility of happiness, but seem, on the whole, to guarantee a somewhat dull, and mundane future.  It is the world of the failure; a world that Hamilton, for all his faults, captures extremely well.

(Review of The Plains of Cement; third novel in the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky)

[i] A very good example is the Paxman interview with Noam Chomsky, where the interviewer wants him to commit to the intervention in Libya – for or against is his only option it seems.  For more comment see my Ouch!
[ii] Since Hamilton wrote this book the worship has been transferred to others; particularly to the “free primitives” in the third world.  On the left this has led to curious effects, one of which has been a radical downgrading of the white working class male in favour of the smaller tribe: feminist women, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, the mentally insane…  (See my I’m Lazy.)
[iii] Having lived almost hermetically sealed inside a working class community for at least 25 years I have always been both curious and surprised by how many middle class people either want to join that life or think they inhabit it. 
In one of a brilliant series of interviews called Face to Face Jeremy Isaacs interviewed Ken Loach, who found difficult to admit he was middle class.  I was fascinated and bemused: if he had been working class he wouldn’t have been in that chair, for he would not have made his films.  So why the reluctance to admit the obvious?
Such views indicate a strange confusion, but something that is at the core of the modern western aesthetic: the need to be authentic.  Thus it is not enough for Loach to direct interesting and intelligent films, but somehow those films must be true to his life; the assumption being that their quality is diminished if it is discovered the maker is different from the milieu he writes or shoots about.  Of course, such a doctrine, of capturing the real, is central to Loach’s idea of film making, which includes some limited improvisation and actors that have experienced what they act – to be authentic it seems is to be the thing you represent; almost a copy, but not quite.  It is to equate the personality of the artist with the work of art, to erase the distinctions between the mind and what it creates; and to reduce our consciousness to our senses; for only, it seems, can our own personal experiences guarantee the authenticity of a piece of work. (Although in Loach’s case it produces a strange paradox – he has to create his life in order for it to fit in with his films.) For an artist this is an oddly superficial view, equating the surface phenomena with the deeper reality; confusing the facts of daily life with our more profound apprehension of their causes and emotional resonances. It reflects a particular trend – the increasing influence of the universities.  For much of this doctrine has been developed by the academic art establishment, which has infused modern art with its ideas and meanings; and which, because highly intellectual and sensitive to fashion, reflects the main currents both of mainstream thought and life.  (See my Dropout Boogie for extended discussion on why intellectuals tend to stay on the surface of things.)  It is an unconscious move away from art towards the university, from the artist to the intellectual; the bohemian to the bureaucrat.  Art now a process of intellectualisation as much as an examination of form and sensuous detail – the older aesthetic.
Authority no longer resides in heaven or in the ideas of some divine genius.  Today we are much earthier.  We live in equalitarian times – we are supposed to be all interchangeable components in one vast machine (amongst a number of his books see in particular Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism for an analysis).  This is the nature of the scientific-industrial society, which increasingly deskills crafts and professions and turns everything into product to be consumed.  Profit and efficiency depends on us being all alike; this is one of the reasons for the success of feminism and the equal opportunities agenda generally; it went with the grain of modern life, with its pressure to make us all the same.   This functionalism in turn affects our ideology and our common sense; and is particularly acute amongst our thinking middle classes: there is a persistent background pressure on their consciousness to remove their differences.  This is reflected in the one dominant stream in commerce, culture and politics, and that cuts across all ideological lines: populism.  Today fame and wealth and power all depend upon one's ability to appeal to large numbers.  Indeed they are mostly the same thing – the accumulation of money for its own sake.  This force seeps into the interstices of life; and moulds it in different ways, but all push in the same direction, emptying out the values intrinsic to a skill or craft; and replacing with a value based on use and financial return. 
This changes the nature of authority.  We seek it now in the common man and woman; the nameless numbers on election returns and the numerous shoppers in Marks and Sparks.  Little wonder then than in a society based on equalitarianism those with social advantages will disown them; for they indicate in-authenticity, a throwback to more medieval, and socially unequal, times; and are direct conflict with the will of the age; a will most people are not strong enough to resist; for we are social creatures, highly adaptable; and thus amenable to pressures to conform.
Another force encouraging this worship of the workingwoman is the emergence in the 19th century of the biological interpretation of man: at base we are beasts; our intellect merely epiphenomena of our passions or bodily processes.  The assumption here is that our authentic self is really animal.  Now while some people can identify with a cockroach or a giraffe most cannot.  So instead they chose a different object for their idealisation – the working classes, men and women who are more beast than human; or so the old story goes.  And so pushed by another ideology, which complements the machine view of the world (indeed today they have merged – see my Strange Comforts), they imagine authenticity can be found on the factory floor or at the checkout till; where the passions are greater and the mind is used hardly at all – how they would like a rest from that!
In an interesting collection of essays which covers the emergence of the new American art in the mid 20th century; an art which was obsessed by the rising commercial culture of the time, we see these ideas very clearly, but not consciously, employed:
“[Writing of Allan Kaprow] This eminently logical, articulate, and practical man does not hesitate to call into question principles that have long safe-guarded the informational and communicative basis of art.  Thus the notion that a work of art is created by one man (or is overseered by him), that he is in wilful control of what he does, his craftsmanly execution commensurate with his intention, that his work is meant to be embodied in permanent form, are conditions Kaprow considers dispensable.  He was willing to sacrifice all these as it “becomes necessary as means were sought to adequately embody those subtle and spontaneous feelings and responses that were the living expression of change.”  (Max Kozloff, renderings.)
Kaprow could be a CEO talking about his company’s products; so easily has he absorbed the nature of the modern American economy.  And this was at a time when the idea of the disposal culture, of planned obsolescence, was entering public consciousness.
Later Kosloff writes of Edward Kienholz:
“It is often said that all these creatures are waiting, “killing” time.  Their consciousness of it either mechanistic or animalistic, but in either case ebbing, or already ebbed.” (my emphasis)
This is almost too good to be true!  Again it shows how the sensitive artist picks up on the currents of the zeitgeist, and transforms them into images (but is often misled in the value he gives to his own art).
These views seem commensurate with an art that is highly intellectualised; and is confirmed indirectly by Claes Oldenburg:
“[My work’s]… use of appearances, frankly and indirectly, is offered as an alternative to the elimination of appearances… which is not possible… but saying I hope more effectively that appearances are not what count.  It is the forms that count… my art is the constant enemy of meaning… or you could say I have aimed at neutralizing meaning (which is unexpungable)….  To eliminate appearances seems to me impossible… simply grasp them and show how little they mean.”
His pieces are a highly conscious engagement with the consumer and advertising saturated world that took off in the 1950s.  They are an intellectual’s as well as an artist’s response, and naturally they reflect the very culture they seek to undermine or exemplify.  Although in typical style (post-modernism was to take this to new heights) he denies what he is in fact doing: filling his pieces with meaning.  It shows the uneasiness of the intellectual, who is uneasy with the idea of mind – according to the overarching paradigm, it shouldn’t exist, and so again and again we find artists and thinkers struggling with its existence.  It shouldn’t exist, but it does; how do we get rid of it…  What can we do?  Indeed, what can they do in an aesthetic environment where mind plays are increasingly prominent role, dominated as it is by the academy, and its highly intellectualised theories. Is the constant demand to submit to the body little more than an Oedipal reaction to the academic parent?
[iv] The mother in Joseph Roth’s Job is a good example: although the family is extremely poor still she obsessively saves a shekel here and there.  It is also a point J.C.D Clark makes in his English Society 1660-1832: the poor tended to be morally conservative because it was the only way to survive – they didn’t have the money to be moral profligates.  A week of debauchery would reduce them to hunger and homelessness.

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