Issue 258 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Mike Gonzalez looks at Gramsci's surprising take on Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
If you can dream--and not make dreams your master;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
|'If' by Rudyard Kipling|
What could the great Italian revolutionary Marxist Antonio Gramsci have in common with the typical audience of Radio 4's Poetry Please--Middle England at rest on Sunday afternoon? The answer, unlikely as it seems, is Rudyard Kipling!
In a recent poll to find the world's favourite poem, the runaway victor was Kipling's 'If'. For Kipling's more ferocious critics, 'If' is doggerel, simple thoughts in easy rhymes--wise advice collected from embroidered samplers and back copies of Reader's Digest. Yet Gramsci published his translation of the poem in the socialist newspaper Avanti late in 1916, with the following recommendation: 'A prayer for laymen: we are pleased to offer this poem to our readers as an example of a morality not polluted by Christianity and therefore acceptable to every human being.' In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci argued that 'Kipling's work is a critique of a society without a civic morality, one whose actual behaviour contradicts the values it claims to stand for. Kipling's morality is imperialist only to the extent that it is closely linked to a specific historical reality; but there are lessons in the poem for any social group struggling for political power.'
Presumably what Gramsci found here at two different moments in his life--in 1916, amidst a growing working class movement, and in 1930 or thereabouts, imprisoned by the Fascists--was an affirmation of human optimism at the best and the worst of times. But surely Kipling was the stereotypical voice of the imperialist soldier in India?
According to Edward Said, things are not nearly so simple. In Culture and Imperialism he analyses Kipling's novel Kim and finds there a painful contradiction. Kim is an outsider, an Irish boy brought up in India who follows a Tibetan lama in search of wisdom. In the end Kim becomes a spy for the British Empire--and the narrative insists that that represented a kind of fulfilment. And yet there is in the novel an admiration for India, a yearning for a kind of wisdom that the Tibetan represents.
Kipling was a product of empire, as Said demonstrates. He had its values and its expectations. Yet he carried with him a genuine and profound love of an India where he spent his early childhood in a colonial family. His experience of England, as a young boy at one of those minor public schools to which colonial civil servants sent their sons, was miserable and oppressive. He doesn't idealise empire--the poem 'Boots' speaks through the voice of the cannon fodder of empire, wearily pursuing the imperial dream with aching feet. But he sees no alternative to it, except in an impossible childhood Eden--inevitably lost--which is perhaps India itself. He is of the empire, locked in its ideological universe with no visible exit, but he is not blind to its savagery.
Reading 'If' against that background reveals what Gramsci saw there. What is Kipling's vision of empire? Here is a world where everyone is losing his head and blaming it on others, and doubt, lies and hatred are all around you. And then (how appropriate at this time) that truth would be taken up and 'twisted by knaves' until words lost their very meaning and ended up as nothing better than 'worn out tools'. 'They' will use your energy to construct this 'great' enterprise of domination, and then abandon you. And in that famous last verse, the speaker points to a world where people do not talk with crowds and 'keep their virtue', where the powerful fawn and bend to kings, queens and captains of industry.
This is a dark vision of England, an anxious and pessimistic picture of the world as it is. Of course Kipling has no alternative to offer, no sense of the forces waiting on the other side to challenge imperialism. He exposes the flaws and contradictions in his own society, yet sees no other possibility except the yeoman virtues of an 'honest Englishman keeping his own counsel'. His contemporary, the novelist Joseph Conrad, left us a searing and brutal picture of the 'heart of darkness' at the core of empire--but he too could only suggest a sort of private morality to contest it. Yet, as Gramsci suggests, there are values suggested here--solidarity, integrity, egalitarianism--that can be rescued from the Boy Scout world of self reliance and given a collective content, a place in the construction of a new society. Perhaps 'If' is not the exclusive property of Middle England after all.
The Good Hope
by Herman Heijermans
National Theatre, London, and touring
|A community in perpetual mourning|
The Good Hope is to the stage what Ken Loach's film Cathy Come Home is to the screen. Both were written in response to specific social circumstances, and both effected political change.
Loach's famous movie gave rise to hugely increased public awareness of homelessness and to the birth of the pressure group charity Shelter. Heijermans' achievement was, if anything, even more startling, leading to a change in Dutch law regarding the regulation of the fishing fleet.
Heijermans observed the conditions of life for the working class 100 years ago with a growing sense of rage. This was a period of rapid, and relatively unregulated, capitalist expansion in northern Europe, and the owners of unseaworthy ships had little difficulty in 'persuading' insurers to give their vessels the necessary permits.
The immediate problem for Lee Hall, who has written this new adaptation, was, in his own words, 'how to make a play that had so efficiently served its purpose speak with a freshness and urgency when everything appears to have changed'. However, soon after first reading the play the Hatfield rail disaster occurred, reminding him in the most brutal terms of the continuing and appalling human cost of the conflict between private profit and public safety. Moreover, as Hall writes in his excellent programme notes, the events of 11 September and the inevitable war which the US would launch in its wake, spoke to the play's representation of a community in perpetual mourning.
Hall has relocated the play to the English fishing town of Whitby. Consequently he is able to bring in the rich working class vernacular of Yorkshire. That, however, is as much of a departure from Heijermans' original as I can discern.
As Hall implicitly acknowledges, the stripped back, polemical quality of the piece can be a weakness. There is, for all its various strengths, a slightly clunky, folksy aspect to the play, especially in the first half. However, there is also something in the political commitment and the use of characters as unambiguous representatives of social forces which makes one wonder if Bertolt Brecht was a student of Heijermans' work. Indeed, the contribution of songs and music by John Tams gives the production a strongly Brechtian quality.
Where Heijermans does differ radically from Brecht is in his deliberate use of emotion as a political tool. Perhaps ironically for modern audiences, it is precisely this emotional element which raises the play up in the second half.
We have already seen the horrific consequences of rebellion for young socialist fisherman James Fitzgerald (powerfully played by Steve Nicolson) when the conflict of class interests comes to a head. The excellent cast builds up the emotional tension as 'self made' shipowner Christopher Makepeace (a brilliantly reactionary, yet self-doubting Tom Georgeson) struggles to contain the anger of Kitty Fitzgerald (beautifully performed by Frances de la Tour) and the people of Whitby.
The political and emotional power with which the play concludes renders it of more than purely historical interest. Director Bill Bryden, ably assisted by Hayden Griffin's superb set, has created a strong piece of socially conscious theatre.
by Bonnie Greer
Arcola Theatre, London
The Arcola Theatre, situated in Hackney's deprived heartland of Dalston, is steadily gaining stature as a presenter of serious and challenging drama.
Its current season of new works includes Jitterbug by Bonnie Greer, a playwright who has been a recipient of several prestigious awards which, by the standard of the current play, are well deserved.
Jitterbug is a cleverly contrived series of six interlocking playlets very loosely connected by the dance phenomenon of that name that entered the lives of some of the characters. The emotional theme running through the play concerns the expression of various forms of oppression through which Greer weaves the convergence of unexpectedly divergent people-such as the lovers in a Paris hotel room, she Jewish, he Arab.
One of the prominent oppressions dealt with is anti-Semitism, which brings in another connecting link of a present day visit to Auschwitz concentration camp, and a flashback to a police waiting room in Nazi occupied France in 1943. Two Frenchmen, unsure of their racial heritage, await their fate, and a black man uncovers his sexual abuse by an 'educator' priest. An African-American reporter discovers a Polish Auschwitz survivor her GI great uncle befriended; a gay victim of homophobia seeks an ally in a young black British girl; an Arab desperately tries to find his friend in the rubble of the World Trade Centre in New York after 11 September.
The variety of oppressions in each playlet, the personnel making the exposures, and Greer's interesting handling of them hold the attention.
Royal Academy of Arts, London
Rembrandt's women is a revelation for anyone not familiar with the range of Rembrandt's pictures of women.
They vary in scope from large, dramatic canvases of mythological heroines to the tiniest, most intimate etchings of women washing and sleeping. Rembrandt's virtuosity and skill are breathtaking--from lavishly detailed portraits to dark, dramatic paintings and incredibly fine etchings. He painted both wealthy burghers' wives in their finery and labouring and disreputable women in less formal poses. Some of the most striking pictures are those which show women Rembrandt knew intimately, his mother and his lovers. The features of Rembrandt's first wife, Saskia, stare out unmistakably from many canvases, variously heroic, celebratory and intimate.
The biographical aspects of Rembrandt's women chimed in with the artistic style he was developing. He rejected the tradition of idealised, classical beauty to portray real women, red raw working hands, creases and bulges, gap-toothed smiles and all. Many of the biblical themes he painted show women involved in intimate acts being spied on, giving him the framework within which he could depict erotic scenes and penetrate their private worlds. He wanted to paint from life, to be true to nature and the women he loved.
Rembrandt's women are painted with a physical, sensual appreciation that only adds to the emotional impact they still have, some 350 years after they posed for him.
Dir: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Kandahar is by veteran Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and stars Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan refugee in Canada. They met when Nelofer needed help to travel to Kabul after receiving a letter from a old friend who said she could no longer go on living as a woman under the Taliban and was going to kill herself. Nelofer was unable to get across the border to find her friend and returned to Canada. Kandahar is a fictionalised account of this story.
The film was shot on the Iranian-Afghan border and almost all the actors are refugees from Afghanistan. Many of the characters are based on a pastiche of the actors' real experience and researched events. An argument between Nelofer and a man over her lifting the burqa from her face during the shooting of the film was made a scene in the film. His views were not glossed over or simply condemned, but gave an authentic feel for the lives and beliefs of many rural Afghans.
The role of the mullahs and religious schools is also shot in this three dimensional way. The scene of children reciting the Koran by rote is brutal. But the attraction for refugees of somewhere to sleep, eat and gain opportunities simply not offered elsewhere is made clear.
Anger at the oppression of women identified by the wearing of the burqa is central to the film. As Nelofer lowers her burqa you gain a true sense of the restricted claustrophobic feeling of wearing 'the only everyday clothing ever designed as a walking prison'. However, women are not portrayed as passive. Away from the sight of the men they swap lipstick and nail polish. Unseen behind their burqas the women still assert their individuality. While the film attacks the Taliban's Afgahanistan much of its fury is against the suffering inflicted on ordinary people by poverty, war and western indifference. A pathetic little UN flag is handed to returning refugees to 'protect them'. It's stolen and discarded on the dirt in the road. Finally it is left by a skeleton in the desert.
The horrific effects of landmines on ordinary Afghans and the pitiful aid offered by the west at a Red Cross station were some of the most striking scenes in the film. Afghan amputees queue to be offered grotesque false limbs by well meaning but under-resourced aid workers. When false legs are dropped by parachute, the men hobble on crutches to be first to get them--a scene of surreal black comedy that leaves a memorable imprint.
This is a deeply humane film whose devastating images will last long in the memory.
Éloge de l'amour
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard's new film, Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love), begins with people discussing a project of the same name. It is unclear whether this project is going to be a film, a play or even an opera. The author of the project, Edgar, wants to show love in four stages--meeting, passion, quarrels/ separation, and reconciliation--through the eyes of three couples. These couples are to be young, adult and elderly, but Edgar has trouble finding adults for his film until he meets up with Berthe, a woman he met three years before.
Later the film shifts to the circumstances of their first meeting. A bureaucrat from the US embassy in Paris has gone to persuade Berthe's grandparents, who fought for the Resistance in the Second World War, to sell the rights to their love story and fight against the occupation. This story is to be made into a film by Steven Spielberg, starring Julia Roberts. He tries to persuade them by saying that trade will follow the film into the area and bring money in with it, but the real question is whether Hollywood has the right to appropriate the hopes of people and turn them into a blockbuster.
The film deals with the Hollywoodisation of culture, US imperialism, resistance (to both Nazism and capitalism), refugees, and the importance of understanding the past to fight in the present. 'There can be no resistance without memory,' one of the characters says at one point. When Edgar looks at a derelict building and talks about an 'empty fortress', it is important to know that in 1968 it was known as the 'workers' fortress' because of the struggles that took place there.
Godard uses colour and black and white in the film in an unusual way. The first hour of the film, set in the present, is all filmed in black and white. But when the film flashes back to three years previously, it changes to saturated colour. Godard says he used this device as a way of 'intensifying the past', and the fact that the colours are almost too bright and intense to look at achieves this aim well.
Éloge de l'amour is not an easy film. Its overlapping narratives can be overwhelming, as can its seemingly unconnected stories and conversations. It is far from clear at first glance, for example, that the 'colour' events are taking place before the 'black and white' ones. And there are lots of allusions to recent French history and culture that are difficult to understand if you are not familiar with them. But it is clear that Godard still wants to make films that deal with the struggles taking place in the world.
Illustrated by Robert Ingpen
Walker Books £12.99
|The Globe Theatre as illustrated by Robert Ingpen|
I wish somebody had shown me a book like this before I was forced into the yawn-inducing chore of dissecting clumps of prose into modern English as a school student. Shakespeare's plays are meant to be performed, not read, was the message that was hammered home as I moved into further education. It took me years to recover. Any mention of Shakespeare would have me breaking into a cold sweat and grappling with my essay book.
It is this fear and loathing that Michael Rosen sets out to stem in this beautifully produced and illustrated book. Being one of those who appears to have actually read much Shakespearean literary criticism and knows more than a thing or two about Elizabethan England, Rosen is well placed to put Shakespeare's work into its historical context. This is such a welcome and enlightening approach--literature and history being considered mutually exclusive to most school curricula.
The delight rather than the devil is in the detail. We learn about the wider geopolitical and literary influences on Shakespeare's life and work--exploration and discovery of new countries, slavery, literacy, the increase of commerce and the ways in which he was influenced by 'books, plays, poems and folk stories from Italy, Ancient Rome and from Arab countries and turned them into dramas'.
Rosen has set out to make his love for and fascination with Shakespeare's life and works accessible to children and he definitely succeeds. Any unfamiliar words are in brackets alongside the text to make it accessible (no flicking backwards to the glossary at the back). Quotes are kept quite short in the main and always within the context of the main narrative--the background to the changing world in which Shakespeare lived.
This is no dry literary piece which hoists Shakespeare onto some literary pedestal. Quite the contrary. Rosen tells the story of a man who, like us all, is full of contradictions--a man who fell foul of the law for 'hoarding' grain yet in Coriolanus has the poor rebel against those who did this, 'their storehouses crammed with grain, make edicts for usury to support userers'.
Whilst asking the reader, 'What's so special about Shakespeare?' he answers by describing his work as like being invited into a house full of amazing rooms. The at times almost fairy tale illustrations allow the young reader to find many examples of scenes from Shakespeare's plays, but also to relate those scenes to the reality of living in the 16th century. The drawings and paintings in the book are like art from the period itself and perfectly complement the text.
The two seven year olds I read excerpts of the book to sat quietly (always a good sign) and listened intently to the descriptions read out to them and loved the detail in the illustrations. This is an excellent book for young people to read or have read to them. I leave the final critical review to young Ira: 'I think it's quite interesting. I think it's not so fair that rich people can buy a house in the town and the country and the poor people can't and I think it's not so fair for the poor people. I think the queen was a greedy old goose. She doesn't give--she takes. I don't like the school bit but I like everything else, especially when they take all the wood from the theatre. I would like to do what he did for a living--to use all the words he used with all those interesting titles.'