Saturday, October 29, 2022
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
James D. Fisher - The Enclosure of Knowledge: Books, Power & Agrarian Capitalism in Britain, 1660-1800
I reviewed this book for the International Socialism Journal. You can read my review here.
Article on the book by the author.
Monday, October 24, 2022
Apparently James M. Cain hated that his novel was described as "hard-boiled", yet it is difficult to come up with a better adjective. When published in 1934 it caused outrage for its sex and brutal violence, and today it feels no less raw, though we lack the outrage.
Frank Chambers, a young drifter, arrives at a gas station and diner, where he tries to scam the owner out of a meal. The owner, a Greek immigrant called Nick Papadakis runs the place with is beautiful wife Cora. Nick gives Frank a job, and quickly Frank and Cora begin an affair. The pair plan to murder Nick and take over the diner, but Nick survives the attempt without any memories of it taking place. A second attempt is successful and Cora is put on trial for murder. A clever lawyer manages to get the pair off, by playing the insurance companies off against the judge but in the aftermath Cora and Frank fall out. A reconciliation after Cora discovers she is pregnant is abruptly ended as Frank crashes his car, killing Cora and putting Frank on trial for murder. The coincidences have piled up, and the innocent (in this case) Frank is eventually executed - the text of the novel forming his final thoughts before his death.
The novel hits the reader hard. Cain's clipped prose encourages the tension. With the exception of the innocent, and naive, Nick, most of the characters are grotesque - from the murderers to the prosecutors, and the lawyer everyone is out to grab a bigger slice of the pie. Frank and Cora's lawyer is particularly neatly drawn in this regard - he refuses a huge payment as he knows that the case itself has made his career. The ending too is shocking, by depicting the execution of Frank for a crime he didn't commit the reader is tempted to feel he is absolved of his crimes. But he is not, in anyway, an innocent.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is very much about fate. Everyone has two chances here - Nick survives a murder, only to be killed a few weeks later. Frank and Cora avoid the execution block, blackmail but then get their comeuppance. Even the legal system gets its chance for a second try,
The Postman Always Rings Twice is perhaps watched more than it is read. This is a shame as the novel is powerful and the work is itself a lesson in how writers can put a lot into a few words. You can see why the film industry adored it.
Friday, October 21, 2022
At the end of the 19th century though Bax wrote a trilogy of books about Germany during the Reformation, an attempt to understand the trajectory of German history between then end of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. This first volume is very much a scene setter, describing German society at the time and detailing various events around the time of the early Reformation.
Whatever Bax's faults, he had a detailed knowledge of German history, events and culture. For instance there are several detailed chapters on social and religious revolts and literature of the Reformation. In these he details some relatively unknown events, books and people for an English speaking audience. Of these the revolts section is perhaps most useful, as Bax shows how the Peasant War (which he deals with in a separate volume) arose out of a ferment of rebellion. While some of the events and things he discusses are interesting, Bax's analysis tends to be very dated. He writes, for instance, of the famous peasants' symbol the Bundschuh, an image of a typical peasant's leather that was often placed on banners, that this showed, "The strange and almost totemistic superstition that the mediaeval mind attached to symbolism".
A sense of Bax's overbearing writing style is given by the rest of this sentence, "The strange and almost totemistic superstition that the mediaeval mind attached to symbolism is here evincd by the paramount importance acquired by the question of banner." At times I found myself reading and re-reading sentences in an attempt to grasp the core argument.
Bax rightly argues that a "great man" theory of history cannot explain the Reformation. So he tends to underplay Martin Luther's contribution, placing the Reformation in the context of a period of revolt and religious upheaval. Instead he tends to portray the Reformation more as an economic revolt against the Catholic Church. Indeed he argues that the "end of the Middle Ages" was marked by a enormous decline in the economic conditions of the lower peasantry which contributed to their discontent and revolt. Oddly, at times, Bax comes across almost as an apologist for the old feudal order, writing of how well off the peasantry were. In the second half of the fifteenth century when, Bax says, the "Duke of Saxony wore grey hats which cost him four groschen", a day labourer in the Northern Rhineland could "in addition to his keep earn in a week a quarter of rye, ten pounds of pork, six large cans of milk and two bundles of firewood" and "in the course of five weeks be able to buy six ells of linen, a pair of shoes and a bag for his tools". Perhaps a day labourer could earn this, but was this really true of the whole peasantry and working classes?
Bax argues that the opening of the world market transformed the mediaeval town and "began that evolution of the town whose ultimate outcome was to entirely change the central idea on which the urban organisation was based". For an alleged socialist it seems odd that Bax seems wary of using phrases like "capitalist relations" and he over emphasises the importance of state relations in the town - laws and taxes and so on - rather than the changing system of production as drivers of economic change. Bax sees the period from the end of feudalism to the 18th century in Germany as a "transitional Europe", "slowly but surely [giving] place to the newer order".
Ultimately this is a very old book. First published in 1894 few readers today would take it as the definitive academic history that Bax was writing. His excursions into seemingly unrelated cultural accounts or the in-depth retelling of German folklore tales are characteristic of a very different style of writing.
Nonetheless I found it useful as Bax highlighted some interesting events and revolts that aren't already known. His writing style can be frustrating, but the book itself is relatively light. I'll read the remaining two books for completeness and for his pointers to other events. But I'd be wary of basing any historical conclusions on any of Bax's assertions.
Thursday, October 20, 2022
But where Harrison's tale was a gripping "noir" detective style commentary on the political argument, Earthworks fails to hold the reader. There are some interesting ideas, Noland's ship encounters a dead body on a gravity harness floating away from the coastline. Searching the body Noland discovers some love letters and becomes infatuated with their female author. He reflects on his time in a punishment work camp, and how he went to live with the travellers, nomadic people who have slipped through society's cracks.
In revenge against the leader who imprisoned then released him, Noland runs the ship aground. It's rather an inexplicable action, as it has to be said, are most of what he does in the rest of the novel. There follows a convoluted series of battles, chases and arguments between various characters until Noland finds, and promptly falls in love with, the author of the love letters. He then becomes entangled in her revolutionary movement.
Little of it makes sense. None of it is worth reading. Earthworks is a footnote to Aldiss' far better work. Read that instead.
Friday, October 14, 2022
also makes an argument: that the Bible does not 'map' directly onto religious faith and practice, whether Jewish or Christian. I will propose that though the Bible - seen as a collection of religious texts - is irreplaceable for many reasons, Christianity is not in essence a scriptural religion, focused on a book seen as a single, holy work. Judaism, similarly, though it greatly reveres the Hebrew Bible, is also not so Bible-centred as is widely thought... [The Bible] is a mêlée of materials, few of which directly address the question of what is to be believed. The history of the Bible is thus the story of the interplay between the religion and the book neither mapping exactly onto the other.
The [historical books] are important as a way of establishing the identity of the people of [ancient] Israel, rather than as archival material: they are national literature. The historical books often contribute to our understanding of the history of the nation through the insight they give into how events and social movements were understood in the time when they were written, rather than by providing reliable information about the history of the time they purport to describe.
introduced a new idea into the interpretation of the Bible: the possibility of criticizing the Church's teaching in the light of what the Bible appeared to be saying - and, in Luther's case, even of criticizing parts of the Bible itself in the light of what he took to be its overall drift. This was a revolutionary idea, which would feed into the premium on independent though that would come to characterize the European Enlightenment. For the first time it opened up a gap between the Bible and the faith which hermeneutical ingenuity could not bridge.
Sunday, October 09, 2022
At Hawthorn Time is also about change, in particular the way that the agricultural economy is changing. Change is, of course, inevitable and one of the dangers about writing about the countryside is there can be a tendency to suggest that change is recent, and the countryside was exactly the same until very recently. Yet what the book is really about is how the British countryside and its agriculture has been destroyed by external forces, leaving its population high and dry.
At times it reminded me of Alun Howkins' book The Death of Rural England which details how the late 20th and 21st centuries have seen the rural economy squeezed by the overlapping interests of capital and British towns and cities. Harrison's novel is linked together by the story of Jack, a former environmental campaigner who has protested nuclear weapons and road building, but now finds himself tramping along the forgotten (and sometimes vanished) paths and highways of the countryside. Frequently arrested for trespassing he is often dismissed as "mad" or a criminal, yet he is the last of a breed of rural workers whose labour held together the seasonal harvests, ploughing and planting. Without those like him, who knew the land and walked from place to place, agriculture would not have survived. He has been replaced by cheap labour from Eastern Europe, ironically something else about to vanish from the countryside. Jack is very much the essence of the working countryside - but also those part of the countryside that strove to protect and defend it from simply being tied into the profit machine.
Jack's walking brings him to Lodeshill, a place where he has worked over many years, and knows some of its darker history. Lodeshill is where Howard and Kitty live, retirement refugees from the city. Kitty fulfilling a lives ambition, and Howard dragged there against his better judgement. For both of them the countryside forms a backdrop to the final collapse of their marriage, and for both of them its a refuge of sorts - Kitty through her art and Howard through is cynical abstention from village life. The two of them also represent the change coming to Lodeshill as the older economy vanishes. Second homes, the price of land and high rents combine to squeeze out older communities and local labour all but vanishes as young people look to the bright urban life.
The best rural novels are those that reject a bucolic fantasy and place their story in the context of the real countryside. Unemployment, poverty, hard work and class struggle are not alien to the countryside, but just as in towns and cities, they are part of everyday life. What Harrison's novel does however is to make these realities the story itself, the strands of the book drawing different aspects of this reality together through the stories of individual characters.
In Stella Gibbons' dark comedy Cold Comfort Farm she hints at the darkness below the surface of the countryside with her brief mention of "something nasty in the woodshed". Harrison's novel is very different. It wears the darkness openly - we know the unpleasant way the book will end from the first page. But the real darkness addressed by At Hawthorn Time is less what happens to Jack and all the other inhabitants of Lodeshill as individuals. They are all victims of faceless economic change, which they are powerless to resist. The darkness comes from that uncertainty and from what is lost.
When Jack encounters the elderly James, a former ploughman who is now suffering from dementia and has wandered away from home, he reflects on the old man's life, a "unique landscape of memories, parts of it sunlit and open, parts shadowy and unvisited, all of which would soon be... lost". The countryside has always changed, communities, agricultural practices, buildings and crops are never permanent. What Melissa Harrison's wonderful novel does is to remind us of how much has been destroyed and what happens to those who are left behind.
Sunday, October 02, 2022
It is difficult to know exactly what role the conflict with his father might have played in these struggles, but it does seem that his spiritual troubles stemmed from the relationship he was forging with a paternal God. All the crises cluster around the terror of being confronted directly with God, the Father, who is also God the judge, without any intermediary; whereas the whole purpose of the monastic life as Luther experienced it was to create a security net where the intercessions of Mary, prayers said on one's behalf and exercises to subdue the flesh all cushioned him against God' transcendent power. So if Luther's entry into the monastery was a retreat into a matriarchal world, that retreat was raising spiritual problems of its own.
Luther would have been familiar with this arrangement, for it was what he had grown up with in Mansfeld. He naturally expected power to descend from above, not legitimacy to be conferred from below. This helps explain why his Reformation would be so different from that which would emerge in the south, and why his theology of power appears so reactionary. He simply had no experience of the more democratic values of southern German communes... As conservative as Luther's politics might have been, they were also in tune with the newly emerging political realities of the time; for it was the large territories of the princes that became the mainstays of the Reformation, while the civic communes of southern Germany were entering the twilight of their power.
Yet there was nothing surprising in his stand. It was already prefigured in his conflict with Karlstaft [a figure of the radical Reformation] from the moment that Luther decided to defeat the Wittenberg movement and support the Elector's attempt to make peace with the Diet by slowing the pace of evangelical reform. Luther had already rejected the communal Reformation, powered by popular pressure, which inspired Karlstaft. This was the Reformation that was also popular among the lower townsfolk in Allstedt, Muhlhausen and Frankenhausen, where [revolutionary] Müntzer had his most loyal and zealous supporters.
was not a medieval relic but a development of it. Even more disturbingly, it was not incidental to his theology, a lamentable prejudice taken over from contemporary attitudes. Rather, it was integral to his though; his insistence that the true Christians - that is, the evangelicals - had become the chosen people and had displaced the Jews would become fundamental to Protest identify. It was the central plank of his understanding of the Lutherans' providential role in history, and to secure it the Jews had to be pushed aside, discredited and, if necessary, eliminated.
In his absence white missionaries arrive, tempting some of the villagers away from their traditional practises and beliefs, alongside this the serpent voices of the missionaries are further undone by the trading post, that offers new wealth by tying the community into wider capitalist networks. The "lunatic religion" is reinforced by money "flowing into Umuofia" and with this money comes a growing feeling that there might be "method in the overwhelming madness".
But behind the money there's a new white government and with that state comes violence. Government and justice are removed from the hands of the village elders and placed in the hands of people who know nothing of events, an abstract law replacing the complex rules that manage behaviour. When they protest the community and its village elders are collectively punished.
Returning to this transformed world, which has seen his personal hopes and dreams destroyed, and the old order "fall apart", Okonkwo is at first disappointed that his was not the long imagined triumphant return, but this is soon replaced by anger and humiliation at what has happened to his people. His response, in many ways, is a personal redemption even if it is a hopeless gesture against the colonial powers who literarily treat it as a footnote of history.
Achebe's book is not one of violent resistance or retribution, it tells the story of how colonialism was a destructive force - both explicitly through guns and soldiers, and usurped state power, but also through the networks of commerce and religion that shattered the old order in the name of "progress".
Things Fall Apart is not a cheerful novel, nor is it patronising to the pre-colonial communities. These are portrayed as very different to European "society", but with their own internal logic, rationalities, rules and contradictions. This is not a pre-colonial utopia, but nor is it a society that sees systematic oppression and exploitation - that took the arrival of capitalism. This is one of the great novels that explores that transformation.