Archives for category: Writing

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a prolific writer primarily known for her novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando, and the feminist essay A Room of One’s Own. I was introduced to these novels in college and returned to them after certain cinematic excursions into the material. Dalloway and Woolf were central the novel and film The Hours. Sally Potter made a film of Orlando in the 1990s starring Tilda Swinton and featuring Quentin Crisp in the roll of Queen Elizabeth I.

Orlando (1928) is an outlier in that it’s in many ways a love letter to Woolf’s erstwhile lover, Vita Sackville-West. It’s comic, and light-hearted, which aren’t generally words associated with Woolf’s work. I picked it up again last night after a long time away from it. I try to find emotionally light reading for that half an hour at 2AM when I’m generally awake these days and don’t want anything too involving. Wodehouse often fits the bill, for example. However, I’d forgotten the opening paragraphs and was rather shocked by the sheer racism of those passages.

He…was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.

Of course I have no idea why this passage never previously struck me, but it’s the nature of these times to question our assumptions, or lack thereof. The terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian to describe a single person, dead long before the action of the book begins, but obviously a source of the titular character’s emotional (and probably financial) inheritance. Woolf follows this statement with fairly glowing terms about the Orlando’s beauty, poetry, and outlook. But I return to those opening sentences and wonder at that casual approach Woolf takes.

1928 or no, it surprises me, and raises again the question of how one interacts with historical texts – do I say this person whose insights into the human condition are some of the most incisive in literature is no longer someone I’ll read, for the political reasons that we use to take other artists out of our personal spheres of influence?

It’s a casual racism in which shorthand is used to make up for characterization. Similar to the Jews in J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, and possibly all of the non-Europeans in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

In The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”, David Denby offers this opinion submitted by Edward Said: ‘Most imaginative writers of the nineteenth century…failed to connect their work, their own spiritual practice, to the squalid operations of colonialism. Such writers as Austen, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Flaubert were heroes of culture who either harbored racist views of the subject people then dominated by the English and the French or merely acquiesced in the material advantages of empire. They took empire for granted as a space in which their characters might roam and prosper; they colluded in evil. Here and there, one could see in their work shameless traces of the subordinated world…’

Woolf, though writing 30 years after “Heart of Darkness”, seems to fall squarely within the canon Denby and Said are citing. Her hero is an heir to the fortunes of Elizabethan colonialism just as much as the characters in Austen and Dickens.

Denby’s essay is a counterpoint of sorts to Achebe’s An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness. ‘Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality..’

I’m pretty sure a reread of “Heart of Darkness” is in order right now. One of the thrusts of Achebe’s argument against Conrad is that he reduces the natives of the Congo to caricatures with neither language nor art. The excuses made for Conrad include an argument that this wasn’t the story he was writing. Denby addresses this – that arguments against HoD are often that he should show the same modern sensibilities towards the non-European elements of his story as he does to the European. This isn’t Conrad’s job, but the shorthand he uses to compare the savage internal world of Europeans with a non-existent savage external world of Africa is similar to the shorthand with which Woolf opens Orlando. And there is most definitely a conscious or unconscious racial/racist aspect to this shorthand.

Denby suggests that Achebe, as a novelist and not an academic, doesn’t bring the necessary rigor to this discussion. And it’s easy to write off some of what he says as unsupported assertions about Conrad’s racism in general (actually well sourced by Achebe) and the racism in “Heart of Darkness” in particular. I think I’ll run with my initial take on the matter which is that the racist tropes that both Conrad and Woolf employ are in service to easy analogies. The stories of the Africans, pagans, or Moors aren’t the stories either are telling. On the other hand, Conrad’s ‘dog in breeches’ comparison (cited by Achebe) is simply sloppy writing – Woolf using the terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian interchangeably to describe the same severed head is also sloppy writing.

Neither Conrad nor Woolf (who, in Orlando’s introduction, thanks no fewer than 20 fairly illustrious literary contemporaries for their feedback) are careless writers. But I think both writers are relying on a European readership to recognize the tropes and to play along with how these tropes define and refine the portrayals of their main characters.

In this way it’s easy to contrast light with dark using these tropes, in the same way that Kurtz’ fall has to do with his adoption of the local nature and culture and his submersion in the native, dark part of the world, and his collusion in the enslavement and killing of the natives. The Grove of Death sequence cited by Achebe is essential to the story of Kurtz’ fall because it shows how the colonials used the natives to death in their trade. Orlando, like Woolf and Sackville-West herself, is a product of these activities – the wealth of the west is based on this kind of exploitation top to bottom and so is the exploitation pointed out in that opening paragraph.

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Woolf’s father was a prolific writer on ethics, science, and humanism and that her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent abolitionists.

Given how much input Woolf accepted regarding the history covered in Orlando, and how much she left in place, it’s hard to deny that the views expressed in the novel are her own, or those shared with Sackville-West, or those of the first readers. How else to explain the shorthand?

Later, the character Orlando compares the exploits of his ancestors (who killed individuals of different nationalities) with those of one particular poet. The poet, not the murderous ancestors, is immortal, and Orlando, too, ‘[perceives], however, that the battles which Sir Miles and the rest had waged against armed knights to win a kingdom, were not half so arduous as this which he now undertook to win immortality against the English language.’

Is Woolf saying that as Orlando grows, he grows from the limited mortality of his murderous ancestors into the immortal poet? It’s possible, but doesn’t reduce the shock of those opening lines. As the book progresses and Orlando (who remains about 30 years old from 1600 through to 1928) evolves away from that racism of that opening paragraph and the reader might be forgiven for thinking the attitude expressed there is that of the author and not the character himself. An argument might be made that because Orlando’s sex changes from male to female (in chapter 3), that this attitude belongs to the barbarity of maleness. And, in fact, the language of the story becomes more genteel for much of the story’s remainder.

As the book nears its conclusion, the narrator considers several of the lives Orlando has lived, ‘…a biography is consider complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the n*****’s head down; the boy who strung it up again,’ and two dozen more that we’ve met in the course of the novel. Again there’s the shock of her racist language when we thought we were or she was done with it.

There’s probably an answer to the question of Woolf’s racism if one delves into the letters and the diaries, and reads far more than I have. Or we can accept that she’s the product of her time and her place and her class. Oddly, she wrote of Ulysses that it was ‘egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating…When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?’ One question of Orlando is, why when Woolf could have prepared the meal to perfection, did she garnish it so crudely?

My best beloved reads the Economist every week, and occasionally I’ll read an article or two as well. She’s noted to me that periodicals like the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are written for people with an interest in the proliferation of money. As such they’re (historically) neither right-wing nor left-wing. Save for the elephant in the room, of course.

I was rereading a column from last June from the Economist’s ‘Bartleby Blog’. On the web site, this blog is subtitled ‘Thoughts on management and the world of work, in the spirit of the “scrivener” of Herman Melville’s 1853 novel’. This alone is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story, not a novel.
  • The titular character of Bartleby the Scrivener would rather starve than work. His catch phrase is ‘I would prefer not to.’ He utters this phrase whenever his boss or others ask him to do something.
  • It seems that whoever named the blog took note of Bartleby’s initial burst of hard work, not the fact that by the end of the story, he’s been evicted, arrested, and starves in the Tombs, Manhattan’s municipal jail.

With all of this in mind, I point you to the June 29th edition of the blog in which the writer discusses the differences between American and European working hours and vacation habits.

First point: In 1979, the average worker in the US and Europe put in about 38.2 hours per week. Later measurements diverge. By 2000, the US worker was putting in 39.4 hours. This fell to 38.6 hours in 2016.

Second point: European and US workers differ in the amount of holiday they take. Rather than looking at the number of days off each culture has, the blogger points out that over the course of a year, Americans average 34 hours per week, the French 28 hours and the Germans 26.

Third point: The wealthy in the US work longer hours, but still tend to work in daylight as opposed to cleaners and food delivery people who mostly work at night.

Why the differences? Taxation? Possibly. But the key point is made in the passive voice: ‘Another potential explanation is that a decline in trade union membership has weakened American workers’ bargaining power. Except that unionization rates in France and America are not far apart.’

Let’s take a look at that for a moment: What happened to the unions in the US shortly after the 1979 calculation? I’d point to Ronald Reagan’s firing of almost the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization rather than bargaining in good faith, given that he had supported the union during his campaign. This act alone signaled the death knell for unions in the United States.

The blogger distinguishes between unionization and policy. What isn’t spoken is how a well unionized country affects policy. Employers in underunionized countries also affect policy. Far more now than they used to. In the US, legislators financed by large employers have succeeded in gutting union power in a variety of areas. And they also succeed in breaking labor laws that protect the rights to unionize. So the question of who shapes policy goes unanswered.

I can’t speak for unionization rates in France, but labor in general speaks louder in Western Europe. Mandated holiday time of at least 20 days per year as a matter of national policy in most EU countries makes a big difference in that average number of hours worked.

Continuing through the blog, we get an assertion that ‘champions of workers’ rights have focused on raising the minimum wage (so far to little avail at the federal level)’. Again, begging the question as to WHY these efforts fail at the federal level. Might it have something to do with who is financing those who set the policy? I have a feeling that it might.

The writer then discusses the longer hours worked by the higher paid than the lower paid in the US. And this class of people discussed: cleaners and food delivery workers? Take a wild guess as to the areas of employment that are the least stable from the employee perspective? And which have unionization efforts stymied by both legal and illegal measures almost before such efforts have begun? Yeah, that would be those classes. It’s not that unionization rates have dropped simply through attrition or that the US minimum wage has stagnated through some kind of Adam Smithian invisible hand of the market. Those with money have made it higher to increase either one to the point of impossibility.

Released:
September, 1979

Lineup: Siouxsie Sioux (vox), Steve Severin (bass), John McKay (guitars), Kenny Morris (drums)

Tracklist Side 1:
Poppy Day
Regal Zone
Placebo Effect
Icon
Premature Burial

Tracklist Side 2:
Playground Twist
Mother/Oh Mein Papa
The Lord’s Prayer

Following the release of non-album single The Staircase (Mystery) in March, Join Hands was recorded in May and June. Lead single Playground Twist was released in June, and the album three months later. I first heard it in ‘83 or so and found it beastly difficult listening. Opening track, Poppy Day was actually composed to fill the two minutes silence observed in Britain on Remembrance Day.

Saxophones introduce Regal Zone, but instead of playful glam effect they added to songs on The Scream, in this instance, they’re more like blasts of a war trumpet. With imagery that includes helmets of blood and squirming bodies, we’re still in realms of death that don’t really let up for most of the album, either lyrically or musically. Placebo Effect and side one closer Premature Burial (the latter based on an Edgar Allan Poe story) continue this imagery.

Icon, in its second half offers side one’s musical ease from the album’s musical intensity. I was listening to this album while stretching after my run and found the rolling toms easy to listen to. Lyrically, we’re still in arenas of conflict.

Those rolling toms, so reminiscent of Maureen Tucker’s work in the Velvet Underground suggest that the structure of Join Hands owes something to the Velvet’s White Light/White Heat. Side one contains relatively short songs with recognizable pop structures, whereas side two contains one pop song succeeded by nearly 20 minutes of what Laurie Anderson would have called ‘difficult listening’. (I know this argument assumes that The Gift on side one of White Light/White Heat has a recognizable pop structure. It doesn’t. But that’s a topic for another essay.)

By the time the original listeners flipped this over to side two, the bells of Playground Twist, already a top 40 hit and performed on Top of the Pops, must have been a welcome respite. Its waltz-time signature however puts the listener on guard that this isn’t going to be any easier. Mother/Oh Mein Papa, recited mostly to the sound of a music box, has new lyrics to a German music hall song later a hit in English for Eddie Fisher, among others. Rather than the nostalgic memories of ‘my father, the clown’, Siouxsie sings of the suffocating parent who wants to mold the child. ‘She’ll stunt your mind til you emulate her kind’ is eerily similar to Pink Floyd’s Mother, released later the same year, ‘She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.’

The original release’s closer is a 14-minute tour de force rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. Noting that the Banshees’ first performance (the only performance of the lineup that featured Marco Pirroni on guitar and Sid Vicious on drums) was an extended rendition of this song. Does its inclusion on this album suggest that they were at a loss for material? It’s possible, but given how prolific the band was, this is unlikely. Troubles within the band, whatever those things that precipitated the departures of McKay and Morris on the eve of the tour might have been, are more likely. The words of the prayer are interspersed with snippets of other pop songs (Twist and Shout, Knocking on Heaven’s Door), show tunes, and wordless wails and yodels. The inclusion of Tomorrow Belongs To Me, repurposed from Cabaret, brings the war references of the opening of the album full circle.

Even though Kenny Morris and John McKay would leave the band before the next album, Kaleidoscope, Morris’ drum sound on this album defined their sound in many ways. the toms in Icon are especially emblematic of the Banshees’ sound.

The 2006 reissue follows The Lord’s Prayer with the punk single Love In A Void (the b-side to the next single, Mittageisen) and closes with Infantry, an instrumental originally meant to close the album, but left off the original release. (Wikipedia indicates there’s a Record Store Day edition from 2015 that includes Infantry after The Lord’s Prayer. That would be a nice version to have.) Infantry is a slow, echo-laden piece for solo guitar and effects pedals with a repeated motif that slowly fades out. I think this track makes for a more appropriate, purposeful closing to a very difficult and worthwhile album.

Next up: Kaleidoscope

In between other things, I’ll be sharing my views on the music of Siouxsie and the Banshees, including the Creatures and Glove side projects. As with the other catalogues I’ve reviewed, I’ll be looking at the original album releases as opposed to the bonus-track laden reissues (not that those bonus tracks aren’t without merit).

Released: November, 1978

Lineup: Siouxsie Sioux (vox), Steve Severin (bass), John McKay (guitars), Kenny Morris (drums)

Tracklist Side 1:
Pure
Jigsaw Feeling
Overground
Carcass
Helter Skelter

Tracklist Side 2:
Mirage
Metal Postcard
Nicotine Stain
Suburban Relapse
Switch

Recorded after the release of debut single, Hong Kong Garden, and also produced by Steve Lilywhite. One of the first salvos of the post-punk era, The Scream contains elements of punk and glam, and with elements of the macabre, it set the stage for what became goth. And did so a year before Bauhaus hit the stands with Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

In terms of subject matter, the lyrics run from the mundane (Nicotine Stain) to, indeed, the macabre (Carcass, Suburban Relapse). I first got into the Banshees in ‘81 or ‘82 and started collecting their singles and having friends tape their albums. I’m sure I had this on a cassette with the second LP, Join Hands, on the other side. I listened to their music a lot, but the full albums I found really difficult to get into. Listening to this one now, I find it almost comforting in its familiarity, but surprising at the same time. The buried saxophones in Suburban Relapse and Switch feel lifted from a Roxy Music song (which kind of makes sense – Sioux and Severin, the band’s only stable members from start to finish, met at a Roxy gig in ‘75). Kenny Morris’ spacious drumming leaves so much room for the other members to thrive as well. I think Severin is underrated as a bassist, possibly because he makes the rhythms feel so obvious.

In between there’s the almost obviously punk cover of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter and the almost Can-like Metal Postcard. I’ve always found the English version of Metal Postcard a little strange, because the version I had, and played steadily for several years, was the German-language 45 (Mittageisen) released the following year.

Overground and Suburban Relapse are both about the trades between outward normality and an interior that doesn’t match expectations. This acknowledgement of the human balancing act was one of those things that fueled the goth aesthetic. Jigsaw Feeling almost foregoes the outward normality and addresses the splits inside, “One day I’m feeling total / the next I’m split in two.”

The album’s opening track, Pure, fades in with a slow build of bass, then guitar, then a wordless moan from Siouxsie that sounds as though it’s coming from down a long hallway. Jigsaw Feeling comes in with bass triplets and a single repeated guitar chord for the first 40 seconds. Combined with the almost two minutes of Pure, it’s two and half minutes before the album’s first words, ‘Send me forwards, say my feelings.’ A bold move for a debut album. David Bowie didn’t try the same trick until StationToStation, 12 years into his career.

By the time the album concludes with the 7-minute Switch, an indictment of science, medicine and religion for the ways in which they direct and confuse and experiment with no real understanding of how people work, the listener has been on a journey. A deeper lyrical analysis might reveal an inner-directed childhood point of view in some tracks followed by the more adult concerns (infused with that childhood confusion) found in the last three tracks.

Next up: Join Hands

In recent news, employees at the Hachette publishing group staged a walkout over the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing. Last year, Hachette imprint Little, Brown published Catch and Kill, a work by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow (by actress Mia Farrow, Allen’s partner for 12 years) about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and how powerful mean escape accountability. Farrow has also been public about his support for his sister Dylan who claims that Allen molested her when she was 7. The internal Allen/Farrow family dynamic doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that someone at Hachette felt that the house could sidestep that dynamic. They could take the kudos for publishing Farrow’s work and also have financial dealings with Allen without taking an internal or external PR hit.

Yesterday, Hachette decided to back out of the Allen contract and pulped all copies of his book, appeasing that opposition to Allen. Farrow himself was surprised at the Allen deal because no one at Hachette had informed him it was happening.

I wish I could be surprised that a large business would engage in this kind of having cake/eating it too activity. Was it really possible that no one in the organization spoke up to say, No, the Allen deal is lousy, that it just doesn’t look good, that we have to stand by a principle in this matter? No, the principle was still let’s make money on this as long as we can get away with it. After the walkout, one executive admitted to the conflict of interest and stated that the decision to cancel the Allen contract was difficult. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia the Hachette group is one of the Big Six publishing houses (along with Penguin Random House and HarperCollins) and publishes approximately 2000 titles per year.

Stephen King, an author who has had his own censorship issues, released a pair of tweets. The first said ‘If you think he’s a pedophile, don’t buy the book…Vote with your wallet…In America, that’s how we do it.’ He followed up by stating my point, ‘Let me add that it was fucking tone-deaf of Hachette to want to publish Woody Allen’s book after publishing Ronan Farrow’s.’

I’d say that Allen is free to get his book out there any way he can. He’s wealthy enough to publish the thing himself if he wants to. The fact that his name is toxic in entertainment circles is not the fault of Hachette (or of any of the other publishers who passed on Apropos of Nothing). The fact that nothing came of the investigations into the charges against Allen doesn’t mean he’s innocent, first of all. It also doesn’t mean he’s guilty. But at a certain point you can look at his public behavior (his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter which began when Previn was 19 and Allen 56, and while Allen was still in a relationship with Farrow) and his movies (Manhattan for a prime example) and not just be creeped out a little bit. It’s a separate matter that over and over again in his movies he shows what little use he has for middle-aged women. Since noticing it, this has always left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another thing to note about the Hachette Group is their Center Street imprint of conservative titles. Authors who have found a home on Center Street include Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, Jr. Recent titles include Michael Savage’s Scorched Earth: Restoring The Country After Obama. It’s not a bastion of liberalism by any stretch, and if the issue was just about authors or subjects with marital issues, then the Center Street imprint would be dragged into the discussion too.