Corbyn’s Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, allegorising contemporary politicians as personifications of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Contrasted to these is Hope, ‘But she looked more like Despair’. Hope delivers an anatomy of Freedom (incorporating Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and Love) and calls on the English to rise up against Oppression’s slavery. Jeremy Corbyn quoted from this poem during his final speech of the June 2017 election campaign. His quotation is loaded with ironies and symbols.

One irony has become horribly apparent in the last two days since the avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. Governments tend not to commit massacres against their people these days, but the process of oppression and killing is more subtle: through cutting services, cutting regulations, incentivising landlord profits. These policies led directly (according to all informed reports) to the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. The political ideology of division and social cleansing is the hidden successor to overt state violence.

The Peterloo Massacre (in which yeomanry charged at a crowd of peaceful advocates for parliamentary reform) inspired the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper which in its current form actively opposed Corbyn’s leadership until a few days before the June 2017 election. (For an informed comment on this particular irony, see this blog)

Shelley’s poem had been circling Corbyn’s campaign for a while, activating the mutual resonance between the campaign slogan “For the many, not the few” and the lines which close the poem (repeated from stanza 38) “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number— / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you— / Ye are many—they are few.”

The reading by Corbyn, addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Union Chapel in Islington on the eve of the election, amplified through a booming PA system, is not intrinsically beautiful, but in the context, as his audience joins in the final line, and following an impassioned speech of stridently optimistic rhetoric, Corbyn’s performance is deeply moving. (At 29’46” here.)

Corbyn introduces the poem with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft, resident of Newington Green, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The connection Corbyn draws is political, befitting the occasion, but prefaced with the simple remark ‘you should never be afraid to say you love poetry’. This is perhaps in response to accusations from the philistine press of the sort that he would be better singing the national anthem or demonising immigrants than accepting a booking for an evening’s discussion with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall.

There is also something implicit in this invocation of the traditions of English Romanticism. Beyond the immediate political exhortation and the Romantic contemporary context of Peterloo, the French Revolution, the counter-Enlightenment, and so on, there exists idealism, transcendence and living mythology. Symbolist critic G. Wilson Knight, commenting on Shelley’s Queen Mab, wrote, ‘The agonies of history with their paradisal goal ahead are seen in panorama, time being laid out flat beneath the Fairy’s dome’ (The Starlit Dome, 185). The temporal and the eternal meet in a panoptic symbol of communal responsibility. Corbyn’s Shelley is a vision of transcendent possibility in the political present.

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In Autumn

oslo

The recent silence on this blog reflects industry in other areas of my life, so there is a lot for me to share over the coming weeks.

Last week, discussing Translating Myth at the book’s launch at UEA (of which more later), the question of the relation of myth to history raised the spectre of ‘post-truth’ politics. This new coinage seems to me an unnecessary euphemism for propaganda, and some commentators have noted the danger of its implicit assumption that politics was formerly the realm of truth and fact.

In the wake of Trump, Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ has frequently been invoked to express the end-times horror felt by many. The fear and revulsion is justified. Yet, furthermore, the election has exposed the persistence of political violence by bringing it home to the West, rather than primarily exporting it, as Obama and his predecessors have done. So, to Yeats, I add Rimbaud. I’ve been reading him again lately after listening to Britten’s setting of Les Illuminations (I like the recording with Sandrine Piau). What Rimbaud had to say in the 1870s about democracy, the military-industrial complex, and the absence of truth tells us that there is little new in political debate today.

democratie
Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Démocratie’, trans. Oliver Bernard

Trying to take a mythical, long view

Titian Europa
Titian, The Rape of Europa (1562)

Like the rape of Helen by Paris, this is an act of sexual coercion with historically portentous consequences: Europa’s rape will literally give rise to Europe. From her union with Jupiter, Minos will be born, and the most ancient of European civilizations on the island of Crete. Her brother Cadmus, the inventor of writing, will search for her, and found the great ancient city of Thebes. The painting records no less than the birth of civilization.
(Stephen J. Campbell)

I am reflecting on the result of the EU referendum. Whatever the motives of the individuals who voted to leave the EU (and I don’t share the view of some on the left that the “leave” vote will deliver opportunities to chip away at the global neoliberal hegemony), the rhetoric of the official campaign unapologetically exploited a spectrum from xenophobia to racism. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I want to start washing that out with some thoughts about myth and the British mind.

The “natural” [English-language] national myth ought to have been Arthurian – as Malory, Milton, Tennyson or T. H. White variously supposed. Did, for Britain, the major Christian legends and typologies not lie to hand as they did on the Continent of Europe? What Faustus after Marlowe in English literature is there to be set beside Valéry’s or Bulgakov’s or Thomas Mann’s? What Don Juan except Byron’s? No, it is to Achilles and Odysseus, to the “topless towers of Ilium” and the shores of Ithaka, it is to “deep-browed Homer” that English-language sensibility turns and returns, incessantly, as if striving to appropriate to itself, to the native genius, material already, by some destined or elective affinity, its own.
(George Steiner, ‘Homer in English’)

Steiner notes the same lack of a native mythology that Tolkien wanted to address, but if we have appropriated the Greek, do we need another? (England, of course, never embraced the Celts.) Our mythology is Greek, our early literature is Scandinavian, and our longest-established religion is from the Eastern Mediterranean. But it seems this cultural openness has always been accompanied by suspicion, see Horace, who, in the first century BC, described Britons as hostile to strangers (Ode 3.4, a trait recently discussed by Edith Hall). This mind-body dualism finds its political analogue in the forty-eight/fifty-two per cent split of the referendum vote.

One of the uses of myth is to shore up social or national identity, and the global mythology of our literature is countered by the folk figures of John Bull, Britannia, and a recently deified Churchill. But these figures seem fixed in the public imagination: unlike mythical beings, their stories do not admit change and metamorphosis. Marina Warner surveyed the development of Britannia as a national figure and finds a peculiar, and still recognizable paradox in James Thomson’s ‘Rule Britannia!’: ‘The rhetoric exposes the tension between the Britannia who upholds the freedom of democracy […] and the Britannia who herself brings nations under subjection’ (Monuments and Maidens, 46).

But a living mythology should not be stuck and backward-looking, it should ease transition. In fifth-century Athens, Aeschylus had Orestes speak a charter for a new political arrangement: pledging the military assistance of Argos alongside Athens (Eumenides, 762-77). It’s a pledge of union, of unity after monstrous bloodshed. Alas, like the EU, the union is destructively imperfect: if the ideal of the EU is, in part at least, to keep peace within the union, the Oresteian parallel of plenty of war beyond the borders (Eumenides 858-66) is also revoltingly apposite.

In seeking the strength to combat fascist propaganda, why not look to the apocalypse? (apokaluptein is, literally, ‘to uncover’.) Myths of the apocalypse invariably culminate in a rebirth, reminding us of the circularity of existence. What seems dismal now is not eternal. This is the aftermath of Ragnarök (in a rather selective translation from Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, by C. Fee and D. A. Leeming):

The earth will rise from the deeps again one day, green and blossoming, and crops will flourish where none were planted. A new sun will take the place of her mother, and a number of gods will return to the ancient ruins of Asgard, led now by Baldr. Lif and Lifthrasir will survive to renew the race of men: they will have hidden themselves securely in Yggdrasill’s embrace, and the fire of Surt will not scorch them: they will survive on the morning dew, and keep watch through the branches above them for the new sun rising. And thus, through its death, the world will be born again.

 

Diary

7 May 1968

Hello reader, I am writing to you, my peers of forty years hence, from the tumultuous May days of 1968. I came here direct from City Hall on the evening of the London Mayoral elections of 2008 in an attempt to travel to the London of 1666. My plan was simple: meet Pepys, hang out with him while taking some Polaroids of The Great Fire, and make a killing from those lucrative post-fire plague-free construction projects in the City. I rejected out of hand the tired trick of setting up a bank account in 1666 and withdrawing the interest in 1996. What I couldn’t work out with this time-travel-drama-chestnut is firstly, how I would be able to convince the bank of my identity upon withdrawal, and secondly, how to safeguard against the bank’s closing of my account and seizing of the funds sometime around 1789 when the account holder would quite reasonably be considered deceased.

At least one of you has complained to me of the lamentable infrequency of my musical bulletins on these pages. In between updates I have been conducting experiments in the correct combination of notes that will summon the ancient palace of lights that serves as my portal to the very real past. The terrible chords and clusters that are made in the process are too awe-full to notate: there are sounds that should not be, and I fear the written score would summon them permanently into existence. Consequently, I have been struck by an unshakable fear of committing my music to tape – and of recorded music in general. The spirits I summon tell me that our individual legacies will not last; they shriek at me: “HOMER WAS NOT ONE MAN!”

So for the time being I am stranded in 1968. I left your century with my heart full of optimism at the certainty that the London Mayoral elections had been won decisively by the Green Party, birthing with the coming dawn a new golden age of Natural wonder, but just as I was departing I heard a voice cry “nah mate, they’ll only get seven thousand six hundred and sixty-three more votes than the BNP”, and with that I struck a jarring note on my lute which took me three hundred and two years ahead of my intended destination.

Reader, I ache to tell you of the sights I see first-hand, uncoloured by the false memories and hindsights of soixante-huitard commentators, of the palpable feeling of self-possession and mastery of the collective destiny, of a world where a return to the pre-existing hierarchies is not considered inevitable. Unfortunately I materialised in Berwick-Upon-Tweed and am geographically as far from the action as I felt temporally in 2008. If I hadn’t stuffed my pockets with seventeenth century currency, I might have been able to catch a ferry to the continent; instead, I sit and ponder the reclamation of Berwick by Scotland until my musical spell is broken and I wake up with a diabolic hangover and my hair caught up in the spools of my four-track.

In George W Bush’s Christmas 2007 comedy film, Tony Blair makes an appearance like some sort of Ghost of Christmas Past. That his hair seems entirely white is the oddest colouring decision perpetrated by the Americans upon our former employee since The Simpsons’ cartoonists neglected to depict him with his hands dripping with blood. It must be like that bit in Twin Peaks when Leland Palmer’s hair turned white overnight. I wonder what demons are possessing the innocent vessel that is Mr Blair’s body to effect such a dramatic change.

I apologise: the last thing I wanted to do was turn this into a politcal blog (I have already alluded to my distaste for the preponderance of banal political opinions around the www) – but it was about time for our quarterly catch-up don’t you think?

Happy new year, reader.