On Grief and Reason

Several months ago, a friend and former lover, J, killed himself. Some weeks after that, a friend died very unexpectedly in his sleep. Since then, I have been trying to understand suicide, death and grief. I have kept a file on my computer where I’ve put down thoughts, questions, observations, measurements. I have tried several times to corral those fragments into something more coherent and complete, to try to reason through grief. These efforts have usually ended up deleted, or literally printed out and shredded.

Nonetheless the urge to write about it remained, and specifically to write about making sense of suicide, which strikes me as not a kind of death in the order of other deaths, and especially of the grief that follows. Necessarily, what I write below is also marked by that second death, too, less explicitly but no less deeply. I am unconvinced of the value or wisdom of publishing this, just as I am wary of the cult of self-expression, or the belief that one’s life and one’s feelings are in themselves important or interesting. Hopefully there is something more than that here; in any case, the urge to write about it is also an urge to communicate.

But this is also something of an exorcism. Since this happened, I have found myself unable to write anything of particular seriousness or complexity without returning to this subject; thinking about death when I should be editing a paper, when preparing a radio show, when proofing a book. This, I hope, presages some kind of shift: committing it to some final form is itself a blow against the sapping apraxia induced by the weight of death.

These essay fragments will contain content a reader might find triggering or upsetting. They have not been easy to write, as they sometimes involve an attempt to dwell in things one tries to shut out of mind, either by failing to address them or drawing them into an overhasty false conclusion. If there is a thread that runs through this, it is the attempt to understand certain of the effects of grief, frame them through politics, psychoanalysis and literature, and perhaps try to understand how they can be transformed. This effort is necessarily incomplete.

Graveyard_and_steel_mill,_Bethlehem,_Pennsylvania_00231u

Walker Evans, Bethlehem PA Graveyard and Steel Mill, 1935

1.

I am trying to mourn you and I am failing.

I burst into tears on the bus today. It’s the second time in as many weeks. It activates the only behaviour I think of as peculiar to London, where everyone looks away while trying (discreetly) to see what’s going on at the same time. It’s unoriginal to say that shame is basically an economy of looking: that it is shameful to draw others’ eyes to yourself against the normal course of attention in public, that they in turn are trying to spare you shame (which would merely compound whatever distress you’re already experiencing) by fixing their eyes firmly on the unremarkable adverts passing the windows. They know (and you certainly know) that there is something dreadfully wrong, and that everyone around you has noticed it, but for any of us to act on it would risk distending the normal compact of daily life to breaking point, and thus heap further shame upon shame. In any case, such attention would do little to dry your tears, which are nothing to do with the people on the bus, who have doubtless many tears of their own – hence, they know to see and not see at the same time. I am trying to mourn you and I am failing.

I was told of your death by email. In fact, I should say suicide instead of death, but I find myself avoiding the word, as if I could soften the violence of it retrospectively by denying it purchase in my language. I choose euphemism to spare those who loved you the yoking together of your name with the belly-deep feeling of despair and utter loneliness that comes with the word, and all the last desperate images that come in association. I don’t know if that’s an act of mercy and self-preservation, or if it’s just a way of letting us all off the hook, denying you even that last agency. It could be both. Email is a cold medium, and I was doubtless colder when calling others to tell them. I was cold when I spoke of you to my boyfriend, when I got the news, and when I explained we’d not really talked in a while. I didn’t sleep well that night, and my grief started to seep out of the edges of my speech. I tried talking of other things, avoiding the matter, avoiding the honest despair at the edges of sleep. That sort of stupid resilience is how one ends up crying on buses.

In the absence of proper mourning rituals (which require both faith and an ability to name and quantify one’s relation with the dead, the latter to determine the proper period of grief, no luck here on either count) I find myself seized intermittently by the physical symptoms of grief: panic, shortness of breath, a sick weight behind the throat. I take to measurement. I measure the distance from where I’m sitting to where your funeral is happening: 5454.98 miles. I look at photos of the cemetery chapel. I think of your mother (whom I have never met) burying her son. The line between where you are and where I am is virtually half the globe, and you are dead.

I find myself uncertain of things I took for basic truths, as if something central to the stability of meaning in the world had vanished. I know this cast of mind is something to do with grief, but I can’t reason it out, because the tools of reason go wild here. The compass spins crazily. Grief warps spacetime.

On a piece of paper I write questions about this new place. How to get through it? How is this survivable? What made you do it? Could it have been averted? How do I go back to what was before? What were you thinking? How to make sense of it? How can I mourn you? They multiply. You understand, the particular difficulty of grief isn’t a denial of fact, but making that fact fit in the careful fabric of our world, without it tearing a rent in it. When I was a kid, I read that a spoonful of the substance that makes up neutron stars would be enough to drop right through the floor, right through the earth’s crust, the mantle, enough to cannonball through its molten innards and burst through the other side. So where do you put it down? I tear up the paper into tiny pieces, reach out of my window, and drop them into the air.

2.

Writing about suicide is dangerous. Among its many risks are: falseness of rhetorical presentation; the imposition of meaning on an ultimately meaningless event; saccharine or unduly sentimental memoir; yielding to glib but profound-sounding ‘truths’; the use of death as a proving-ground for the soul; to demand a redemptive element, or invent one as needed. Journalistic precepts for reporting suicide abound: avoid glamourising it, discourage overidentification, exclude details of method. Also to be avoided: trite links to mental health, mechanistic recounting of disadvantage or misfortune, in fact, best leave out causal reasoning of that kind altogether. A cluster of warning signs: hole in the ground, no-one knows how far it goes down.

I began this essay by writing to J, as if I were speaking to him, as if to begin to account for his death required that form. It is a kind of mourning for unfinished conversations. But I worry about this as a kind of rhetorical falseness, one that keeps open the wound of grief, that his close textual presence is a way of highlighting his absence. It risks also making him a saint, omitting the turbulence of our friendship, or suggesting that grief is simply a state of raw absence. To go beyond that state, I have to move to a more distanced style. These difficulties in style are, rather than irritating obstacles, symptoms of one of the paradoxes of grief. Most writing on grief will return to various metaphors about its unchartable space, its shapelessness, its odd ability to multiply, its changing weight – the feeling that it has in some way become the very stuff of existence, even as outward forms of life continue the same. Against this levelling sense there exists the urge to understand, name and represent grief, or at least the intuition that such an endeavour is possible and even necessary. It is from the tension between the two that I write this.

I also write because I want to expiate my guilt. Ten days before J’s suicide, he tried to Skype me. It was late at night, I was working, and hadn’t even realised I was logged in. I let the call ring out. Of course, I remembered that the last time we’d spoken he had seemed so paralysed and how helpless I felt. I’d been annoyed that he seemed unable to take even basic steps, perhaps more annoyed than justifiable, as his talent for self-sabotage and self-pity reminded me of myself at my worst. Regardless, I ignored the call. 1:13 a.m. – computers preserve one’s faults with precision – ‘Are you around?’ – I chose not to reply. Rationally, this ought not weigh immovably in my mind. His death was not visible from there, the casual phrasing hardly calculated to give alarm; I could not have known (I tell myself) and therefore I ought not feel guilty. (Do I really believe I could not have known?) Yet I fantasise about what I might have said had I been less self-involved at that moment. It is unreasonable to attach absolute moral significance to this moment, to insist on imagining all of the possible alternative paths that were foreclosed by it, but nonetheless I do. Insisting on the smallness of this moment, its insignificance, does nothing to dissolve it. Reason is sometimes inadequate to grief, and to guilt.

This keeps me awake at night.

3.

Joseph Brodsky once wrote that grief and reason, ‘while poison to each other, are language’s most efficient fuel.’ He was reading and thinking about a Robert Frost poem, about the animating antagonism between the two modes, but in a moment of unusually intimate psychological speculation wonders if Frost was reaching for this ‘indelible ink’ of poetry in the hopes of somehow reducing its level. Brodsky leaves this question of motive hanging at the end of his essay. Can writing marry reason to grief, can it make grief habitable, can it attest to something beyond the fact of desolation? Brodsky seems to want to say that it can, while at the same time saying that the further one dips into this ink the more endlessly it brims over, stains the fingers, engulfs the mind. I have been brooding over this contradiction (that writing reduces the inner level of this black substance, but that writing also multiplies that substance so there is ever more of it) and the puzzling fact he does not see the contradiction, for some days. He goes on to suggest that the poem itself may manage to transcend the seeming limitlessness of grief and the blundering uselessness of reason without compromising either position, like a little machine for catharsis at several removes. But I find this insight commonplace compared to – in fact, I suspect it is a deliberate closing-off of – the earlier ethical intuition that writing might serve to reduce grief, the fear that it might more deeply implicate one in that grief, and the compulsion to undertake it regardless.

I also find myself thinking of a very famous passage from Middlemarch on the nature of everyday tragedy:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

This passage is most often quoted shorn of its first sentence, perhaps because of the beauty of its second sentence, but its moral argument lies there: that our stupidity preserves us not just from the intensity of the world, but from a keen appreciation of the devastation that walks in the street next to us every day. It is not a simple argument about the limitation of the physical senses, but that the limitation of our moral sense and our comprehension of the ubiquity of disaster allows us to continue to live. In our keener moments we are unsettlingly aware of our dependence on this blindness. If I were to extend this description to the territory of grief, it would be to say that grief tears away our careful insulation, renders the world much sharper. One becomes aware of how commonplace tragedy is, how countless people at any given moment must also feel as if the ground has dropped away beneath their feet. Eliot’s moral acuity here is not comforting: that some coarseness is necessary to move through the world does not make individual acts of coarseness excusable; insight does not cancel our moral responsibility, even while recognising its imperfect exercise may be all we can muster, and inevitable in its own way. It does not, for instance, mean that my answering or not answering a phone call is a matter of historical caprice, regrettable but morally void. The great novelist would upbraid me for my vanity here, the idle hint of a logic of ‘special providence’: she was a better anatomist of despair than to believe that its course could depend on one event alone. Nonetheless, the guilt remains.

I know J would roll his eyes at the way I’m going about this, using literature to think through grief. He’d want to know what I really felt, rather than what others thought. He was suspicious of too much adulteration. But I am sceptical of the potential for unmediated self-expression, and, moreover, I need guideposts while thinking through this grief. I don’t mean reading for sentimental cullings from sententious idiots, a weak and sweetened gruel for the soul, but to understand how others have marshalled the power of representation against grief. On the one hand we are dealing with a relatively universal phenomenon, death and grief, on the other something less common, death by suicide. Beyond this, there is the complicating factor that it is his suicide, and the intuition that suicide is not a kind of death of the order of other deaths. The role of volition marks it out. It follows that there are particular forms of grief that arise in this context. One must grapple with the uncomfortable reality of it: that it feels cruel, even while wanting to vacate any question of blame or fault. Of course, one might know rationally one’s death might damage or permanently wound others; we know that terrible moment is not occasioned by the conviction it has no adverse consequences. I know there is a calculus at work whereby the possibility of exit from one’s despair seems to outweigh both the terror of oblivion and the pain one’s death might cause others. I know this because I have made the same calculation, and never have I been more convinced that my results were different only as a matter of chance. One reason I am trying to think through grief and death is that to leave it unthought is to risk the worst parts of my depression returning; I also know that I’m walking along the seam of it while writing this, and my insistence on figuration and comprehensibility may finally be inadequate to stop its return.

Maybe what is so comforting about the great 19th century authors is their omniscience, and their readiness to make moral judgements. Some years back, it was fashionable to object to Eliot’s intrusive narrator, but, quite aside from the astringent wisdom of her interjections, it is some comfort that the characters are absolutely knowable: their errors and self-regard and avarice are not mysteries, their mechanics may be uncovered to our narrator’s unflinching eye, even as they remain obscure to the characters themselves. In the case of a suicide, such a claim to the possibility of knowledge is comforting only in that it promises some respite from the dreadful things we do not know. It is comforting even if it cannot be fulfilled; it is dangerous because it invites speculation. Several times in the small hours of the morning I wonder if J left a note; whether, if he left a note, I would want to read it; how it would likely obsess me (though, at 4 a.m., relative levels of obsession are moot.) I understand he did not; in turn I wonder, sleeplessly, had he written a note whether the act of writing would itself have dissolved the impulse.

Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d'Italia

Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia

4.

In the absence of a note, I search out statistics on suicide. The ONS tells me just under 6,000 were registered in 2012, points out the difference in rate between men and women (but says nothing of the ratio of attempts, which differs conversely.) It provides a breakdown by method (distasteful) and region. The trend is downward over decades, but rises more recently. The US rate is more-or-less equivalent. We understand that what is aridly called “health and economic inequality” (read: class, race) is a substantial factor, and that gender expectations, too, play an important role. The statistics on LGBT suicides don’t need repeating: we know them too well. The governmental suicide prevention strategy reads like an elaborate hedge around this absence of understanding. Momentarily, I fear dissolving the specific pain of J’s death in the anaesthesia of statistics, as if it would be traitorous to search for marks of commonality in suicide, as if it were somehow better to leave each death beyond understanding, interpretation or redress.

Historically, suicide has been interpreted as a political act in which the dead body either redresses or mobilises a system of social shame (most often in the ancient world), or, more recently, as a consequence of individual pathology. The former, where it does occur today, is usually interpreted as concealing the ultimate, pathological, cause; political motive emerges from neurochemical maladjustment. Had they sought help, had they had the right medication, had they availed themselves of the many nostrums on how to adjust, both the pathology and the politics emergent from it would simply evaporate. Perhaps that is true. But the numbers suggest otherwise, that this kind of death is unevenly socially distributed. Hard ground: I hold that medication is key to many people’s survival, but that medicalisation and the individualising nature of contemporary thinking (which also carries the tang of personal culpability for illness) obscures social factors in mental illness. In essence, as I would tell J in life that all of his life was political, so too I must insist his death is not only a personal disaster but indicts the society in which it occurs.

Yet the invocation of politics still feels hollow. So I may add J’s name to the charge-sheet, already so long and so bloody. Whether one might make a politics out of grief is a question without an easy answer. Certainly, refusing promises of its easy redemption, grief might be boiled down into an uncompromising rage, might anneal all the particular stress-lines and flaws of a person, make one into a militant of revenge. One might, conversely, become a living testament to the wounds of grief, hoping the display of its marks will shame society into changing. Both possibilities attest that people are permanently altered by grief, and perhaps the grief pertaining to suicide in particular, but this fact of permanence is the beginning of a politics of grief rather than its fullness. Desiderata for a politics of grief are many, from structural alterations in healthcare access, to cultural destigmatisation, to according to the grieving person a better treatment than mere terrified silence. I take for granted that such a politics would seek to generalise a sense that suicides are preventable, but that our current society regards them as either a matter of private pathology, or an unfortunate by-product of a generally well-functioning system of work and political order, rather than as they actually are, a symptom of a more widely destructive and miserable social regime. In that sense, it might merge with a general anti-capitalist politics. But we have come very far, very quickly here. Though this framing helps us understand J’s suicide a little better, it does less to deal particularly with grief, which, it is assumed, will fuel and be transformed or attenuated by political activity. Such an attitude is beset by possibilities for self-destruction and self-abnegation. In separating out the political framing of suicide from grief itself, I insist that the political framing is quite separate from and not dependent on grief (and therefore not to be regarded as a temporary conviction founded in mourning), and that politics itself may not be sufficient to transform or confront grief – even as it is so often the catalyst and precondition of explosive political movements.

This political framing of suicide is a form of representation: it represents suicide as collectively comprehensible through a series of more-or-less mechanistic psycho-social factors, and in response articulates a framework of analyses, demands and action supposed to stop them at their root. It is the highly rigorous, rational version of politics in its ideal type (its real world variants are messier) and a necessary but limited response. As a mode of harm reduction, it positions suicide as a social ill, grief as an undesirable effect, and seeks to obviate their causes. Such representation does not deal directly with grief and even sometimes seems to call for its repression; it can also be ruthlessly deindividualising, operating as it does by large-scale trends and the use of specific, personal deaths as general political symbols. At times, this feels ethically inadequate, even a violation. As such, it might well be a category error to look to politics as a way to understand grief: that is simply not what politics does, or politics is even the repression (or sublimation) of grief, rage and vengeance. Politically understanding suicide seems vital, because what happened to J (unemployment, devaluation, poor medical treatment, intermittent substance abuse) is eminently political; however, political understanding, or even propositions for political change, are insufficient to touch that encroaching, overspilling black ink of grief of which Brodsky wrote.

5.

If politics is traditionally concerned with the general order of a shared society (literally the city or polis) then it holds that there are certain experiences that are pre-political, or pertain to the private sphere. I am convinced of the arguments that say this division is ultimately unsustainable, and conceals a further and larger politics; however, that this division exists indicates that political reason is only capable of dealing with things according to a certain logic. So it might bring forth from grief a grievance, and seek its redress or compensation, or explain the hidden social logic of that grievance, but say little and do little about that originating grief. In part, I suspect this is because most kinds of political thinking deal in substitution: that for this grievance there should be that kind of and amount of redress. The point of grief is that it is not subject to that kind of substitution, and to attempt to address it according to that logic is to invite endless failed attempts to find a proper substitute, a reiterative process of improper or inadequate substitution, the deferral of grief or its transformation into obsession or reperformance of loss. (I think this question of substitution and reenactment is fundamental, and recurs in many cases of loss or injury other than death.)

I am also interested in the metaphors we use to talk about grief. These are so deeply set in our language that they seem natural, and we use them without a second thought. One I mentioned above was the shapeless weight of grief – the word ‘grief’ is ultimately from the Latin for that weight. Another is the metaphor of work. If grief is a weight, then we must work to move or reduce or change it. (It does not move of its own accord: dead weight.) Hence in the folk-psychologies surrounding grief one is held either to be or not to be ‘working through’ grief properly, and the various tasks of which this work is composed involve ‘accepting’, ‘understanding’, ‘confronting’, ‘letting go’ and so on. If I sound contemptuous of this pop-psychology, it is only because it is sometimes used to cause great distress to those grieving ‘improperly’, with all the moralising that typically surrounds matters of work. In fact, it grasps some fundamental truths about grief: that it invites being thought about physically and spatially, that it is an experience that involves something internal being damaged or lost as well as something external, that some fundamental action of holding on and releasing is involved. The closer one looks at those tasks, however, the less clear they begin to seem. If this popular wisdom simply encodes long-held common intuitions about grief, then its central metaphors owe at least something to a 20th century diffusion of Freudian ideas.

In 1917, Freud wrote ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in which he opposes the normal state of mourning (the ‘painful unpleasure’ in which we gradually disinvest psychic energy in the lost object) to the pathological state of melancholia (an inability to detach, and instead a psychic incorporation of the lost object, where the ambivalent love and hatred felt toward it is now directed against the split ego.) Despite Freud’s best efforts, none of his arguments distinguishing between normal and pathological states of loss completely manage to seal one off from the other, and by 1923 (in ‘The Ego and The Id’) he prefers, given the ubiquity of melancholic identifications and incorporation, to view it as vital in development of the superego (and views the father, unsurprisingly, as the primary object of incorporation.) But what of mourning? What happens later in life, when people die? One useful extension to Freud’s thinking here comes from Melanie Klein, who argues (in ‘Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States’) that mourning is melancholic, and though the process of incorporation is vital to the articulation of the psyche in childhood, loss and reintrojection is a process repeated throughout adult life. In each case, the loss imperils the inner world of ‘good objects’ with which the healthy adult has populated his psyche since the initial loss of his caregiver in infancy:

“His inner world, the one which he has built up from his earliest days onward, in his phantasy was was destroyed when the actual loss occurred. The rebuilding of this inner world characterises the successful work of mourning.”

 

The ability to reestablish this inner universe distinguishes the successful mourner from both the failed mourner and the ‘Manic-Depressive’ in Klein’s terminology. In this particular lineage of psychoanalysis, it is this concept of the inner world that I find most suggestive, especially the way in which it parallels my concerns with figuration; that this particular exercise of reason is an attempt to rebuild that inner world. What distinguishes Klein’s account of mourning is that each loss re-endangers the whole of the inner world: with this death, all the others that preceded it, again. What Klein does not say explicitly, but I think follows, is that the losses may finally be too many to return from, the mechanisms that allowed one to rebuild the inner world last time may not be strengthened but rather depleted, and this time around finally inadequate to the task. In the case of grieving a suicide, is this doubly the case? The violence of suicide, and the thought that J would have himself been experiencing that absolute shattering of the inner world, makes it difficult to ‘complete’ mourning.

I assume the inner dynamics of my psyche are not likely to be easily discerned by me – blocks, cleavages, divisions, repressions, these are the words the literature uses to describe the normal state of inner opacity that shrouds our waking mind. Neither do I think Klein’s model of the mind is its final and best description, but close enough to a good recension of the desire and despair that characterises mourning. Its semi-mythic dimensions – the shattered and rebuilt world – are not digressions from scientific accuracy, but expressions proper to the magnitude of grief and its deeply personal, yet universal, attachments. Something more, then, is needed beyond this description; strategies for rebuilding the inner world are short on the ground. Merely urging oneself to rebuild or restore does little, however ferocious and demanding the tone struck. Given this inner opacity, I must trust that my instincts (in this particular case, rather than universally) are presenting me with some method of reconstruction, however winding and strange its paths may seem. My instinct, above all, has been to take up certain poems, novels and plays, and to think about them, thinking with an intimacy and closeness – a kind of critical intensity, perhaps desperation – that I have hitherto rarely experienced.

Giorgio de Chirico, Il Rimorso di Oreste, 1969

Giorgio de Chirico, Il Rimorso di Oreste, 1969

6.

What is this urge? It isn’t simply the urge to experience art, but to think about it, to respond in a way sufficient to it, which does not diminish it through coarse interpretation or betray whatever it stirs in me. It is no longer possible to hold the preposterous opinion that certain works of high culture have an intrinsic moral power which improves their audiences: the opera-loving concentration camp guard is but one of many figures of the twentieth century that makes this idea ridiculous. Therefore, I cannot believe that there is any guaranteed easily redemptory route through literature; I do not seek to repopulate my psyche with Lear or Orestes or Antigone. Nothing so easy: they are not people, still less people one would want nestled in the most private corners of the soul. Similarly, the urge to think about these texts is not to extract from them a series of pat remedies for inner affliction, but an expression of that paradoxical inclination to reason in spite of grief which has so preoccupied me. There is no guarantee that it will help, but its method of reasoning – attentive, unsparing, as involved in the minute particular as the vast context – seems to me a model of the kind of thing that might help restore the world. If there is a secret link between mourning, memory and representation, I think it is seen – faintly – in this unstinting attention.

A caveat: it might be simply that I am so trained in the habits of literature, so conditioned to think about it, that this becomes my only way to work on grief, attempting to transform it by exposing it utterly to this art. It differs from rending one’s clothes, drinking oneself into a stupor, burying oneself in work, only in that it promises the possibility of its confrontation, transmutation. The possibility of something more than temporary deferral. Not the guarantee, the possibility. These are unfashionable things to say about literature, both in the magnitude of possibility ascribed to it, and in the awareness of how prejudiced and parochial our canon seems. My grief canon is not in that respect unusual: some modernist poets, poems from Milton and Jonson on the death of loved ones, Donne’s incredible poems of arrogance and mourning, Catullus. Some perhaps more unusual critical works. Longinus’ confused treatise on sublimity. Virtually no novels, except one. Plays, however: the Greek tragedians and Shakespeare. These last have particularly preoccupied me.

Longinus, first, briefly: ‘On the Sublime’ is one of the earliest examples of literary criticism. Longinus has identified that particular works of literature evoke a strange pleasurable discomfort, almost a kind of vertigo, in their reader. He wants to know both what it is, and how it is produced. On the latter, he finds various hallmarks that produce this effect (and is surprisingly generous in comparison to one’s prejudices about the ancients and what they thought good) but has more difficulty pinning down the former. He recognises that again and again, works of literature seem to coimplicate us in their intensity, that they somehow produce an experience of alienation and identification, an encounter with a greatness that is hard to encapsulate (such an encounter need not be intrinsically good, though Longinus clearly wants it to be). Struggling for a way of expressing this sense of vastness, he says that sublimity is ‘the echo of a great soul’, as if this greatness which cannot sufficiently be explained in terms of the mechanics of the text therefore must be located in the moral grandeur of its author. We do not adhere to so easy an explanation today – great authors are no less morally frail and injured than the rest of us – though some persistent sense of a greater access to truth remains hard to extinguish. The incomplete but meticulous explanation and the elusiveness of sublimity itself are good beginnings for literary culture, good principles for thinking about what literature does to us and how, aware of the limits of explanation without abandoning it.

Sometimes I think that Longinus is exemplary of one of the central questions of our culture, which is how things act on each other over distances and times. This question, which provided an organising principle for the natural magicians and proto-scientists of the late renaissance, is no less an animating question for literary criticism. How can something written 500 or 2,500 years ago express something that leaves me feeling not only profoundly moved, but as if I have been exposed to something true in a way that everyday life does not often permit? Explanations here tend to grasp for some universal feature of human existence. Otherwise, people reach for a modified version of Aristotle, and say that these great works allow us to safely purge our emotions (catharsis) as if they were a built-up static charge. But somehow this semi-biological explanation has always seemed least adequate in the face of great stories of loss, tragedy in particular, where the sense that something is being taught us is never far away. (Imagine a future society in which a device or a drug had been invented to allow us to express and discharge grief in an evening, with no subsequent ill consequences. Would we feel something missing?) That it is fiction helps; there is a profound difference between a tragedy and a snuff film. Beyond that, I think that most of the most successful tragedies do not offer something simply redemptive, but take place at the intersection of justice with revenge, stress (sometimes until breaking point) the idea that one person might be substituted for another, reveal that the institution of law never perfectly supersedes our excessive and scarcely satisfiable appetites.

But even that is too broad an abstraction. Perhaps it is merely the fact of mimesis, that the human imagination can seemingly compass and represent such things, that allures us. The only novel I have found to talk directly of suicide without being useless or crass or vapid is Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which is just such a feat of imagination. It is (to my mind) one of the very greatest novels of the twentieth century, although it is preoccupied with things that seem apparently remote from us. The passage that I have come back to again and again is that of the suicide of Hadrian’s young lover, Antinous, and the emperor’s subsequent grief. Antinous joined Hadrian at a feast, attired in a Syrian robe, ‘sheer as the skin of a fruit’; joy shines out of him. Later, in bed, Hadrian wakes to discover Antinous’ face covered in tears, but the agony is private, and Hadrian returns to sleep. In the morning, Antinous disappears, drowned in the Nile as if a sacrifice. On realising this, Hadrian says:

Everything gave way; everything seemed extinguished. The Olympian Zeus, Master of All, Saviour of the World – all toppled together, and there was only a man with greying hair sobbing on the deck of a boat.

 

This is the most succinct expression of grief that I know: the simple observation that in grief everything gives way, all pretensions one had to composure, or to grandeur, all the vain and indulgent claims to wisdom or vision, all cherished things that make up our world. It is not the formal claim to these titles that has vanished (Hadrian is still emperor, for all that means), but their animating substance, the connection they had to the real world is ‘extinguished’. They begin to feel absurd. When Hadrian feels himself stripped to ‘only’ a man, that ‘only’ does not mean simply smaller in stature and depth than his ridiculous titles would suggest, like other men, but also that he is suddenly utterly alone in his grief, alone and himself mortal (‘greying’) with all things stripped back to loss.

This collapse of meaning, the sudden absence of the connections that make one feel really in the world is a commonly attested feature of both grief and depression. When I say that suicide is a death not of the order of other deaths, I mean that in all other kinds of death there is some division between the cause of death and person who dies; only in suicide do we have to come to terms with their terrible unity. It repeats as a terrible and obstinate fact.  We have some measure of this in a subsequent passage:

Antinous was dead. I remembered platitudes frequently heard: “One can die at any age,” or “They who die young are beloved by the gods.” I myself had shared in that execrable abuse of words; I had talked of dying of sleep, and dying of boredom. I had used the word agony, the word mourning, the word loss. Antinous was dead.

Love, wisest of gods… . But love had not been to blame for that negligence, for the harshness and indifference mingled with passion like sand with the gold borne along by a stream, for that blind self-content of a man too completely happy, and who is growing old. Could I have been so grossly satisfied? Antinous was dead. Far from loving too much, as doubtless Servianus was proclaiming at that moment in Rome, I had not been loving enough to force the boy to live on. Chabrias as a member of an Orphic cult held suicide a crime, so he tended to insist upon the sacrificial aspect of that ending; I myself felt a kind of terrible joy at the thought that that death was a gift. But I was the only one to measure how much bitter fermentation there is at the bottom of all sweetness, or what degree of despair is hidden under abnegation, what hatred is mingled with love. A being deeply wounded had thrown this proof of devotion at my very face; a boy fearful of losing all had found this means of binding me to him forever. Had he hoped to protect me by such a sacrifice he must have deemed himself unloved indeed not to have realized that the worst of ills would be to lose him.

I do not want to over-analyse this passage; as it is I find it hard to type out without being moved to tears. The mechanics of J’s death and the fictional Antinous’ are hardly similar; nor are the relationships the same. Yet this is the best description of that intimate grief that I know. It describes the obstinate recurrence of fact (‘Antinous was dead’), the feeling that one never knew the real content of words like ‘loss’ until now, the hollowness of platitude, one’s implication in death, and above all the keen and unremitting awareness of the precise balance of despair and love, the reverberating violence and hopelessness of suicide.

This is grief, then. Yourcenar’s text is very fine on the ‘strange labyrinths’ of grief, its sudden return when one thinks oneself finally consoled. One of its defining features is the collapse of meaning, the sense that the coherence and point of the world is lost in the face of death; this is like the catastrophe of the inner world Klein talked about. I have also suggested that one of the constituent features of grief and trauma is re-enactment, that this repetition can become a sign of an incomplete mourning. On an intellectual level, this becomes the conviction that the most authentic position, the vantage-point that most corresponds to the truth of the world, is one in which all meaning has rotted away to be replaced only with death, and one’s involvement with death. I want to see how one might go beyond this.

Anselm Kiefer, For Paul Celan – Stalks of the Night, 1998[?]

Anselm Kiefer, For Paul Celan – Stalks of the Night, 1998[?]

7.

The two writers I have been returning to over and again to think about a way of going beyond grief are Euripides and Shakespeare. Of the Greek tragedians, to look at Euripides in this way might seem strange. He is a sharpener of already desolate situations: it is Euripides who invents the story of Medea actually killing her children. (Before, she just abandoned them to die.) His proper study is how grief and rage sharpen people into monsters, the failure of institutions (marriage, parenthood and family taboos, government, religion) to restrain his characters’ slide into violence and degradation, and how those institutions in fact generate excess and destruction. Euripides was living in a period of catastrophe and never-ending war, perhaps far enough advanced to suggest to him the civilisation he knew would never be recognisable as itself again; his characters always seem to be picking their way through the ruins of greater times, greater men. Maybe this accounts for his attraction today.

Though I have been reading all of the tragedies, and Euripides’ especially, there is not much on suicide that is useful. Helen, in his play most concerned with noble suicide, thinks Ajax’s suicide a kind of madness. Herakles rejects it. Polyxena, who willingly embraces her role as blood sacrifice, disappears into nothingness as her death fails to make the winds rise. My interest, however, is in a play very different to most of Euripides’ surviving work, Alcestis, and the resonances it has with a far later play, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Alcestis isn’t a tragedy, though it isn’t a comedy either. It is a revision of an ancient story (probably one of the most ancient, in its simplest form) about a woman who sacrifices her life for her husband, by taking on a fate pronounced for him, and by her death secures his life. In some versions the sacrifice is refused, or by some contrivance the wife is rescued from the underworld, and they are reunited in life. In this case, it is achieved by the intervention of Herakles, who stumbles into the house of Admetos shortly after Alcestis has taken his place in death. Herakles, buffoon and demigod, embarrassed at having forced Admetos to interrupt his mourning to welcome him, goes to her grave, wrestles with Death, and returns a veiled and silent Alcestis from death to life.

It isn’t hard to see why a story where someone returns from the dead might appeal at the moment. But what does Euripides do to this basic fairy tale? He adds time to it. The trickery used to save Admetos’ life has taken place some years before, and the play begins on the day appointed for Alcestis’ death. Already one element common to many tragedies is present here: some long-feared past debt now returning with inexorable consequence. It is possible, at this point, to exit the theatre or put down the playbook thinking of nothing more than how nice it is to see disaster give way to joy, of Alcestis’ perfect and noble sacrifice, and cherish the fairy-tale ending all the more for its impossibility. But one can’t help pulling at loose threads. Is there something unpleasant in the way Alcestis gets exchanged between her husband, his guest, and the underworld? In some of the old versions of the myth, Alcestis chooses to die in her husband’s place because he is a good king, presiding over a kingdom of peace and prosperity and beloved by the nation. So who is this vain bore speaking in cliches while she lies dying? Is it possible she has chosen an inadequate object for her affections. One might accept that a sacrifice consummated at the moment it’s proffered would admit no doubt; by introducing this gap, Euripides allows time for it to grow. Suddenly you think back to her speeches and wonder about the almost immaculately repressed doubt sweating through them.

My point isn’t that Alcestis is concealing something sinister under the fairy-tale, its secret truth. After all, the dominant tone of the play is of disaster miraculously averted, of that strange word charis, which means favour, gift, grace. It is that the unsettling elements of the play, the questions of worth, are right there alongside it. Circuits of commensurability and incommensurability criss-cross the play. Alcestis is eminently replaceable (else why extract a promise not to remarry?) but her act of substitution unrepayable. Death simply wants a life (quantity: one, date: overdue). Pheres has no interest in substituting his life for his son’s. Perhaps most unsettlingly, Admetos wants to make a statue of his dead wife, lay it in his bed at night, and embrace it in her place. This logic of substitution is also a common thread of tragedy: who may be substituted in place of whom, how revenge or restitution may be taken. The discomfort of these questions of worth and exchange is doubtless what leads many later adaptors either to improve Admetos’ character or render him innocent of involvement in Alcestis’ choice: there’s something uncomfortable about Euripides’ characters. At the end of the play there is a singular a coup-de-théâtre, the veiled Alcestis returned to the stage, silent, revived from death. The sheer physical power of this moment must only have been enhanced by her silence. And yet: why is Alcestis silent? Euripides puts an explanation – ritual purification – in the mouth of Herakles, but it is still the writer’s choice. Can a woman who has died and returned be the same woman? The play tells us it is so, but Alcestis’ silence remains obstinate.

I have dwelt on Euripides, and Alcestis in particular, partly because the questions of worth and catastrophe preoccupy me at the moment, and their presence alongside and inside the consolatory fairy-tale. But I have also always felt a strong connection between this play of Euripides and The Winter’s Tale. In obvious ways, of course: the statue, the return of the beloved from death, the silence (Shakespeare likely read Alcestis in Buchanan’s 1556 Latin version). But less tangible connections suggest themselves: the strangely composite form of the play reminds me of Euripides’ departures from his predecessors. Most of all, however, it seems to me like Leontes is a character who has walked out of a Euripides play. The madness that afflicts him in the first half of the play, his inability to see anything but corruption, deception and baseness in the world around him, the way in which that allures and repels him, seems like that crisis-world in which Euripides’ characters circle each other. Something has eaten away at Leontes like an acid: he has suffered a collapse of all he thought guaranteed in the world, and can see only the possibility of its untruth.

It is not unusual for Shakespeare to drop characters into worlds to which they do not belong. Othello, for instance, is the story of a grave man in a comic world, from whom the gulling and confusion proper to comedy draw a tragic result. Beyond this, however, the tragedies (or at least, some of the characters in them) participate in a fantasy of time rewound: revenge tragedy is the clearest instance of this, where some equal slight, some equal injury to some equal person, might serve to redeem, renew or annul the past. It never does, but absence of result has rarely halted propitiation, especially from the desperate. I mention these themes – generic discord, the logic of substitution, the fantasy of time rewound – because The Winter’s Tale confounds their usual deployment in the service of a miracle.

After J died, I did not read for some days. When I did pick up a book, it was The Winter’s Tale, to read quite deliberately Paulina’s speech of awakening as the statue of Hermione is returned to life. At the time, I could not bear to read much of the play – bequeath to death your numbness – but the compulsion to return to it has been consistent, and all of my reading of late has led me back here. Let us remember what has happened in the play: Leontes’ madness and jealousy has caused him to accuse his heavily pregnant wife, Hermione, of infidelity with his best friend, putting her on trial for it and trying to poison him. Leontes’ son, Mamillius, dies of a wasting disease brought on by Leontes’ accusations against his mother. Hearing this news, Hermione then dies. In the interval between the onset of Leontes’ jealousy and her trial and death, she has given birth to a daughter. This daughter is taken and hidden away. Sixteen years pass. Eventually, Leontes is reunited with his now adult daughter, and taken to see a statue of Hermione, which turns out to be her, alive. Paulina reveals the living Hermione thus:

PAULINA: Music, awake her; strike! 

‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;

Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,

I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away,

Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him

Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:

Start not; her actions shall be holy as

You hear my spell is lawful: do not shun her

Until you see her die again; for then

You kill her double.

The tonal shifts of this speech have always astonished me. It begins in the tones of the fairground magician, then pivots suddenly (on ‘Come’) to extraordinary tenderness and intimacy, then pivots again into giving instruction to Paulina’s immediate audience on stage, and by extension, us. We are immediately aware we are witnessing something deep and important, but what exactly? The late plays feature several scenes of recognition between families long estranged and the women thought dead, but only in this play are they merged in a single scene. On one level, the subsequent revelation that their daughter, Perdita, survives is a resolution of an anxiety about time, a reintegration of the family shattered by Leontes’ madness in the play’s first half: ‘this life / Living to live in a world of time beyond me’ as Eliot put it, thinking of another of those Shakespearean reunions. But why does that explanation feel only partial? We are not yet clear about what has happened  in the statue scene.

Much critical ink has been spilt on working out exactly what is happening in this scene: it used to be taken for granted that it was a typological echo of Christian resurrection; as that interpretation receded, it has come to be seen as a theatrical miracle, with Paulina as impresario, Hermione having been hidden away for the intervening sixteen years. There is sufficient textual evidence for this position (e.g. 5.3.125-8) and it fits nicely with the late Shakespeare’s preoccupation with reflexive theatrical representation. But something chafes. That something is Mamillius. Coleridge remarked on the ‘mere indolence’ of Shakespeare’s failure to make any mention of Hermione’s concealment earlier in the play, instead of her death. Until she reappears as a statue, the audience has no reason to believe she is anything other than dead. After all, Leontes insists on seeing the bodies of his wife and son, and has them buried in the same grave. There is no theatrical uncertainty, no winking metanarrative, about these deaths: certainly if Mamillius is dead, Hermione is too.

Any way of thinking about the power of this scene has to account for it in terms adequate to the whole play: it must account for Leontes’ madness, and it must account for Hermione’s apparent death earlier in the play (and, in fact, her silence to him after her resurrection). It won’t do, therefore, either to read it as a Christian resurrection scene, or plead that the play as we have it is just missing a revision to make clear Hermione’s only seeming death. I think Cavell is closest to this when he reads in the play Leontes’ permeating, self-destroying skepticism, and Hermione’s redemption of this skepticism in what amounts to a wedding scene. It seems to me, in fact, that it is vital that an audience is as convinced as Leontes that Hermione is dead, that we do not know whether the actor playing Hermione is supposed to be a statue or the living Hermione disguised as a statue. That such an uncertainty is only possible on stage is the point: the theatrical wonder-working is the outward form of a dramatic miracle, but which has much more within it than simple fascination with the mechanics of theatre.

If in the first part of the play, Leontes is like a tragic character, unwilling and unable to properly interpret the world around him, then in this final act, the rules and logic of tragedy are upended. It is, after all, a winter’s tale, of some strange comfort in the dead season. As it opens, Leontes’ courtiers are urging him to leave his grief and remarry, but Paulina reminds him that Hermione is ‘unparalleled’: Leontes refuses that logic of substitution so persistent in tragedies, of course no substitute would be possible. In a sense, both courtier and Paulina are right: from the perspective of the state, Hermione is replaceable; from the perspective of conscience and person, she is not. It is evident that Leontes is obsessed by guilt and transfixed by death; the unaltered clay of the violent man is visible in his fantasy that the ghost of Hermione might induce him to murder any new wife. His grief has emptied him out into the memory of the departed, in a kind of living death, but his refusal of substitution is an important precondition for the play’s conclusion.

The act’s second scene, in which some chorus-like characters recount Leontes’ discovery that Perdita is his daughter, is equally important in priming the audience for the statue scene.  Their reunion goes beyond description in language: ‘… there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture. They looked as they had heard a world ransomed, or one destroyed.’ They even say the news is like an ‘old tale’, so strange as to defy expectation. Like so often, ancillary characters are audience substitutes, and the emphasis they lay on physicality and gesture, as well as events so strange they require metaphorical description, are indicators to how we are to engage with the final scene. This signposting continues in that final scene itself, where the exclamations of wonder emphasise that the stage-world is a largely realist one, in which resurrections of the dead are something strange enough to provoke shock; it is not the kind of thing to which they are accustomed. When one of the reporting gentlemen says ‘Every wink of an eye some new grace will be born’ we are again being prepared: ‘winking’ in Shakespeare has the sense of not seeing, or not seeing clearly, as well as the momentary closure of the eyelid. The proximity of uncertainty and grace, grace produced by theatrical deception, is the sense of that last scene.

So Leontes enters this scene still a man of death, hoping for some consolation in the life-like statue of Hermione; instead the statue comes alive, is indeed Hermione, alive and not dead. But the miracle here – the grace – is not in the resurrection itself, and Paulina goes to great lengths to protest the legitimacy of her art. The image of his dead wife ‘conjured to remembrance’ Leontes’ evils. He asks, ‘does not the stone rebuke me / For being more stone than it?’ After all, given his sins, there is no reason to expect a reunion with Hermione to be joyous; some interpret Hermione’s silence to Leontes (she speaks only to Perdita) to be such a rebuke. This misses the real miracle here, which is that of forgiveness and restitution. In the universe of tragedy from which Leontes comes, the physics of forgiveness do not make any sense, they are unthinkable: violence is met with violence, loss met with loss, no transformation of the situation is possible. What if something, for once, was different? If tragic characters are beset with a desire to rewind time, then Shakespeare now gives us a moment where just such a thing happens. Hermione embraces Leontes, she ‘hangs about his neck’. As the gentlemen have prepared us, there is indeed content to these gestures, language in this dumbness.

We have entered into this private chapel with Leontes, as sure as he is that Hermione is dead, perhaps even carrying about with us so much death, as much as he is. We are as unsure as he is whether the person playing a statue is also playing someone who is alive, returned from death in the kind of miracle only possible in theatre. What does it feel like for someone who has been carrying so much death about with them, such as that they feel like stone, to suddenly find the life of the world in front of them and embracing them? Our modern editors insert directions into Paulina’s speech, telling us to whom each section of the speech should be directed. No such directions exist in the original. Suddenly one feels that those low and intimate lines of her speech are directed not at Hermione, but at Leontes, and to us:

‘… stir, nay, come away,

Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him

Dear life redeems you.’

Unknown Photographer, Boy reading in ruined bookshop, London, 1940

Unknown Photographer, Boy reading in ruined bookshop, London, 1940

8.

The word ‘mourning’ shares the same Indo-European root as our word ‘memory’; in some small way these essay fragments are a memorial to J, an attempt to deploy reason against grief, to use reason to embrace grief and somehow transform it. When I try to understand art’s consolatory function, it is because I am desperately in need of it. When one emerges from the dark of the theatre at the end of The Winter’s Tale, there is no false sentiment or hope that one’s loved ones may miraculously return as living statues. The secret worlds are not regenerated. Yet something profoundly affecting has happened. It has not removed grief – the grief so many of us carry about like rocks in our pockets – nor transformed it exactly, but given us a presentiment of what such a transformation might feel like.

In rhetoric, there is a figure called prolepsis. It means that gesture where one anticipates something yet to come – an objection to an argument, for instance – in the present. In literature, we can sometimes call characters proleptic: Mamillius is one of these, where he seems to anticipate his death in his young, grave, speeches. Sometimes we say this is something that can only happen in literature; the text’s status as a made thing allows us to do things with time and apprehension that are impossible in real life. But I think we sometimes experience time this way, we sometimes experience the presentiment of a world as it might become long before it happens, even acutely aware of the distance between there and here.

Though the labyrinths of grief are strange and long, I want to try to use the power of reason, and representation, to record just such a moment of prolepsis. A while after J died, I went on a long-arranged trip. A few of us had gone out early to see the sunrise from the cliffs overlooking a wide sea. I remember thinking as the car shot down the road how weird and bare the landscape – thin plants and sand for soil, the kind of country Catullus might have crossed to stand at his brother’s grave – and the night turning from black to blue. The coldness of the air out on the cliffs. Thinking how preposterous and how arty to be thinking about death while waiting for the sunrise; thinking how in the wake of a death, all thoughts bend themselves toward death. The blankness of the sea’s expanse, its silence.

The sun rose above the horizon line: deep bruising blue, pink, red, then gold. As it rose the air transformed against my skin, its night coldness pierced by the sun’s warmth. In my chest, the heaviness rose higher and higher, as if propelled by some hidden chemical transformation. How absurd to be so transfixed by something so banal as a sunrise. The sun spread a path of gold across the water, a small sailing boat tacking just on the brink between the dark and the bright waters. Then even my skepticism dissolved, as if all my coldness and weight were burning up in that light. I watched the sun change its light on P., sat next to me, and he reached out to touch my elbow; I felt so briefly the whole world depended on that gesture, that in its absolute simplicity and tenderness it was as a reproof against death. My grief lifted, for just that moment: I saw what it would be to have that grief transformed utterly.

I do not know how to end these fragments: nothing can make J’s death right, or meaningful. I have sometimes suspected my grief to be improper or excessive; my guilt as much a fear I am subject to the same loss of meaning, the same kind of catastrophe. It is required you do awake your faith. If certain pieces of art have consoled me, it is not because they distract from death, but because they figure certain ways of thinking about big questions: what and how to live, and how to deal with death. They affirm that thinking such things is worthwhile, that it is possible to make things that profoundly affect and change people. None of this wipes away or redeems the past, diminishes violence or softens loss, but it promises loss is thinkable, bearable. It is required you do awake your faith. If grief is like being plunged into an alien world, full of darkness, then I find myself thinking that reason is reaching out to touch and describe that world, to discover in it contours and planes familiar and unfamiliar, hear other voices speaking in it, and other hands reaching out to touch yours. We might not ever find our way through the dark completely, but we may well find some way to live in it until the dawn comes. That might be as much a memorial as is possible.

Justice

alfie-meadows

On Monday, the third iteration of the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King begins at Woolwich Crown Court. It is now over two years since the student demonstration in Parliament Square, in which Meadows was near-fatally injured. It is possible, over the extended period of time in which this laughterless farce has played out, to become inured to its central scandal: after the police beat a demonstrator so badly he requires three hours of brain surgery, they decide to arrest him for ‘violent disorder'; having subjected him to the unrefined punishment of the baton strike, they decide to subject him to the refined and bureaucratic punishment of the courtroom. I reproduce the image above – which often heads articles, posters and campaign leaflets – because it is a reminder that every manicured expression of outrage that comes from the prosecution is intended to occlude this violence. It is a reminder that there are real people, and real bodies, at the centre of this struggle. It ought to shock, scandalise and anger us.

I hope this coming trial sees the end of this bad joke. Courts are impossible to predict, but from the sparse evidence presented in the last trial, I hope for acquittal for both defendants. Some of the police testimony was collated live by Rory MacKinnon here during the last trial. It is what you might expect: where the commander cannot deny police violence, he will ‘avoid putting words in the officer’s mouth’ – that is, avoid giving any explanation at all. Commander Johnson – who oversaw policing at the G20 protests, where Ian Tomlinson died, as well as the kettling on Westminster Bridge and the horse charges on on a street packed with students during the Parliament Square demonstration – finds it hard to think of any error in policing, even when pressed. It is hard to ever bring these people to account, well-versed as they are in avoiding even direct questions. The distributed model of police organisation means it’s difficult to find anyone who can’t pass the buck in a different direction, while the private intention of officers actually engaged in violence is beyond speculation. On the other hand, the private intention of defendants is fair game: a covered face is taken as an infallible sign of malicious intent, rather than a sensible precaution where intelligence gathering on protesters is de rigueur. If such physical signs are so easily legible, then we might infer some coherent story from the baton strikes, or the scars they leave. No: instead we’re assured that behind the body armour, the police are scared, traumatised, rational, judicious, calm, responsible, terrified – usually all at once, and in one person at that. Not to labour the point, but police violence (by the logic of their excuse) can either be a rationally-executed crowd control measure, or the instinctive response of an affrighted officer to a baying mob. It cannot be both at once.

I’d argue that there is a coherent logic to police responses to protest – one of excess, containment and excision – though the mechanisms of this violence change according to political fashion. It is sometimes hard to communicate the obvious contours of this logic to liberals who have little contact with the police, and the subsequent chilling effect on protest or direct action. The recent, damning preliminary answers of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to assemble and protest in the UK are helpful here (I also wrote a little on the usefulness of these answers):

Nevertheless, I believe that this practice [kettling] is detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature. I heard, for instance, appalling stories of peaceful protestors, as well as innocent by-standers – such as tourists – held for long hours with no access to water or sanitary facilities. It also undeniably has a powerful chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, and I was informed of many people who refrained from exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly for fear of being kettled. Finally, it appears that kettling is used for intelligence gathering purposes, by compelling those kettled to disclose their name and address as they leave the kettle, increasing the chilling effect it has on potential protesters.

There’s a justified sense that the arrests for ‘violent disorder’ during this period of protest were partly intended to intimidate: a substantial proportion of those charged who pled ‘not guilty’ were acquitted, but the sense that those arrested were often arbitrarily charged meant that for many demonstrators the risks of protest began to outweigh its usefulness. This calculation is one we are intended to make. Of course, the charge itself is so elastic – so vague in its definitions of what counts as an offence – as to make its indiscriminate use an easy option. Alongside the much-vaunted automation of surveillance and identification, the repressive mood that followed the August riots of 2011, and the apparent impunity of police officers even when they lie on the stand, make it hard to gainsay that calculation.

It is not just the charge itself, nor the outrageous prospect of being jailed for having the temerity to come in the way of a police baton, but the suspension of life between charge and verdict which is punitive. Many of the anti-cuts protesters who have faced trial have done so with extraordinary gaps between charge and trial process. In this time, the very possibility of a future, a life, the ability to travel, or to study is suspended. Horizons get destroyed. Foucault, when writing about the modern prison, said that ‘the soul is the prison of the body’ – he meant that the modern prison system no longer employs torture to render the bodies of its prisoners docile, instead preferring more ‘refined’ forms of affective and psychological discipline. Perhaps this distinction is tenuous – physical violence, and physical enclosure, isolation, are all parts of the modern prison too – but the psychic effects of the dilation of the judicial process are obvious to anyone who has undergone them: the sense of hopelessness, helplessness, lack of escape. That it manifests in a nightmarish bureaucracy and a language of brutal passivity often makes it even less bearable.

Defend The Right To Protest, the campaign that has done much to keep the Meadows case visible, has also done excellent work in highlighting the resonances between these cases and those of the Rigg family, the Duggan family, and the countless others brutalised or killed by the police. Many features recur in slightly different ways – delays, stonewalling, evasion of responsibility, the insistence on the guilt of those victimised – but so does the determination to see justice done. This is a word that does not get used much in leftist campaigning or discussion, and doubts about courts claiming they will not only deliver ‘justice’ but show that it has been done are justified. In fact, that claim sounds hollow to anyone who has sat in them for any amount of time. We know that their ‘justice’ might depend on the prejudice of the jurors, aptly stoked by the prosecution, the quality of the lawyer one can afford, or whether the judge had a dodgy sandwich for lunch. That is to say, we know their claims to justice are contingent, human and personal. The encouragement, then, is that it is possible – needed, necessary – to support each other through these processes without any illusions about the court, knowing that we need to press hard against them to deliver even a modicum of justice, and, also, simply to survive the process well enough to emerge from the other side. There is another kind of justice – that we will make for ourselves.

The court should acquit Alfie Meadows and Zak King. The photo at the top of this piece ought to be enough to tell you who really should be facing punishment here. The mere fact it comes to trial is an obscenity. There is a solidarity demonstration this Monday outside the court. Come and offer your support.

Protest at Alfie & Zak’s Retrial
Monday, 11th Feb, 9 a.m.
Woolwich Crown Court

Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/events/316628031789778/

Nightmare Politics: October 20th and after

October 20th will see hundreds of thousands of people marching in the TUC’s ‘A Future That Works’ demonstration, billed widely as an anti-austerity march. Somewhere near its head, or at least waiting on a stage in Hyde Park, will be Ed Miliband. This would be a farce, if it weren’t so eminently predictable: enough of a nod to the unions to give the perennially Pollyanna-ish Labour left some notion that the party might (this time, honest) be swinging their way, while retaining a policy trajectory entirely consonant with the austerity imperative. Plus ça change, and all that.

Do such events matter? This march is the belated sister to the TUC’s first demonstration against austerity, on March 26th of last year. That march was notable for the cheering sight of a couple of thousand Black Bloc demonstrators smashing in some quite deserving windows, and UK Uncut’s enjoyable, well-chosen occupation of chi-chi grocers Fortnum & Mason’s. No one – least of all any participant – believes that either of those activities are likely to achieve mass political change, but you might find quite a few who believe they make it rather harder to fold the anti-austerity demonstrations into the narrative of polite (but resigned) disagreement. Many would likely suggest that the immediate sense of solidarity in action is some degree more inspiring than the long trudge to boredom in Hyde Park, which achieved less than an atom’s change of direction in economic policy.

In fact, the concerted campaign of police and judicial pursuit in the wake of March 26th make even such minimal forms of direct action seem ever less likely; the TUC itself will make every effort to damp enthusiasm for any kind of unsanctioned deviation from the Great Trudge. In that respect, it is heartening to see call-outs for both Education and Radical Workers’ feeder blocs, and Solidarity Federation & Boycott Workfare’s invitation to continue the struggle against workfare on the day. But certainly, one-off days out ought not to be our measuring rod for the likelihood of political change, or even the strength of anti-austerity sentiment; worse, if they are our major vehicle for political struggle we have already lost. If they loom so large in our minds as to obscure other forms or strategies for struggle, they can begin to hobble us when we are already enfeebled.

MARCHES

Marches are supposed to be shows of strength. Indeed, they often are most effective when they signal the possibility of anger spilling over into generalised excess or violence, unpalatable though that might seem. Certainly, sheer numbers seem no reliable measure of efficacy: the march against the Iraq war being the oft-cited example in this case. They can certainly build some much-needed sense of solidarity for those opposed to austerity, but even those who find themselves buoyed by listening to the usual parade of damp dignitaries are likely to admit that it won’t, in itself, do much good. Of course, the TUC speaks about marches like this as a kind of three-dimensional lobbying, or a moral pressure on politicians to serve the ‘real’ interests of their electors. This reduction of political activity to a system of lobbying via moral shame is more widespread – many also talk about strike action or more targeted protest action in the same way. But it’s a rare case where mere moral embarrassment can avert economic policy or force a capitalist employer to behave better – were it otherwise, we’d already be living post-capitalism.

It might be sufficient, then, to say that marches are fine (and the angrier, the better), but diluting them of any political potency by putting the smiling mug of Ed Miliband at the front, and seeing them in isolation as the only action available to us is dangerous, and, worse, ineffectual.

 

NIGHTMARE POLITICS

It’s rarely advisable to see the tenor of party conferences as cast-iron guarantees for the coming year in politics; they play invariably to the party’s base, or to jaded political editors. Still, the jettisoning of the already flimsy guise of compassionate conservatism and gurning about ‘one nation’ politics suggest that the major political parties are not just tacking to the right, but likely to become even less distinguishable in the coming year. In a sense, Labour’s commitment to austerity (‘deeper and tougher than Thatcher’) ought not surprise us, partly because of the shrinking discretion given by international economic organisations and civil service infrastructure to individual chancellors, and partly because of the long hold of the post-Thatcher consensus among those in power. But it also ought not surprise us if we take a longer view of the current crisis as the consequence of a series of cyclical crises deferred for the last forty or so years – we’ll return to this.

It’s worth noting some of the trends in formal politics over the last few decades, as they suggest something about the way in which people conceive of how to act in political grievance. The membership of mass political parties is in irreversible decline. This haemorrhage is usually attributed to the fragmentation of the working class after Thatcher, and the rise of an aggressive, acquisitive individualism. Doubtless that may be so. But it’s worth thinking about what membership signifies, too: it doesn’t seem to be a natural consequence of expressing political grievance any longer, but rather a category reserved for people who think of themselves as political operatives, a signpost for which faction of administrators you’re part of, whose ranks you want to climb. This is unsurprising – it’s a consequence (not a cause) of the shift in formal politics towards professionalisation. The picture ought to be sobering:

That to one side, formal politics is right-shifting, and this is where the real nightmare lies. The Tory conference revealed the growing influence of the hard-right, free market, anti-working class ‘Free Enterprise Group’, whose manifesto is the kind of stuff that keeps one awake at 3am. These people have been biding their time in the policy wilderness for the past few years, but recognise the current crisis as an opportunity to assert the ruthless logic of capitalism in its current global context. The reason they are seductive is partly their appeal to self-interest on the part of those who might get ahead in their framework, but also because they express some uncomfortable truths about the likelihood of wage repression and further gutting of social security to remain in competition with emerging global economic powers. It is hard to find flaws with this merciless logic if one is committed to capitalism as a way of organising production – and the poverty of this imaginative horizon is why Mark Fisher coined the phrase ‘capitalist realism’, here in full swing. We might also put it thus: an attempt to make a nicer capitalism will always, in the long run, lose to this kind of full reassertion of the internal logic of capitalism itself.

NO FUTURE

Some of the serious responses to the TUC’s callout for their demonstration have been to quarrel with its implicit politics: either the assumptions about the dignity of work, the desired return to some previous golden age, or the problems of a promised future itself. Certainly, if our best political project is a return to some pre-crisis state (pre-2008? pre-1973? pre-1968?), a promise of being only somewhat less miserable for a short time, or a desire to ameliorate the very worst effects of a disappearing welfare state, then to scream ‘No Future!’ is very much justified. Nonetheless, the future has a habit of arriving anyway, and to refuse the future they lay out should not be a way of excusing oneself from the difficult political work of establishing a different one. It is not a call to a political nihilism.

Still, this is not an endorsement of the TUC’s position, nor the position that permeates the soft left, that the crisis can be ascribed to the ‘greed’ of a small number of bankers, or a split between a ‘parastic’ financial services sector and the ‘real economy’ of working people, who (presumably) produce things. In fact, the service sector (including financial services) is central to the UK’s economy, though of course the notion of ‘services’ is itself a broad and imprecise one (is a short-order cook doing the same kind of work as a broker?) There is an important short-term argument to be had about taxation, but it is myopic to think that alterations in the tax regime will stem the crisis as it trundles on.

The longer-term picture here is of a state that supported its social democratic interval with huge innovations in industry, a post-war glut of global credit, and the opening up of now saturated global markets. Changes to economic activity (automation, global outsourcing, diminution of markets in new consumer goods) mean this is harder to sustain, though this trend has been made less visible by the unexpected movements of capital and its ‘financialisation’ over the past forty years. However, it is also important to state that when we talk about ‘crisis’, we shouldn’t just mean the various cyclical crises, or even a crisis in real wages masked by credit, but a permanent crisis gradually sharpening over time, centred on the defining features of capitalism itself: the dependency of the vast majority of the world on the sale of their labour-power for the means to subsist, the necessary precarity of that relation, and the paradox that even among an unprecedented ability to produce, people still starve and die. Are we encountering the limits of this mode? It would be foolish to adopt an easy catastrophism and claim so: the movement of capital is often unexpected, and there may be a series of financial and productive innovations just over the horizon. Nonetheless, it seems incontrovertible that we are currently seeing a serious return of immiseration. This is not a crisis that goes away by sighing wistfully and thinking of better days.

POVERTY OF THEORY / THEORY OF POVERTY

To adequately tackle the current situation, we ought to be doing some serious thinking about the way in which the economy works. The withering away of serious critical reflection on the form of the current crisis means we are often presented with a limp kind of ameliorative social democracy as the only ‘real’ alternative to the current state of things – that is, an alternative that differs in no substantial way from capitalist consensus, save for a series of assertions about socialised public goods and the need for a safety net. That is: a nicer capitalism.

How have we got here? How have we got to a point that the limits of our political imagination are so constrained? It might be one thing if this alternative seemed remotely sustainable in a global context, but it doesn’t – and premising it on the possibilities of outsourcing production to a more grotesquely exploited working class elsewhere is an obscenity. This poverty of options is compounded by an ever-shrinking range of political expression and thought in media, where expressing a mild form of socialism, once unremarkable, now brands one as a leftwing firebrand. Serious analysis of where we are, and where we might go, is essential to the political work we have in front of us.

Yet political activity is not a question of having the better analysis, or capturing the right portion of the media – it requires action outside the confines of the debate chamber or the broadsheet pages. An analysis without action is the worst kind of political quietism; a hankering after righteousness without the willingness to achieve change. And it seems, at the moment, that analysis need not be solely abstract and economic, but a serious attempt to address the questions of organisation and tactics in concert with that.

We are faced with a political imperative that seeks to destabilise what little remains to us: workfare represents the first assault not solely on the unemployed, but on all who work as a whole, erasing employment guarantees, driving down wages, upping working hours. Adrian Beecroft’s insidious recommendations on the removal of workers’ rights will work their way into policy – the niche suggestion of giving up rights in return for a minuscule share in company profits is merely its nicest face. Meanwhile, housing is in crisis, debt weighs on all of us, utility and service bills are rising steeply – to promise merely more of the same is not enough. Some future, that.

Immiseration is the order of the day – in sweetened or unsweetened form. Marx once suggested that the generalised trend to immiseration would tend inevitably to revolution. Perhaps that’s so, but the notion of enduring immiseration of the worst kind for some distant resolution is also insufficient. I will be out on October 20th, of course, but it is nowhere near enough – where next?

Novara: ‘The Riots’, one year on.

I joined Aaron Peters and Nina Power yesterday on Novara on Resonance FM to discuss the anniversary of last year’s riots. You can listen to it below – I think it’s also worth listening to the show we did with Dan Hancox during the events of last August (here), which has stood up quite well, especially given the patchiness of the sources and rumours that were flying around at the time.

I promised I’d put up the section of Badiou I was quoting, which was one of the essays in the recent ‘The Rebirth of History‘:

In these processes, where the state puts on its most hideous expression, a no less detestable consensus is forged over a particularly reactive conception that can be summarized thus: the destruction or theft of a few goods in the frenzy of a riot is infinitely more culpable than the police assassination of a young man – the assassination that caused the riot. The government and press hastily assess the damage. And here is the vicious idea spread by all this: the death of the young man – a ‘black hooligan’ no doubt, or an Arab ‘known to the police’ – is nothing compared with all these additional costs. Let us grieve not for the death but the insurance companies. (…)

Here, by contrast, it will be asserted that the life of a young man is priceless – all the more so in that he is one of the countless people abandoned by our society. To believe that the intolerable crime is to burn a few cars and rob some shops, whereas to kill a young man is trivial, is typically in keeping with what Marx regarded as the principal alienation of capitalism: the primacy of things over existence, of commodities over life and machines over workers, which he encapsulated in the formula: ‘Le mort saisit le vif’. Of this lethal dimension of capitalism the Camerons and Sarkozys are the zealous cops.

– The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (London: Verso, 2012) p.20

Reasserting the primary importance of that police assassination, and the political (rather than apolitical or ‘consumerist’) content of last year’s riots is absolutely necessary when there is a concerted effort on the part of the police and the right-wing media to occlude the murder that sparked them off. Yesterday’s show is hopefully a small contribution to that effort.

I’d like to also point out that the medium of radio is perfect for allowing these kinds of discussions, at least when it’s removed from the contentless, soundbite-ridden ‘adversarial’ model of BBC factual or news programmes. Thank fuck for Resonance FM, really. Novara is one of the few media spaces that allows serious, thoughtful and critical discussion of current political issues, and I hope the discussions yet to come in this series will help broaden a political conversation currently dominated by Guardian cliché, vacuous opinion-mongering and a political spectrum so narrow as to be practically suffocating.

Novara goes out live on Resonance every Tuesday at 2pm, and is repeated on Sunday at 10pm. You can tune in on 104.4 FM, or stream from the website: http://resonancefm.com/

Novara archive on soundcloud: http://soundcloud.com/resonance-fm/sets/novara-1/

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/NovaraMedia (Hashtag: #Novara)

Tumblr: http://novaragroup.tumblr.com/

Antigone

… Eurydike cursed you Eurydike cursed you assassin of your own child she said and she undid her eyes to the dark

‘Be careful, sir, you are speaking of the woman I love!’ – so, apparently, ran the response of a classics professor to a colleague impugning Antigone’s political clear-mindedness and tragic dignity. Apocryphal or not, it neatly encapsulates how deeply Sophocles’ play has penetrated western culture: it is hard not to be dazzled by Antigone. Her conviction sears the page.

If you don’t know the story of the play, it runs like this: Antigone’s brother, Polyneikes, is dead, having led an assault on the city of Thebes. Kreon, her uncle, King of Thebes, decrees that his body will not be buried, but left to rot in the open air, outside the walls of the city. Antigone defies him, citing the unwritten law, or divine law, against the precepts of the city, and is caught covering her brother’s body. She remains defiant, and Kreon, ignoring omens and dissent (not least from his son, Haimon, betrothed to Antigone) has her walled up in a tomb in the desert; finally, panicking, he attempts to undo his deed, but finds her already dead, and his son and wife both commit suicide, leaving Kreon alone.

That is, at least, one way to put the story. There are others: Antigone and her sister are the only surviving children of Oedipus and Jocasta, and the curse on their house hovers inexorably over the play. When does the play really begin? Even before Oedipus, with Laius’ rape of Chrysippus. The looming shapes of necessity and destiny can be glimpsed through the lattice of the story. The play moves, depending on how you read it: is it a story about incommensurability between the ethics of kinship and the political demands of the state? About Antigone as parrhesiast, singular and maybe even terrifying, inhuman, in her complete identification with truth? About Kreon, a weak and precarious ruler, sliding unawares into tyranny? It is not a play of easy moral certainties. Where does it end? Does Antigone’s piety – a harsh piety – serve to finally expiate the curse, and what does that expiation mean when all she’s left is wreckage?

Anne Carson and Bianca Stone’s collaborative version of AntigoneAntigonick – is far from a conventional rendering of Sophocles’ play. Carson plucks the flesh off the play, leaving polished bone, her hand-lettered version full of gaps and unsettling critical juxtapositions. Stone’s gnomic illustrations are leaved throughout on tracing paper: Carson’s words bleed through them, half-obscured. Stone’s illustrations are not direct commentaries on the play, but work as tangents to the text – a looming line of breeze-block headed figures a little chorus-like, two figures turning away from each other but hand-in-hand floating above Antigone and Ismene’s opening argument, a wild horse unsettling the civil dinner table – visual figurations of the disturbing power of a two and half thousand year old tragedy.

Antigone has a powerful political history. Hegel’s approbation of its sublimity is based partly on its figuring of political-ethical conflict; Judith Butler’s rereading of the play through Lacan and Hegel focuses on the displacing power of Antigone’s claim. But its history of performance is no less political: while its ancient audience were inclined to quote Kreon’s words on good government (e.g., Demosthenes), modern workings of the play centre implacably on Antigone herself: Theodorakis’ ballet was banned in Greece under the junta, Brecht saw in Antigone a longed-for and powerful political conviction that could rouse action, Jean Anouilh’s version, staged in occupied France, managed to rouse applause from ‘pragmatist’ collaborators and idealist sympathisers of the resistance alike. Implacability is a good word for Antigone; one might wonder if it is an untarnished virtue.

Both Nicholas Mirzoeff and Brian Patrick Eha at TNI have produced politically astute reviews of Carson’s book. Eha’s sensitivity to the ‘uncanny force’ of Carson’s language is especially on the mark: her version removes much of the decorum surrounding the violence and grief of the play. Carson’s latest work has given much attention to formal experiment, and much like Nox, the book as object matters, as does her interweaving of critical awareness about the play into its dialogue: this is an Antigone who remembers how Brecht made her perform. Her writing here is closer to the burnt-out sentences and bleak ironies of her earlier work than her more stageable translations of Euripides. It is a play about extremes and an extremist, but one aware of her extremity. Eha sees in Carson’s heroine a woman immersed in grief, fixated by death, her brother’s corpse burnt into her retinas. This is a just reading of Antigone, but I want to explore the two most politically pungent moments of Carson’s book, which have something to do with truth-telling and its foundations, and something to do with time and timing.

*

Audiences love Antigone. This has certainly been true since the Romantics, as she embodies many of the qualities one might look for in a zealous, stridently individual political heroine: the blurb for Heaney’s translation, in an unironically excavated cliché, bills the play as one in which ‘language speaks truth to power’. But what truth? Antigone’s defiance and rebellion are seductive, especially for an age in which the politically conscious frequently see themselves as solitary, enlightened individuals confronting despotic governments. Antigone both acts and refuses to disclaim her act when confronted, but her reasons for doing so are twofold, and unsettling. Here is Antigone responding to Kreon’s accusation that she has broken the law:

ANTIGONE:

WELL IF YOU CALL THAT LAW

KREON: I DO ANTIGONE: ZEUS DOES NOT JUSTICE DOES
NOT THE DEAD DO NOT. WHAT THEY CALL LAW DID
NOT BEGIN TODAY OR YESTERDAY WHEN THEY SAY LAW
THEY DO NOT MEAN A STATUTE OF TODAY OR

YESTERDAY THEY MEAN THE UNWRITTEN UNFAILING
ETERNAL ORDINANCES OF THE GODS THAT NO HUMAN
BEING CAN EVER OUTRUN. OF COURSE I WILL DIE KREON
OR NO KREON AND DEATH IS FINE THIS HAS NO PAIN
TO LEAVE A MOTHER’S SON LYING OUT THERE UNBURIED
THAT WOULD BE PAIN

This is often taken to be Antigone’s assertion of the primacy of ties of kinship over the laws of the city, and a claim that the immutable laws of the dead precede any statute forbidding the correct funeral rites. This is certainly one of the truths that Antigone is telling. One of the ways she provokes outrage is not simply by saying this, but being a woman while she does so: Kreon calls her a bringer of anarchy because she upsets all order, political and natural, upending statute and male superiority. But there is another truth Antigone is telling, one repeated by Haimon later as he argues with his father. It comes so quickly you might miss it if you weren’t paying attention, as a response to Kreon’s accusation that she is the only person in Thebes who sees the situation thus:

KREON: YOU’RE AUTONOMOUS AUTARCHIC AUTODIDACTIC
AUTODOMESTIC AUTOEMPATHIC
AUTOTHERAPEUTIC

AUTOHISTORICAL

AUTOEROTIC

AND

AUTOBEGUILED

ANTIGONE: ACTUALLY NO THEY ALL THINK LIKE ME
BUT YOU’VE NAILED THEIR TONGUES TO THE FLOOR

This argument of Antigone’s – that Kreon has become wilfully deaf to the people he governs – would likely have had more purchase on the play’s original Athenian audience than her fanatical contempt for social norms: the fear of tyranny would have been looming strongly over all of Kreon’s decisions. This is why some scholars have suggested that Kreon fits far more easily into the traditional Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero than Antigone, his essentially noble and virtuous intentions for government undone by an unyielding flaw. Antigone is anomalous, hard to square into any particular theory of tragedy.

Antigone’s aberrance is part of what Carson is bringing out in Kreon’s speech above, and he has a point: Antigone’s insistence on her own need to act, her own ability to unerringly judge injustice by some transcendent criterion, removes her entirely from series of social and political relationships that constitute human being. She discards her relationship with her sister, scarcely speaks to her fiancé (who nonetheless kills himself), even cares little for her own life. In her argument with Kreon, two responses jostle uncomfortably side-by-side, one political, the other anti-political. To claim government is sliding into tyranny is to make a political argument; to claim that there is some extra-political value that can overturn the law at any time is to threaten the city itself. This is why Antigone disturbs audiences.

‘Autobeguiled’: Kreon’s word hangs in the air. Antigone’s claim is unsettling because she is utterly convinced of its rightness; nothing could deter her from it. It carries with it the possibility that she is fatally deluded. That possibility remains latent in the play: the gods do not stay her hand as she hangs herself in the tomb to which she’s condemned; were she simply discharging duties to the dead, divine intervention might be expected to seal the validity of her claim. But Zeus is nowhere to be found (but then, gods are fickle.) Where does Antigone’s conviction come from? And is it really truth she’s speaking?

This hesitancy about Antigone could account for her absence from contemporary discussion of parrhesia, the ethic of truth-telling. Foucault prefers to cite Plato, but one can make a strong case for Antigone’s public speech as bearing many of the hallmarks of parrhesia. So why the hesitancy? There’s something excessive about Antigone (she buries her brother not once, but twice), something uncalmed; there is also something obscure about her. What is obscure is this: what does Antigone believe? What is the truth on which she ferociously sets her sights?

Before her final exit, Antigone makes a speech that has disturbed many eminent editors to the point that they insisted on excising it from the text; it threw the whole integrity of the drama into an unwelcome light. It is about truth and motive. Here is Carson’s rendering:

ANTIGONE: O
TOMB O BRIDAL CHAMBER O HOUSE IN THE GROUND
FOREVER I WAS AN ORGANIZED PERSON AND THIS IS
MY REWARD I ORGANIZED YOUR DEATHS DEAR ONES ALL
OF YOU FATHER MOTHER BROTHER WHEN YOU DIED
YOU ASK WOULD I HAVE DONE IT FOR A HUSBAND OR A
CHILD MY ANSWER IS NO I WOULD NOT. A HUSBAND
OR A CHILD CAN BE REPLACED BUT WHO CAN GROW ME
A NEW BROTHER. IS THIS A WEIRD ARGUMENT, KREON
THOUGHT SO BUT I DON’T KNOW, THE WORDS GO WRONG
THEY CALL MY PIETY IMPIETY, I’M ALONE ON MY INSIDES
I DIED LONG AGO. WHO SUFFERS MORE I WONDER… WHO
SUFFERS MORE

This version strips Antigone to the bone; with nothing but the tomb in front of her, we start to glimpse the chaos underlying the conviction. The chorus responds: ‘Your soul is blowing / apart.’ The bridal chamber and the tomb are the same place. But more important, perhaps, is Antigone’s ‘weird argument’ – it is nothing to do with governance and tyranny, nor even to do with the proper service due the dead. Antigone would not have done this for a husband or a child, but only a brother, who is irreplaceable. The queasy air of incest hovers over the speech – she is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, after all – and for all her solitary misery, it’s hard not to see some implacable curse working itself through her here. But there’s something more scandalous about Antigone’s motive here: it’s not that all the dead demand honouring, or even that all one’s kin exercise a special claim, but that this specific individual demands more than can possibly be given under Kreon’s ordinance.

Antigone’s motives are not pure, not noble, they have a tang of corruption about them. But if parrhesia demands an interior ascesis – that is, if truth-telling demands a clear and exacting relationship to one’s interior – then Antigone’s speech here qualifies in an unsettling way. It suggests that Antigone’s truth is not just about political righteousness, nor the laws of the dead, but has its roots in something unequal, excessive, maybe even squalid. Where is truth in this? Is Antigone wrong? She is right that Kreon has become tyrannous; she is right that the dead demand decency, but are her motives pure? Do her motives matter?

It is impossible for Kreon to meet Antigone’s demand; in its fury and excess, it is a demand for the revaluation of all the civic virtues with which Kreon took the stage. It demands more than the restitution of proper government. This is why Gillian Rose choose Phocion’s wife rather than Antigone to talk about the same story (the return of a loved one’s remains to the city for a just burial): hers is an act of ‘finite political justice’, during a temporary tyrannous aberration in government; Antigone’s is not politically recuperable, blasts away all politics before it.

*

‘Truth is often, in some degree, economic.’ Carson wrote this line when talking about Phaidra, in the concluding essay to her translations of Euripides. There are economic questions in play in Antigone too: as the ‘last one left in a line of kings’, Antigone is an epikleros, and her betrothal to Haimon is as much about politics, wealth and sovereignty as anything else. This diminished status of women in Greek culture is one of the reasons Kreon is outraged at her insurrection against the order of things. There is also a tension at play throughout between what can be substituted and what can’t: Haimon is told by his father that there are plenty of other women who can be substituted for his betrothed; Antigone’s insistence that nothing can substitute for her brother cuts through her motivation.

There is another economy at work in the play, one Carson brings to the fore by adding to the play ‘Nick’, a mute character who remains on stage at all times, measuring things – the economy of time. The end of Antigone is all about time – the nick of time – and how it escapes Kreon. He is continually too late to turn back the chain of events he has set into motion. When he cries out for his death, the chorus replies: ‘That’s the future this is the present / You deal with the present … You don’t get to run this.’ Kreon is a ruler come up against something immutable.

One of the unsettling pleasures of tragedy is to see the ineluctable consequences of action work themselves out on stage. Real life is rarely so neat. Antigone contains a famous crux about theatrical timing, about when Eurydike exits the stage to her suicide. Eurydike is not a character you notice much: she spends most of the play inside the house, exiting only to hear news of her son’s suicide, and then wanders back inside to kill herself, cursing her husband. I say ‘wander’, because it is not clear in the original quite when she exits the stage. There is theatrical potential here: she can drag herself, heavy with fate, back into the oikos, while conversation continues around her silent form. Carson transforms her short, unexceptional ten lines into a jagged meditation on the whole play – it is an exceptional piece of writing, one of the moments in the text that Carson’s critical and poetic faculties are seamlessly blended:

EURYDIKE: THIS IS EURYDIKE’S MONOLOGUE IT’S HER
ONLY SPEECH IN THE PLAY. YOU MAY NOT KNOW WHO
SHE IS THAT’S OK. LIKE POOR MRS. RAMSAY WHO DIED
IN A BRACKET OF TO THE LIGHTHOUSE SHE’S THE WIFE
OF THE MAN WHOSE MOODS TENSIFY THE WORLD OF
THIS STORY THE WORLD SUNDERED BY HER I SAY
SUNDERED
BY HER THAT GIRL WITH THE UNDEAD STRAPPED TO
HER BACK. A STATE OF EXCEPTION MARKS THE
LIMIT OF LAW THIS VIOLENT THING THIS FRAGILE THING
TRY TO UNCLENCH WE SAID TO HER SHE NEVER DID. WE
GOT HER THE BIKE WE GOT HER A THERAPIST THAT POOR
SAD MAN WITH HIS ODD IDEAS, SOME DAYS HE MADE
US SIT ON THE STAIRCASE ALL ON DIFFERENT STEPS
OR VIDEOTAPED US BUT WHEN WE WATCHED
IT WAS NOTHING BUT SHADOWS. FINALLY WE EXPELLED HER
WE HAD TO. USING THE LOGIC OF FRIEND AND FOE THAT
SHE DENIES BUT HOW CAN SHE DENY
THE
RULE
TO
WHICH
SHE
IS
AN
EXCEPTION IS SHE
AUTOIMMUNE NO SHE IS NOT. HAVE YOU HEARD
THIS EXPRESSION THE NICK OF TIME WHAT IS A NICK
I ASKED MY SON WHAT
IS
A
NICK
I ASKED MY SON

WHEN THE MESSENGER COMES I SET HIM STRAIGHT I
TELL HIM NOBODY’S MISSING WE’RE ALL HERE WE’RE
ALL FINE. WHY DO MESSENGERS ALWAYS EXAGGERATE
EXIT EURYDIKE BLEEDING FROM ALL ORIFICES

[EURYDIKE DOES NOT EXIT]

Carson’s version here is far from the speech in the original, retaining only Eurydike’s relationship to the messenger, and foregrounding the figure of the messenger as the bearer of off-stage (literally ‘obscene’) horror to those we see. There is much to unpack: the reference to Woolf and marginal women, or the grammatical pun on Kreon’s moods tensifying the play – Kreon has been throwing around verbs which come back to haunt him in different moods. The reference to autoimmunity and the obscure shadows of private and familial relations picks up both the inscrutable, riven motivations of Antigone herself and Kreon’s accusation, her willing severance of social obligations. Her horror of what she’s about to hear is all too obvious – so much that she scrabbles for the unreliability of the messenger rather than face the truth.

But time and law dance around each other in Eurydike’s speech. Eurydike, for all her marginality, is the only figure who understands what Antigone is, and her relationship to law and the city: she is its product and its negation. As such, the only thing the polis could do would be to expel her. She is irrecuperable. What is the nick of time? The nick of time is something that does not exist for Eurydike, nor anyone else in the play. The nick of time is that swerve which averts disaster for all on stage, something done at just the last moment which resets all the assumptions and trajectories of the play. The nick of time is the essence of comedy; in tragedy it does not exist.

The moment where the course of tragedy can be averted is far in the past: it was already gone when Teiresias reveals to Kreon that he has gone fatally wrong. Perhaps it was even gone long before the action of the play. The chorus says: ‘nothing vast can enter the lives of mortals without ruin.’ Tragic time is all about that vastness working itself in front of us. Can tragedy teach us lessons? Maybe. Tragic time is not like ordinary time: it is distant, far-off (even for its original audience), obeys its own rules; it was performed at festivals, where things are not as they normally are. Only when the normal laws of the city are abrogated can something like Antigone be countenanced.

The political anxiety latent in Sophocles’ play, and which the Carson/Stone version makes relentlessly clear, is to do with something vast and unalterable working us to our own destruction, with the scarcely-glimpsable recesses of human motivation brought out into the light. It is a superb version, certainly, and I have scarcely touched on its wit and force here. The questions it leaves us make Brecht’s admiration for Antigone’s conviction (‘…the light step / of one whose mind is fully made up.’) less easy to echo; it unsettles, and gives no easy answers. We are not in tragic time, the real world works less obviously, and there are no gods left to intervene: but the private motives looming outside apparent clarity of conviction cannot fail to haunt us. Its last lines are merciless:

CHORUS: LAST WORD WISDOM BETTER GET SOME
EVEN TOO LATE

LONDON

By numbers here from shame and censure free,
All crimes are safe, but hated poverty.
– Samuel Johnson, ‘London’

London is a dirty city.

It is dirty in the plain sense: a day spent in its streets, and you acquire the film of grease and universal muck stubbornly ineradicable from even the most advanced of cities. It is dirty in the noirish sense too, remarkably at ease with corruption, full of hood-lidded surprise that anyone would be so gauche as to think back-room deals and palm-greasing even worth commenting on. There are different kinds of dirt: the respectable black patina of centuries of industrialisation in the folded robes of saints on ancient churches, coating the walls and domes of London’s universities; the dirty windows and unemptied bins of the poorer districts. And, of course, the worst dirt floats and festers at the very top.

This theme – the ecology of dirt and hypocrisy, London as Babylon – has sustained many writers. The whited sepulchres of the rich, the stock virtuous poor with dirty faces, the traffic in dirty money and deeply-felt taboos about filth and propriety animate endless novels. We no longer need to pick over entrails in the street in fastidious pattens; we are no longer in much danger of an unexpected chamberpot-shower on the pavement. The Great Stink that so offended the delicate noses of parliamentarians was finally trapped in Bazalgette’s great Victorian sewers. And this is progress: for a city so perennially close to sinking in its own shit, London is miraculously clean. The cholera-ridden slums of Dickens are no more; our more modern slums are far less visible, partly outsourced to the rest of the world, the rest deftly tucked away in the less visible pockets of the endless, reaching city.

But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that London totters just on the verge of being overcome by its own dirt and disorder. It’s a continual verbal tic of those preoccupied with the maintenance of social order that dirt, disease and disorder are essentially synonyms: hence social unrest is a disease of the body politic, hence the endless clichés about demonstrators needing a wash, hence the habit of talking about last summer’s riots as a great outpouring of moral and physical dirt. At times this language is thinly-veiled racism, at others seething class hatred, but universally preoccupied with scrubbing away our problems. It’s hard not to hear an echo of the confused imperatives of the great Victorian philanthropists, who suggested all kinds of connections between moral and financial poverty, between physical and moral dirt, and for whom a regular good wash was the certain and brisk solution to feculent poverty.

With all its talk of sterile zones, quasi-militaristic securitisation and physical displacement, it’s not a surprise to see that LOCOG is in on the act, with these adverts springing up all over the tube:

To dodge the standard ripostes: it’s not as if anyone would object to treading in fewer turds on the way home from work, nor a spruced-up park, nor some public windows less encrusted with grime. It is how this exhortation is delivered, how it is supposed to be achieved, and for whom – all these are not just objectionable, but symptomatic. Having lost the stiff-necked patriotism of 19th-century public reformers, the language of public duty and civic responsibility disappears in favour of faux-chummy, colloquial drivel-copy about London being a bit like your flat, and the Olympics being a bit like your Mum coming round. This is infantilising nonsense, of course, but that’s something we’re used to from the Mayor’s office – but who is this ‘cleanup’ for? God forbid one might wish the city to be a bit better for those who have to use it, permanently, rather than to show off as a polished bauble for the various VIPs zooming around it in their special reserved lanes, then to be allowed to sink back into its casual grime.

And who is to do this work? Like much Olympic labour, it relies on the work of volunteers. The tone of Cameron’s vision for Britain – the Big Society – is here in all its squalid, hectoring, sub-paternalistic bathos. The message: after the drag and drudge of work, commute, and a snatched meal, find a few hours to plaster on a smile and do yet more work, picking shit out of the grass. And more: do it in some ersatz ‘community’ emptied of all tangible substance, presided over by five rings and skyscrapers with crystalline, sparkling-clean glass.

This must gall old high Tory moralists: no longer able to command obedience in the name of Empire or nation, they’re reduced to nagging in a tedious jolly-hockysticks buzz from the margins, invoking some international ‘Mum’ looking over your shoulder. Permanently. Kitsch nationalism is the order of the day: everything plastered with a Union Jack, a crown and bunting, but never in a simple, tidy homage to the plainly Imperial. Instead, all of this is mediated through an ironic, slightly-distant relationship to better days. Empire is still too toxic to rehabilitate, so instead a sickly-sweet glaze of red, white and blue coats everything: nostalgia for ‘values’, for a kind of better order, where everyone knew their place, talked to their neighbours, and respectable women scrubbed their doorsteps once a week.

Nostalgia in grim combination with international branding imperatives: the Proctor & Gamble ‘Capital Cleanup’ not only recalls the army of broom-wielding white people who emerged after the August riots to clean the nightmare remnant of Empire from the streets, but places its brand sponsors into a neat medal ribbon on the side of all its advertising. Brand ambassador Keeley Hawes grins manically from the website, perfectly coiffed, sharply-but-primly dressed, pulling on her marigolds to scrub, scrub, scrub away the capital’s filth. Olympic nostalgia: when women not only did all the cleaning, but enjoyed it.


We know now (we always knew) the ‘Olympic legacy’ long-touted as justification for colossal expenditure was just a guileful sales pitch. Militant cleaning is one of its less immediately objectionable faces, but a smaller part of the wave of ‘regeneration’ and social cleansing sweeping the poorer areas of London. The Heygate, Carpenters’ Estate, ‘decanting’ of communities to make way for more lucrative executive developments – this is all part of a ‘cleaning up’ with more lasting effects, taking a long broom to the unsightly or inconvenient, and pushing them further and further out of a city in which they have an increasingly precarious foothold.

Who is the city for? Struggles over housing, decent transport, clean air, the freedom to gather in public – these all float around this question. Answering it sometimes means counterposing the ‘real’ London to its unreal counterpart, rising in glass and steel in its swish-but-empty financial districts. Behind the bumptious Mayor and the ridiculous Mittal folly, the gentrifying tide of renewal in the city is determined to answer the question in one way: the city – its pleasant parts, at least – are for the wealthy alone, with those unable to hitch themselves to the property balloon banished further and further to the margins.

The scrubbed-clean city, decked with Olympic or Royal bunting, the grasping for bucolic history while ignoring the detritus of the city, sweeping it out of the way – the whitewashing of London – is a manoeuvre to establish some other city in its stead, of pleasant harmony and functioning, of little discontent and no dissension. Kitsch Britain, a bad collage of our most inglorious, vaguely bathetic moments, is well into its birth.

*

God made the country, man made the town.’
Cowper, The Task

In a famous essay, now historically bleak, Michel de Certeau writes of the experience of seeing Manhattan from the 107th floor of the World Trade Center:

‘To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be carried away by the city’s hold. One’s body is no longer criss-crossed by the streets that bind and re-bind it following some law of their own; it is not possessed – either as user or used – by the sounds of all its many contrasts or by the frantic New York traffic … His altitude transforms him into voyeur. It places him at a distance. It changes an enchanting world into a text. It allows him to read it; to become a solar Eye, a god’s regard.’

Well over a century beforehand, the Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew looked out from the gallery of St Paul’s and saw the span of London stretching before him, with buses ‘no bigger than tin toys’ and ‘dense streams of busy little men’ hurrying this way and that. This ‘god’s regard’ is a viewpoint familiar to any reader of writing about cities: the elevated perspective that eliminates the single human to see the vast system of the city as a greater living being, tiny individuals pumping through its arteries, unaware of the greater whole. The fantasy of the perfect city often adopts such an elevated view, from spatially-impossible medieval illustrations of the New Jerusalem, to the cosmically ordered and distressingly inhuman utopian cities of Campanella and Andreae. The viewpoint of gods encourages a certain carelessness about the common and private sufferings of the individual; swarming throngs quickly become ant-like, inconsequential. Elevation breeds contempt: John Carey was right to detect in Eliot’s modernism a disdain for the common man, a kind of pitying revulsion for the downward-gazing crowds thronging over London Bridge. But the tension between the misery of a fallen city and the refinements of urban civilisation wasn’t first revealed in The Waste Land; it’s a common enough trope to be almost unremarkable. Cities have always been mercantile, too, great centres of trade, but after the financial revolution post-1688, money, credit, and its various institutional forms, from stock exchange to debtors’ prison, becomes an ever more noticeable part of writing about London.

Mayhew would be astonished climbing St Paul’s today. Not simply because of the sprawling megalopolis touching the span of the horizon, but because of the vast skyscrapers dwarfing it. What might the inhabitants of those eyries think of the world below them, how might they see those in its streets? The vantage-point of of the utopian, the social planner – the elevated position adopted by anyone who wants to grasp the totality of a city – always suffers this tension: in order to see general principles otherwise obscured by the dense undergrowth of particular sufferings, singular stories, human beings become virtually indistinguishable ants. Only from so high a position, as de Certeau points out, can we begin to read a city. But what is tragic, disquieting to de Certeau, is that the high places of the world engender a false freedom from the streets below; to theorise only from the tops of towers is to tilt inevitably toward megalomania, to flatten out the millions of ants below, always for the benefit of the city. But we always have to descend.

For Mayhew, truly understanding the city – the many Londons that rubbed shoulders, but never quite looked each other in the face – involved descending from the cathedral dome and beginning to speak to people in the streets. The extraordinary series of interviews with the impoverished and the ‘Street-Folk’ of London in the middle of the 19th century (which would later make up the substance of his London Labour and the London Poor) attest to a method flexible enough to account for both the vastness of the city as a social system and the multiple voices and individual miseries suffered by the poor. Nestled in the second volume of LLLP is the conclusion that Mayhew drew from his wide-ranging interviews:

Our poverty increases while our wealth increases, and our paupers grow nearly four times as quick as our people, while the profits on trade nearly double themselves in little more than a quarter of a century.
LLLP, II, p.318

This conclusion – as adroit a reproof to disciples of the trickle-down effect now as it was to Victorian philanthropists then – was not a consequence of any dogmatic political conviction on Mayhew’s part. In the course of his research, he became increasingly outspoken about the worst instances of exploitation (especially where employers lied brazenly about the wages they were paying their workers) but was always reluctant to declare himself for any social panacea. His refusal to mince words led to rifts with editors, but the work was widely and hungrily read. What was Mayhew’s particular success? Despite his admirers’ (true) claims that LLLP is one of the richest documents of Victorian urban life and poverty, the period was not lacking in concerned reports (‘blue book’ and otherwise) on the miserable state of the very bottom rungs of society; Engels’ 1844 Condition of the Working Class in England remains one the most famous accounts.

Yet Mayhew’s method was not that of dry political economy – though he certainly takes potshots at Malthusian orthodoxy throughout his work – but a heterodox anthropological inquisitiveness, oscillating between vignettes of ‘Street-Folk’ in their own voices and precipitous quantitative tables of the amount of money flowing through London, demonstrating how little of it ever reached the hands of the poor. To open LLLP is to find, on virtually every page, startling and disquieting stories of poverty in the midst of the wealth, in hundreds of different voices. E.P. Thompson points out that Mayhew’s calculations were always a little rough around the edges, and his detractors would point out that he often had a team of runners working for him – but LLLP remains a benchmark in the discovery of another London, real, human, but concealed, right on the doorsteps of money-men and gentry.[1]

It is hard not to see LLLP through the light of the great Victorian novels, and this is certainly partly to do with the influence Mayhew’s accounts of poverty had on contemporary fiction – though he was critical of Dickensian sentimentality. Thackeray pinpoints Mayhew’s particular genius when he cedes that ‘readers of romances’ had never encountered anything so wonderful or so awful:

‘…the griefs, struggles, strange adventures depicted exceed anything that any of us could imagine. Yes; and these wonders and terror have been lying by your door and mine ever since we had a door of our own. We had to go but a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did.’
W.M Thackeray ‘Waiting at the Station’  (1850)

This system of not seeing – or of failing to realise what seems elementary – that the poor can, in fact, speak and understand, would seem like a grave ethical and political failure of Mayhew’s contemporaries, were we not still so practiced in it ourselves. The complex of taboos around money – which Ruskin called the ‘forbidden deity’ of his contemporary social order – had its role to play here. ‘Genteel mystifications’ prevent open discussion of the permanent anxiety about debt that suffused the Dickensian world; sentimentalising the poor was only one consequence of this, the curious tug-of-war between open pursuit of financial gain, and the virtue of such a belief, and a residual Christian belief that poverty (of a sort, anyway) had some kind of moral status. On the back of such conflicts, empires are built. Marx caught some of this distorting power of money and its piling up of ‘contradictory attributes’ in ‘The Power of Money’:

‘Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.’

Where Mayhew is known at all, he is often sketched as a quaint emissary among the poor, later settling back into comfortable habits of reaction in other work – and there is doubtless some truth to this. Mayhew was certainly no historic communist idol, but over the course of his work, he became ever more caustic about what he saw as deliberate exploitation in sweated labour, and the way in which ‘free’ trade rested on the permanent immiseration of part of the populace. He was certainly inclined to look at philanthropic benevolence with a jaundiced eye: having called a public meeting of female slop workers in December 1849, he was somewhat surprised to find Lord Ashley and Sidney Herbert take the stage without warning and announce a beneficent solution to the assembled poor women. Claiming there were 500,000 surplus women in England and Wales, they had purported to discover that there were – by the grace of God, no doubt – 500,000 too few women in the colonies; thus their woes were to be remedied by philanthropic funding for emigration. Victoria and Albert headed the subscription list for shipments; the distressing condition of the poor had found its perverse solution in exportation.

No doubt experiences like this are what led Mayhew later to turn his guns on philanthropy itself. Far from assenting to the implicit suggestion by many of his contemporaries that poverty implied a preceding moral failure – that the filth and hard practice of the poor were pre-existing flaws of character, inclinations to lassitude, addiction, that kept them in poverty – he accurately diagnosed the nasty character of the nominally benevolent:

‘[T]his overweening disposition to play the part of pedagogues … to the poor, proceeds rather from a love of power than from a sincere regard for the people. (…) But such as seek merely to lord it over those whom distress has placed in their power, and strive to bring about the villeinage of benevolence, making the people the philanthropic, instead of the feudal, serfs of our nobles, should be denounced as the archenemies of the country.’ — LLLP, II, p.298

In an era of austerity, when praise for ‘great Victorian philanthropists’ is never far from the lips of the government, it is crucial to remember Mayhew. Not solely for his cynicism about grand philanthropic gestures from on high, but for his willingness to speak with, and record the voices of, people given no voice – the multitude of ants in the street. A kitsch history of the 19th century would tell us that the forward march of progress met slums and moral degradation, and inculcated industriousness and virtue by means of better plumbing, but the early-morning susurration of the poor as they scraped a living did not disappear with the advent of sanitation. Guides to the ‘Cries of London’ – the distinctive morning shouts of sellers of scraps and their sartorial habits – are centuries older than Mayhew’s child crying ‘water-cresses!’ into the dawn, but in Mayhew they are, distinctively, given the dignity of speech and real personhood. Kitsch Victoriana would make these trudging dawn-tide street-sellers little better than set dressing for the bustle of the city’s proper business; but even in its fullest form, the various happy sale-songs from a number in Oliver!, despite the cheery broadened vowels and dancing, none of the street-sellers have actually managed to scrape together even a penny.

Three street-sellers and their cries, from a British Museum copy of ‘The Cries of London’

London today does not look like it did then – the cholera district of Jacob’s Island is now swish loft apartments, and no-one cries their wares in the street any more – but for all the plate glass, its poor are as various and numerous as ever. More than half of the children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. Parental income remains the greatest determinant of future ability to survive. Austerity under a Tory government has seen a return of the rhetoric of moral failure to account for poverty. These political facts should be remarkable, outrageous; but they are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. The geography of London changes, shifts, stratifies. Last year’s riots were partly so startling because of the bewildered commentators asking where ‘they’ had come from: ‘but a hundred yards from your doorstep’, Thackeray might say. If we still fail to see the poor, it is perhaps because London is even better at stratification than it used to be: the erosion of public space and the right to use it, precarious and variable short-term employment as de rigueur, the pricing-out of all but the wealthy from the city – these are all simple facts. Even the public systems we use in common enable classes not to overlap: the makeup of a tube carriage at 6 a.m. differs profoundly from that at 8:30. Most obviously, cleaners, baristas, low-grade service staff are rarely travelling at the same time as their employers or patrons; the unemployed can scarcely afford to travel, and certainly not at peak hours.

If Henry Mayhew were here today, who would he be speaking to, where would he be wandering? Today’s metropolis might require sharper eyes even than his; even in his work there is a sense of London so multiple and complex that it is on the verge of falling into incomprehensibility. But he might well start on those redeye morning tube carriages, almost a universe away from the gallery of St Paul’s, or the top of the Gherkin.

*

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

One of the interwoven threads that make up Italo Calvino’s extraordinary novel Invisible Cities is called ‘Continuous Cities’, and it is one of the more nightmarish of categories, five brief fables about the persistence of cities – in their repeated generations of inhabitants, layers of new city on old city, in their economy of recycled mounds of rubbish and filth, and, lastly, of geographic continuity. The last portrait is of a city, Penthesilea, without any defined edge or centre, full of ‘vague spaces’, a kind of permanent suburbia. The chapter ends:

‘You have given up trying to understand whether, hidden in some sac or wrinkle of these dilapidated surroundings there exists a Penthesilea the visitor can recognize and remember, or whether Penthesilea is only the outskirts itself. The question that now begins to gnaw at your mind is more anguished: outside Penthesilea does an outside exist? Or, no matter how far you go from the city, will you only pass from one limbo to another, never managing to leave it?’

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (London: Vintage, 1997) pp. 157-158

This might be taken as an indictment of the many endless cities of the US, or Cameron’s vision for new ‘garden towns’, but its terror of endless uniformity, the non-specific city, poses the question: what does a city do when it loses its purpose? Or when its sprawl is so vast and endless it is impossible to say where it begins or ends? If London faces either of these problems, it is the latter that is the most obvious – it is far from the horrifying flat city of Calvino’s bad dream, but travelling out into the further satellites of the megalopolis, one begins to touch on its substance. All of Calvino’s meditations were meditations on one city, Venice, also on cities in the abstract, and as representations of death, infinity and the novel.

We have more concrete questions to ask of London, about its purpose and its function. London is not without its centres, the vast retail crossroad of Oxford Circus, or the seat of government, or the brash financial centres of the City and Canary Wharf; or the dozens of smaller centres, sometimes self-proclaimed in regentrifying ‘villages’ assimilated into London’s outward expansion, sometimes sad and redundant, sometimes simply personal, centres of memory, the streets where we grew up. London proclaims itself central, too: the capital, the economic engine of England and indeed the UK, but also as an imaginary horizon, promising freedom, excitement and success as a lure from smaller towns. However unjustified, London sucks people to it, Charybdis-like, from its feeder regions, more often than not spits out its less fortunate as broken flotsam and jetsam, too. Cities are also the prime terrain of revolutionary political movements – London’s history is distinguished here – if more so, now, only because more and more people live in them. David Harvey, most prominently, is asking these questions of the city at the moment – Who owns it? Who has the ‘right’ to it? Why are our most potent fluxes of political consciousness located in them? What about our cities are we not yet seeing? – but he is far from the only person divining a crucial political thread in urbanisation. Mike Davis’ trilogy about L.A., and his astonishing Planet of Slums, serve as reminders that first-world cities are far from the urban phenomena rapidly growing elsewhere in the world; Owen Hatherley remains by far the most penetrating commentator on the collapsing city-projects here on our doorstep.

An air of apocalypse hangs over Calvino’s novel, particularly as it gathers to its conclusion; and the apocalyptic city has always roiled underneath images of London. Even when Mayhew tries to take a prospect of the city, there is some sense of foreboding about the belching metropolis, lifted only briefly in night’s quiescence:

‘Yet all think of it as a vast bricken multitude, a strange incongruous chaos of wealth and want – of ambition and despair – of the brightest charity and the darkest crime, where there are more houses and more houseless, where there is more feasting and more starvation, than on any other spot on earth – and all grouped round the one giant centre, the huge black dome, with its ball of gold looming through the smoke (apt emblem of the source of its riches!) and marking out the capital, no matter from what quarter the traveller may come.’

Mayhew was writing when London still smoked with industry; the cranes that once attended the docks now build banking offices and luxury developments in the docklands, and industrial London is no more. On the skeleton of the industrial city, a different city is put together from scraps of the old, but this means strange disjunctions between the ideal and the real. Under each tube station sits a great pump, in continual furious motion, at the very limits of its capacity, keeping the rising water table from oozing between the toes of commuters. Far from being a consequence of further development, the ebbing away of industry has meant the workshops and factories that kept London’s waters artificially low until mid-century now means they are trickling slowly upward. It is some small consolation that we might one day see The Shard eaten by the mud.

‘Apocalypse’ suggests conflagration, overturning, but it also means ‘revelation’. China Miéville’s recent essay, London’s Overthrow, can be taken as apocalyptic in both these senses: its grainy digital photos of urban inbetweens and waste spaces, its interviews with people whose discontent never make it into regeneration PR splashes, its shadowy texture of other Londons under the shadow of the financial citadels – all these make up a spectacular counter-Olympic apocalypse narrative, unanswerable in its collage of a city torqued between vast wealth and poverty.

Miéville’s writing recalls the work of Laura Oldfield Ford, or of John Constable’s poetic uncovering of the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark; ‘ghostwalks’ as Miéville calls them. These dérives can read like bad flânerie if they give in to slack nostalgia or the sickly bucolic; these examples don’t, because of the tang of apocalypse scented through the route. Some cataclysm always seems close, not quite here, or perhaps having already happened; it’s hard not to feel we’re surveying some kind of wreckage.

The theme of the city is not new to Miéville: New Crobuzon, Besźel, or the London of Kraken, his fiction often works its way around a grim city of multiple strata inaccessible or even unnoticeable from elsewhere: The City & The City is, among its many virtues, a study in the practice of ‘unseeing’ that has become the sine qua non of living in London; a practice that would be familiar to Henry Mayhew. But, as in ‘London’s Overthrow’, Miéville’s interest often lies at the liminal, the thresholds between two cities, or two seemingly incommensurable ways of being. I do not think it is pushing it to suggest that Miéville’s political awareness is present in his attention to the way in which contraries or opposites produce monsters or disjunctions, that between-spaces hold potentials for other visions, other perspectives, new configurations.

His title is taken from an etching by Jonathan Martin, a classically apocalyptic vision of the city in flames. Martin’s art, made in Bethlem asylum is full of the distortions now paradigmatic in a study of London; his self portrait is an impossible reflection, like a double-take in a circus mirror. Another London visionary, artist and madman, Austin Osman Spare, painted similarly distorted portraits over a century later. He would call them ‘sidereal’, evoking astrological time, or a time adjunct to normal time, from which light reaches us distorted, both truer and less real than clock time.

Jonathan Martin, Lambton Worm & Self Portrait

Austin Osman Spare, ‘Dragon’

Sidereal London; synoptic London. Gated communities, while homelessness rises precipitously; Olympic kitsch and multiplying retail castles, built on former housing and sustained by the evisceration of the vestiges of workers’ rights. These things are not two different cities, but exist side-by-side, one parasitising and digesting the other. The Mittal helter-skelter rising absurdly on the Stratford skyline, as social housing is demolished and never replaced. Filth and manic cleanliness side-by-side. All of this lacquered in red, white and blue; all of it built on a techne of not blindness, simply, but willful unseeing:

‘For some time past our main streets are haunted by swarms of beggars, who try to awaken the pity of the passers-by in a most shameless and annoying manner, by exposing their tattered clothing, sickly aspect, and disgusting wounds and deformities. I should think that when one not only pays the poor-rate, but also contributes largely to the charitable institutions, one had done enough to earn a right to be spared such disagreeable and impertinent molestations. And why else do we pay such high rates for the maintenance of the municipal police, if they do not even protect us so far as to make it possible to go to or out of town in peace? I hope the publication of these lines in your widely- circulated paper may induce the authorities to remove this nuisance; and I remain,

– Your obedient servant,
“A Lady.”’
(A correspondent to the Manchester Guardian, quoted in Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England)

Time to look again.


[1] – Mayhew’s book still lacks a full critical edition, which would be a gargantuan task. However, OUP have published an excellent selection, superbly edited and introduced by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. See Henry Mayhew (ed. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst) London Labour and the London Poor (Oxford University Press, 2010). E.P Thompson published a wide-ranging selection of Mayhew’s letters to The Morning Chronicle, with an excellent introductory essay as The Unknown Mayhew (London: Penguin, 1984); Thompson’s article ‘The Political Education of Henry Mayhew’ can be found in Victorian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Sep., 1967), pp. 41-62

Criminalising the Homeless

Many of us have long argued that housing is likely to be at the centre of the crisis in the next few years. This is an understatement: the crisis in housing is already here, and has been burgeoning over the last decade. SQUASH have today released their report into the true costs of enacting Clause 136 of LASPO, designed to criminalise squatting in ‘residential’ properties: depending on the population of squatters, these costs can mount to between £316 to £790 million over five years. (Guardian story.) This from a clause tacked on (in evident haste) to a bill nominally designed to save money by cutting legal aid.

Some quick thoughts:

Populist Policy Making

If there’s anything that’s clear from reading the government’s hurried consultation and assessment, it’s this: this clause is a consequence of a compulsion to satisfy an anti-squatting campaign, largely carried out by the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, and based on any number of outright lies about how property law and adverse possession work. The consultation bears all the hallmarks of back-of-the-envelope calculations designed to rubberstamp the preferred governmental policy. So much for ‘evidence-led’ policy, then. You don’t have to be an anarchist to find this sort of craven, scantily costed and ill thought-through policy a prime example of degenerate government. In fact, even if you adopt the perspective of pro-austerity politicians, such disproportionate spending to combat what Stuart Hodkinson (one of the academic endorsees of the report) calls an ‘innocuous problem’ is wildly off-message.

Mythbusting

Properly reading the government’s consultation papers, something odd comes to light: it’s not just squatters and homelessness charities who have opposed criminalisation, but also bodies of legal professionals and even the Metropolitan Police. An odd coalition, to be sure, but this is because of two things: however many scare stories are run by the tabloids, the law already criminalises the displacement of homeowners or intending occupiers from their homes (Section 7, Criminal Law Act 1977) and in such a case, police can act immediately. In fact, these cases almost never happen – in large part because eviction would be so rapid, and at the hands of the police. Virtually all the cases reported in the tabloids are, on closer inspection, cases of empty buy-to-rent properties and angry landlords. So the criminal law to ‘protect homeowners’, the favourite mantra of Grant Shapps and Crispin Blunt, is already in place, and this change in law does nothing to alter that – what it does do is open up to criminal prosecution the large number of homeless people seeking shelter in empty buildings, as a respite from rough sleeping.

How do you deal with a problem like homelessness?

SQUASH argues very clearly that squatting is a consequence of homelessness and housing crisis. As such, simply criminalising squatting doesn’t make it go away – certainly not unless you deal with its underlying causes. What are the possible outcomes of a criminal squatting law? Well, SQUASH rightly demonstrates that squatters are not a static population, nor do they disappear if you criminalise them. This means that, first, the housing need that drives people to squat in the first place doesn’t disappear, and second, people who were squatting as a solution to impossible house prices or to avoid sleeping rough have to either enter into the welfare system (and claim housing benefit) or sleep rough and thus expand demand for homelessness services (both voluntary and statutory). As SQUASH point out, there’s simply no accounting for these costs in the government’s report.

In a time when homelessness has risen by 14% in one year (figures which don’t account for the huge numbers of ‘hidden’ homeless, including squatters), criminalisation, and therefore mass entry into welfare, rehabilitation or incarceration is a dangerous policy. It means – especially with the Chancellor’s cuts to Local Housing Allowance – that there will be a greater increase in rough sleeping. It means that people seeking shelter from sleeping on the streets in adverse conditions will end up trying to endure them instead. In turn, this doesn’t just mean demand on homelessness services rise, but that the number of homeless who die as a result of homelessness (fearing criminalisation and unable to access services) will spike, too.

Crispin Blunt, the minister who has championed Clause 136 through its barely-scrutinised passage through the House, said on Channel 4 news recently that he had ‘no sympathy’ for those about to be displaced from squatting. Hardly a surprise, but the very real consequences of this clause – unimaginable to the cocooned MPs and Lords passing it, because of an inability to appreciate the real circumstances of homelessness – ought to be viewed directly as blood on his hands.

Sound dangerous to you? Good, go visit the SQUASH website, and stop Clause 136 passing.