Debord and Marquez at Fifty

Just as mainstream politics plumbs the depths, this year’s Golden Jubilee of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude helps radical politics soar. With spellbinding brilliance both books continue to fascinate and grip readers. Each transforms the world we thought we knew upside down as well as inside out; and each, in turn, puts that world back together again, right side up.

Few think of Debord, the prophet of spectacular capitalism, as a magical realist, just as fewer still would see Garcia Marquez, the prophet of magical realism, as a theorist of the spectacle. Yet it’s possible to conceive both men in this guise and posit their respective masterpieces as works of art that push reality beyond realism. Right-wing politicians and tabloid media do this all the time nowadays; maybe it’s time the Left carries out its own pushing beyond realism, makes its own make-believe real.

The Society of the Spectacle and One Hundred Years of Solitude open up different doors of perception, so maybe it’s no coincidence that they should appear the same year Jimi Hendrix wondered “Are You Experienced?” and The Doors bawled “we want the world and we want it now!”; when the psychedelic “Summer of Love” raved and the Pentagon levitated in a giant carnival protesting the Vietnam War.

In a way, each is a darkly pessimistic text that pinpoints the shortcomings of the 1960s generation as much as embodies its utopian desires; and here, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Marquez’s hero, a sixties-style anarchist, an altermondialiste avant la lettre, sets the brooding tone: organizing thirty-two uprisings in the name of a radical liberal cause, he lost every one of them.

On the other hand, with almost-supernatural lucidity, The Society of the Spectacle and One Hundred Years of Solitude transmit a strange optimism, a backdoor sense of hope, and offer another take on what our lives might be. Each book shows us how reality can be represented differently, how more acute and astute forms of subjectivity can create a more advanced sense of realism and a different type of objectivity.

Legend has it that Garcia Marquez was driving to Acapulco for a family vacation when his Latin American Don Quixote came to him in a flash. Turning his car around, he returned to Mexico City, and for the next eighteen months tapped away on his Olivetti electric typewriter a story that had been in his head for eighteen years. “All I wanted to do,” he said, “was to leave a literary picture of the world of my childhood which was spent in a large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesized the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.”

On sale fifty years ago this month, in Buenos Aires, a few weeks before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, One Hundred Years of Solitude opened with Marquez’s re-imagined childhood memory: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

But the bizarre saga of the Buendias in the town of Macondo, hacked out of the middle of damp Colombian jungle, not far from a barnacle-encrusted Spanish galleon, takes on a reality way beyond a quaint family romance. It’s a paradise found and lost, a saga of a magnificent and miserable humanity, a mad dream of damaged characters whose only goal in life is to live out a wonderful human adventure. Marquez said that the Caribbean world of magic and drama, mythological societies and fabulous plants, pre-Colombian cults and slavery, crumbling colonial empires, provided a taste for fantasy, an oral memory conveyed through the loosely grounded realism of his grandmother and grandfather.

An adolescent penchant for bad Latin American poetry and Marxist texts lent secretly to him by a history teacher, and then a revelatory reading of A Thousand and One Nights and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, convinced young Gabriel he wanted to be a writer. “In A Thousand and One Nights I read there was a guy who opened up a bottle and out flew a genie in a puff of smoke, and I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ It was more fascinating than anything else that had happened in my life up to that point.”

All that, too, convinced Marquez that writing should be a poetic transformation of reality. The source of creation is always reality, always embedded in reality, yet a reality in which imagination is an instrument in its production and re-creation. The discovery was “like tearing off a chastity belt,” he said; “you can throw away the fig leaf of rationalism,” provided “you don’t then descend into total chaos and irrationality.”

“Things have a life of their own,” Melquiades, the gypsy magician reminded José Arcadio Buendia. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” José Arcadio hardly needs reminding: Macondo’s patriarch’s “unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic.” He taught his two wayward sons, José Arcadio and Aureliano, the wild man who’d eventually run off with the gypsies, and the withdrawn child who’d become one of the nation’s most fabled radicals, to read and write; “and he spoke to them about the magical wonders of the world, not only where his learning had extended, but forcing the limits of his imagination to extremes.”

Pushing things to extremes was Guy Debord’s forte. And reality was never forced to such limits as in his The Society of the Spectacle. With its 221 short, intriguing theses, aphoristic in style and peppered with irony, The Society of the Spectacle remains our greatest political prose poem, quirkily Marxian, uniting a left-wing Hegel with a materialist Feuerbach, a bellicose Machiavelli with a utopian Karl Korsch, a military Clausewitz with a romantic Georg Lukács. Hitting Parisian bookstores in November 1967, the book would get daubed on walls across France six months later: “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY.”

The Society of the Spectacle gives us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of a world in which unity spells division and truth falsity. It’s a topsy-turvy world that sounds a lot like our own. Everything and everybody partakes in a perverse paradox. “Every notion,” Debord says, “has no other basis than its passage into the opposite.” “Within a world really on its head,” he says, “THE TRUE IS A MOMENT OF THE FALSE.”

Debord uses time-served Marxist tools to describe and analyze a new phase of capitalist reality, one that seems to have decoupled itself from its material thing-base, and rematerialized as an image, as a spectacle. Debord’s book is experimental, is itself a piece of détournement, of hijacking and rerouting; so perhaps it’s hardly surprising that in mobilizing Marx Debord should at the same time détourn Marx. He’s adamant that the spectacle lies “at the heart of the unrealism of real society.”

This is a difficult concept for Marxists to get their heads’ around. For what it suggests is that the separation between appearance and essence (Marx’s trusty definition of science) has, like a piece of elastic, been stretched to such a degree that these two opposing ends of reality have snapped and reformed as one. An epistemological duality has recoiled into an ontological unity: essence really is appearance, and appearance an essence. Society’s image of itself is its real reality; society’s form is society’s content, its content is its form.

Debord’s insights in The Society of the Spectacle are wide-awake documentation, brutally realistic descriptions and inversions of what is and projections of what might be. Sometimes he conjures up the realm of dream, releasing unconscious yearnings, sublimating deep political desires. At times, the tone reincarnates his poet hero Compte de Lautréamont, whose Maldoror and Poesies expressed similar incandescent chants and opaque similes. Elsewhere, Debord scripts Greek tragic drama, the “epic poem” of the spectacle, “which cannot be concluded by the fall of any Troy.” The spectacle “doesn’t sing the praises of men and their weapons, but of commodities and their passions”; and “every commodity, pursuing its passion, unconsciously realizes something higher: the becoming-world of the commodity, which is also the becoming-commodity of the world.”

One of the bizarrest of all bizarre episodes that cram One Hundred Years of Solitude is Macondo’s insomnia plague. At first, no one was concerned about not sleeping because in Macondo there was always so much work to do and so little time to do it. But after a while a fearsome illness took hold; a sick person was in a permanent state of vigil. Soon “the recollection of their childhood began to be erased from their memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of their own being, until the person sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” The expert insomniac eventually forgets about dreams, and about dreaming. And even though nobody sleeps a minute, the following day people feel so rested that they forget about the bad night they’d had.

What’s fascinating about Marquez’s notion of the insomnia plague is how it captures an equally bizarre reality we ourselves are living out, a reality Debord labeled “the society of the spectacle,” where “the sun never sets on the Empire of modern passivity.” Debord says the society of the spectacle is founded on “the production of isolation,” a condition that reinforces the idea of a “lonely crowd,” of people bound by a common economic and political system yet forged together in a “unity of separation.” The spectacle is the “nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.” But it can’t sleep, because of the insomnia plague, because the spectacle “is the guardian of sleep.”

Marquez’s portrayal of the insomnia plague pinpoints how the reality of real truth and the reality of illusion are one and the same. There’s no real way to tell either apart. We never know whether life is a dream or a figment of people’s febrile imagination, the reality of an insomniac turned amnesiac. Fact and fiction mutually conspire, negate each other; the lived becomes a representation, a representation the lived. The blurring of one with the other, the authentic with the inauthentic, fact with fiction, the real with the meditated image, also speaks bundles about Debord’s society of the spectacle, about how it possesses us body and mind, and how it now begets a different political agenda.

Marx wanted to expose bourgeois sleights of hand and reveal for people the hidden world of capitalist alienation. He wanted to demonstrate the “root” cause of their subjugation and domination. But now there seems nothing to unmask. What we have instead are the shenanigans of a ruling class that wallows in the fabrication of its own truth, its own lies. The alienation experienced across the globe is rarely based on ignorance. It’s usually founded on hopelessness and disempowerment, on our insomnia plague, which condemns people to live much the same way residents of Macondo were condemned to live: in an eternal present, forgetful of the historical past, no longer dreaming of any discernible future. And in this forgetfulness, reality slips away, leaving people vulnerable to anyone who promises to read the cards, who popularises mystification.

But not everyone is smitten. Throughout our spectacular age we’ve always had people hell bent on staving off the insomnia plague. We’ve had our own Colonel Aureliano Buendias inspired by strange gypsies who’ve tried to uphold the power of dreams, dreams of a future, of Macondos arising out of wild swampland. In this sense, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the introverted soul spurred into militant direct action, might be something of a twenty-first-century radical role model, inspiring us to fight against our slipping away of reality.

The Colonel creates another reality out of his own subversive will. He doesn’t reveal or discover anything through theory: he creates, pioneers a new trail for a reinvigorated, less defensive kind of political practice. Even as the insomnia plague raged, young Aureliano conceived a formula to resist, to help protect against memory loss. He invented a system of marking things with their respective names, using little pieces of paper pasted on every object. In adolescence, Aureliano was bookishly smart and often withdrawn, absorbing himself in his workshop, making little gold fishes, losing himself in poetry. But his humanitarian feelings always had him sympathize with the left-leaning Liberal Party.

Later, when he sees his conservative father-in-law doctor the ballot boxes after the town’s election, the grown up Aureliano knew then he’d witnessed first-hand the sham of party political democracy. One Sunday morning, drinking his habitual mug of black coffee, just as the Liberal opposition to Conservative rule was escalating, and just as Macondo was steadily becoming a Tory garrison town, Aureliano tells his friend Gerineldo Marquez in a voice the latter had never heard before, “Get the boys ready. We’re going to war.” “With what weapons?” Gerineldo wonders. “With theirs,” Aureliano rejoins.

From that moment on, dressed in black high boots with spurs, an ordinary denim uniform without insignia, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces, the anarchist warrior and man most feared by the government, is born. He’d reinvented his own radical self through engaging with the world, doing the right thing—even when losing. “On his waist he wore a holster with the flap open and his hand, which was always on the butt of the pistol, revealed the same watchful and resolute tension as his look.” When Ursula, Aureliano’s mother, Macondo’s great matriarch, sees him then, she says: “Good Lord, now he looks like a man capable of anything.”

One is struck by the strange affinity between Colonel Aureliano and the Situationist Guy Debord, the thirty-six-year-old author of The Society of the Spectacle. After all, both have a penchant for militant action and muckraking; are elusive and charismatic presences; have melancholic dispositions, demonstrating occasional ruthlessness toward friend and foe alike; and both fervently believe that politics is another form of war, an art-form of resistance, a game of strategy, of attack and defense that should be studied as well as practiced. The Colonel fought with the Duke of Marlborough, the early eighteenth-century English General, in his pocket; Debord, like Lenin and Mao, looked to the German tactician of war, Carl von Clausewitz.

Debord and the Colonel carry the homeopathic pill of subversion in their pockets. Their penchant for battle arises out of a marked distrust of professional career politicians. “We’re wasting time,” the Colonel says, “while the bastards in the party are begging for seats in congress.” The Colonel hates those soft politicians and lawyers leaving the presidential office each morning, taking refuge in their dreary cafés to speculate over what the president meant when he said yes, or what he meant when he said no. Debord similarly believes that active engagement is the only viable alternative to representative democracy, to the alienation of the spectator.

Both men affirm practico-sensual activity, a radicalism much more extra-political, much more intensely militant and transformative within everyday life. Their resistance is non-negotiable, moodily romantic and innately poetic. Perhaps the line in One Hundred Years of Solitude that so magnificently captures the spirit of each man’s radicalism is when Marquez describes the Colonel as “sneaking about through narrow trails of permanent subversion.” It’s a memorable phrase we should now chalk up on a wall somewhere.

Indeed, we’ve little choice today, if we want to stay radical, but to sneak about through narrow trails of permanent subversion. “Sneaking about” implies going about one’s politics furtively, clandestinely, in a manner that’s passionately discreet, mindful of traps, of the innumerable ways current society can catch us out, can ambush us, seduce us, buy us off. Above all, one must permanently sneak about, in private and public, if one is to remain faithful to oneself, if one is to pursue, without cease, with other true selves, some kind of secret war of position.

And those trails staked out, those passageways through which one constructs one’s radical life-project—they’ll always likely be narrow, tiny fissures, slim cracks in the fragile tissuing of the spectacle, entry points, brief moments of chance, of possibility, fleeting opportunities for collective action.

Debord says that contesting a false reality lived as true life requires converting negative practice into an affirmative living ideal. It means, maybe more than anything else, opposing “spectacular time” with “lived time.” The former is spatial, flat and empty; the latter, historical, deep and rich. Lived time invents a renewed sensual connection to oneself and to the world, a vital link to an unmediated life-form, one that remembers, one where the self is no longer “besieged by the presence-absence of the world.”

If the spectacle is both real and fake one must create out of a practical force another sort of real life, a fantasy life in which one is true to oneself in a world of true others. The old Catalan bookseller near the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude is instructive here because his customary good cheer was sustained, Marquez says, by “his marvelous sense of unreality.” Yet once this wise old man started to get too serious, too analytical and nostalgic for a paradise lost, his marvelous state began to crumble, began to turn cynical and bitter, poisoning his joy of life.

Remedios the Beauty, Macondo’s most dazzlingly attractive creature, arguably embodies the qualities of what this marvelous society might entail, a culture stripped of repressive conventions and morals, liberated from mediating images and banalities, directly accessing the real. Marquez says that Remedios the Beauty “symbolizes subversion,” that her startling “simplifying instinct” frustrates authority. She wanders about the Buendia’s house stark naked, in total liberty, and with her exceptional purity was able “to see the reality of things beyond any formalism.”

Even the Colonel “kept on believing and repeating that Remedios the Beauty was in reality the most lucid being that he had ever known.” She exists in a world of simple unmediated realities and was immune from the insomnia plague when it struck. Therein, perhaps, at its most primal level, resides the real solution for reclaiming the lived from the represented: the simplifying instinct, the revival of rich human feelings that have been sacrificed to sustain the spectacular illusion of living in comfort, of living affluently.

This is also what Macondo’s two last remaining Buendias—Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano, the Colonel’s great-grandson—created in the stunningly moving finale of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Don’t let it get away,” they’re reminded. “Life is shorter than you think.” They don’t let it slip away. A hurricane sweeps through them, and, as a couple, they discover the sensuality of Being, and the power of the right to love. Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano “remained floating in an empty universe,” Marquez says, “where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.” Love is the only “dominant obsession,” Marquez says, “that prevails against death.” It’s a primal force that isn’t an accessory to political life but something central to the very meaning of politics itself. (Even an aged Guy Debord, who spoke “as coolly as possible about things that have aroused so much passion,” endorsed the power of love. “My method is very simple,” he reminds us. “I will tell what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident.” In his “pleasing and impressive solitude,” he says, as death encroached, “to tell the truth, I was not alone: I was with Alice.”)

Maybe in the dust and rubble of our crisis-ridden culture, the 50th anniversary of Debord and Marquez’s masterworks isn’t so much a wake-up call to get “real” as a invitation to dream big, to open our canvas out onto an epic, romantic stage, to fight for the right to love, for another summer of love. For what we have here are two tragic yet instructive love stories. Both books ask us to imagine how love can negate the politics of hate, how beautiful human intimacy might be the antidote to spectacular detachment as well as the nemesis of ugly global power. If nothing else, both books force us now to rethink what realism really means.

Posted in All | 1 Comment

Watching the Detectives

There’s awe-inspiring immensity down there. I’m looking out over Mexico City, from thirty-six floors up in the sky, a recumbent giant right before me, shimmering in glorious February sunshine. It’s a miracle I’m here, shacked up in this lux hotel for a few days. Behind triple-glazed glass, I can’t hear a thing; but what a sight to behold, to conjure with. Down below I can see the great green expanse of Chapultepec, sliced apart by Paseo de la Reforma and criss-crossed by the enormous multi-tiered expressway—Circuito Interior—over in the distance, gridlocked with traffic. It looks like the traffic passes beneath a rollercoaster, even passes into this rollercoaster, looping the loop. The city all around seems only to end at the horizon, at the foothills of faraway mountains beyond; at times Mexico City even seems to stretch beyond that horizon, beyond anything as-yet recognisable, as if it’s already staking out some new planetary urban turf. The view is so gripping I hardly want to abandon my perch. Yet I have to get out, into the sunlight, out from behind my glass insulation, plunge into the frantic beast outside.

Immediately outside the door is actually mellow, the leafy upscale tranquility of Polanco’s quietly busy streets. The air is balmy, life-affirming. I’m wandering passageways named after Ancient philosophers and famous writers; one is called Alejandro Dumas, which leads me into Parque Lincoln, a verdant little oasis with its scrubbed white clock tower, pond and peacocks, an aviary and a statue of Abraham, the park’s namesake icon. I stroll along empty paths, cross over the road. Even the traffic is polite around here. I smell a bookstore somewhere. I think of Walter Benjamin, that intrepid urbanist and bookwormer, and understand what he meant when he was unpacking his library: each book on the shelf, he said, was like a little memento of a time spent wandering the city streets, a tiny brick with which he could reconstruct past urban environments and perhaps even imagine new ones to come. “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”

Then I find it. Or it finds me: Cafebreria El Péndulo, a city-wide chain, a bookstore-cum-café, though like so many in Latin American it has an inner atrium of immense beauty and taste. Light floods into it, and the sense of space, of openness and solace, is palpable. Exotic vegetation invades the stacks; or maybe books invade exotic vegetation, leafs become leaves. I’m searching for the book I need. Everywhere titles are delicately encased in cellophane. I’m not sure if I can look in. There’s plenty of people sitting in armchairs, drinking Latte; yet nobody reads a book.

Suddenly, I see one I have to have. I prise open its protection, rip it apart. It’s free now, liberated, readable—some 600 pages. Daubed across its cover in black uppercase is: THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES. I think I’ve found my Mexico City field manual; I think I’ve found the field manual for the rest of my days on earth. I’m lost in Mexico but feel I am on the way to finding myself. I settle back into an armchair at El Péndulo, and before long realise that I’m in a bookstore, and a neighbourhood, where no real poet ever bought books: they stole books from these places, pilfered from them.

Roberto Bolaño, the book’s author, died in 2003 at fifty, taken away by liver disease in Blanes, on Spain’s Costa Brava, a bit north of Barcelona, where he’d lived with wife and two kids during his forties. A Santiago native who grew up in Mexico City, Bolaño studied law but dropped out, yearned to be a writer, a poet, and helped establish a combustible group of wayward poets—the Ultrarealists. In the 1970s, they heckled and hassled and threw ripe tomatoes at literary conventionality, doing so as they lusted for literature in life. The Savage Detectives depicts, with a faint fictional patina, his years of youthful torment and turmoil, of catastrophes past and those you can be sure will come.

For 139 pages I listen to a young punk kid, a seventeen-year-old ado called Juan Garcia Madero telling us in his journal about teenage angst, about scribbling a few good refrains and trying to get laid. Each day he reveals his heart. He writes his Mexican Fleurs du mal, documenting his inauguration into a literary world that smoulders under a volcano. He seems more successful at fucking than writing, and manages to get off with two lonesome barmaids who take a shining to this bright young lad. He’s an orphan lodging with his aunt and uncle yet knows all about verse, about classical meter, about pentapodies and threnodies, about rispetti and strambotti. He hangs out at poetry workshops, getting bored, but afterwards, after hours, his real poetic initiation begins, in the city’s grungy bars and cafés, like the crummy Café Quito along Calle Bucareli—which in real life is the Café La Habana with its little rehabbed tables and retro beige and white chequered tile flooring. It’s here where he joins a group of disaffected poets called the Visceral Realists, and befriends The Savage Detectives’ two principal characters, visceral poets whose verse seems better practiced in life than penned on any page: Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, poor, elusive underground men who we know are later destined to vanish into the Sonora desert.

Lima and Belano aren’t much older than Juan yet are already men of the world haunted by grown-up demons. They talk about Compte de Lautréamont as if he’s still their best pal. They’re on the trail of another phantom, Visceral Realism’s mythical poet Godmother, Cesárea Tinajero, who, back in the 1920s, had herself disappeared into the lost sands of the Sonora. Lima walks everywhere, never takes the bus or Metro, walks towards the unknown. Every book in the world for him is out there waiting to be read. Lima reads in his sleep, even reads in the shower. Belano, meanwhile, carries frayed and folded photocopies of Raymond Queneau’s verse in his back pocket, paper so scrumpled that it looks more like Origami, “a startled paper flower with its petals splayed towards the four points of the compass.” Visceral Realists want to negate all hitherto existing Latin American poetry, clear away what Lautréamont called “the poetic whimpers of the century”; they’re stuck between Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, the rock and the hard place.

Nighttime now. I’ve wended my way back to my aerial den. I’m reading on my bed, propped up by a pillow, staring out the window at the twinkling galaxy of lights, the liquid movement of red and yellow flows, oscillating and interlocking into some still-undiscovered chaotic constellation. I’m looking at Mexico City while reading about Mexico City. I’m here, physically present, in the real Mexico City, in this great seething, sprawling metropolis; yet I’m inside Bolaño’s great seething, sprawling metropolis, too, inside a book where places and words congeal into a singular literary reality: a life in literature becomes a literature of life.

After a while, I start to think about one of the characters in The Savage Detectives who’s about my age, Quim Font, a tormented adult, father of precocious and promiscuous daughters, Maria and Angelica, talented poets, dancers and painters; Maria beds Juan one night at dad’s house, a little fortress property in La Condesa, which turns in on itself with an inner courtyard and two houses. The daughters have their own separate quarters. Quim was once a successful architect but we quickly get wind of his downward drift; his psychological disposition is what we might describe as troubled. He’s moody and melancholic, frequently babbling bizarrely. At the end of the first part of Bolaño’s book, Quim lends Ulises and Arturo his old Impala sports car, so they can make a fast getaway with Juan and Lupe, a young prostitute whose psychotic pimp, Alberto, is threatening to kill. They take leave on New Year’s Eve 1975, with Quim losing his mind as well as his car.

It’s hardly surprising that when we next hear from him, after the narrative of The Savage Detectives splinters into dozens of polyphonic testimonies, a 400-page musing on what actually happened to Ulises and Arturo on the road, circa 1975-1996, Quim is now certified—a resident inmate of El Repose Mental Health Clinic. Yet institutionalisation seems to be doing Quim good. He’s calmed down a lot, although maybe it’s the medication. Anyhow, now he declaims with lucidity about books he’s read over the years, read when bored and when calm, but also when happy and sad, when thirsty for knowledge, even when desperate.

The latter are books that Ulises and Arturo want to write, Quim says. Their big mistake! You can’t live your whole life in desperation, Quim thinks. He’s learned that lesson the hard way, being desperate for so long himself. The passage from adolescence to adulthood is one from desperation to serenity, a regenerative process, he says, learning how to embrace Proust and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. When I hear this I’m not sure whether it’s the grown-up Quim talking or the grown-up Bolaño. Ultimately, Quim—or Bolaño—believes that a literature of desperation is “a literature of resentment,” “full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs”; it “doesn’t pierce the heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does.” Quim warned everybody. He lost his mind doing so, was driven mad. “Seek oneself,” he says, “lose oneself in strange lands. But with a guiding line.”

I’ve got to get a grip on things myself. I need to write this last quotation of Quim’s down somewhere, pin it near my work station. Some days I feel as troubled by the world as Quim, looking over the edge, trying not to fall down. Maturity isn’t about rediscovering lost youth in middle-age; it’s transforming youthful impulses, propelling them into the here and now, using them to help stake out what lies ahead, giving these youthful impulses a richer, more mature meaning. I’m glad I’m a grown-up fifty-something, with a daughter; I wouldn’t want to go back. I want to be a Visceral Realist as well as a Magical Marxist, a radical poet of pandemonium, but who, as Guy Debord once said, “speaks as coolly as possible about things that have aroused so much passion.” I need that guiding line, that invisible thread.

The next morning, bright and early, I head off on foot for Quim’s old neighbourhood, La Condesa, my favourite part of Mexico City, hiking across Chapultepec, past the National Anthropology Museum and the Zoologico, traversing some scary traffic arteries, passing over the Circuito Interior on a rusty footbridge, into the backstreets of hip and arty Condesa, with its pavement cafés and trendy boutiques. Things here are chic but with just enough Bohemian grunge to give the area an edge, to ward off cleansed bourgeoisdom. As ever, there are some stunning bookstores, like the hyper-modern space at Cultural Bella Época, an Art Deco jewel of a building, with a cinema, cultural centre and obligatory ace coffee shop. It’s said to be Latin America’s biggest bookstore, with 35,000 titles, and a 2,000 square-metre glass ceiling that looks as if it’s been transplanted from Amazonia. At ground floor level you can relax on big leather sofas amid the vegetation, and read under a flood of radiant white light.

After an early lunch, taken on a sidewalk terrace at Milo’s Bar & Grill, a stone’s throw from Parque Espana, watching the weekday late-morning world gently go by, listening to a chorus of chirping birds, I go off in search of another bookstore, this time for Anglophones, “Under the Volcano,” a literary haven on Calle Celaya. At first I can’t find it, walk by it. It’s discreet. From the outside it looks like somebody’s house, colonial-style, with striking blue-arched iron-grilling over its windows. You enter through an ornate archway entrance and pass into a darkened, somewhat dingy hall, with exotic looking Gauginesque artwork on the wall. A staircase leads you up to the bookstore itself, really one small room, lined wall-to-ceiling with used books.

The stock is rich and ample, well-organised and up-to-date—good condition American editions. Somebody knows what they’re doing. A young American guy mans the till, standing in for the store’s owner who’s out of town on a trip. Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is third on its bestseller list, behind Nabokov’s Lolita and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, though ahead of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano—eponymous inspiration for the bookstore—and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. “Under the Volcano” professes to be “an embassy for the soul of the English-speaking world—its literature in Mexico…a web-free, Kindle-less island of analog time in a digital sea; a community centre for Commonwealth and American expatriates in the most exciting, vibrant and accessible city on earth.”

I don’t beg to differ. I browse the Bolaño section and tell the young American I’m currently reading The Savage Detectives. He tells me to check out Bolaño’s poetry; Bolaño always saw himself as a poet, a better poet than novelist: his poetry made him blush less, he himself said. The American treasures his bilingual collection of Bolaño’s verse, keeps it at home and wouldn’t put in up for sale any day. Look at The Romantic Dogs, he recommends. “I’m here with the romantic dogs/ and here I’m going to stay.” Bolaño wrote poetry in “the land of idiots,” scribbled outpourings in the “silent wing of the Unknown University.” Accreditation here is a life-journey spent under the stars, not a certificate you gain at graduation.

I remember The Savage Detectives’ epigraph, from Malcolm Lowry: “Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?” “No…” I tell the American that Lowry originally hailed from Liverpool, like me—well, actually he came from New Brighton, across the River Mersey from Liverpool itself, close by, although unlike me Lowry was a rich kid, the son of a wealthy cotton merchant. I used to go to New Brighton for my summer vacation as a kid in the 1960s, take the ferry across the Mersey. Lowry, like Bolaño, like Ulises and Arturo, was searching for something his whole life, glimpsed it, even grasped it, yet was never able to deal with what he’d found. He destroyed himself. He was happier living in his art than living in his life. Like Quim, somewhere en route he lost his guiding line. He stepped over the edge, plunged down the abyss he’d been staring down way too long.

Under the Volcano, published in 1947, takes place in 1938 on the Day of the Dead, in Cuernavaca, a small town south of Mexico City. The book immortalises the hard liquor mezcal, and the trembling hand of the “Consul,” the defrocked English civil servant Geoffrey Fermin, Lowry’s alcoholic alter-ego abandoned by his wife, a man who drank his mezcal down to the worm. He was one of Guy Debord’s literary heroes. “Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle!” the Consul says. “Unless it was an empty glass.” “How, unless you drink as I do,” he says, “can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?”

The atmosphere of tropical heat and sweaty bodies, of sapping humidity and overhead fans, of colonial castoffs and quirky barflies steers Lowry’s Under the Volcano towards Gabriel García Márquez; yet Lowry’s dramatic tension is more brutal and destructive, more menacing, wrenching him nearer to Faulkner. The volcanoes loom everywhere, and vultures, adding to the sense of impending doom: “The volcanoes seemed terrifying in the wild sunset…and vultures hovered there like burnt papers floating from a fire.” The Consul leans on a bar and stares into “his second glass of the colourless ether-smelling liquid. To drink or not to drink—But without mezcal, he imagined, he had forgotten eternity, forgotten the world’s voyage, that the earth was a ship, lashed by the Horn’s tail, doomed never to make their Valparaiso.”

Bolaño’s cast likewise search for their Valparaiso, for their own eternity, as they down another mezcal—“Los Suicidas,” they ominously call it—toasting the Consul’s memory silently in their dreams. “Christ,” says Fermin, shot at the end of Lowry’s masterpiece, thrown down a ravine with a dead dog, like Kafka’s Joseph K., “this is a dingy way to die.” The spirit of Nietzsche haunts, the Nietzsche of Gay Science, who spoke of “preparatory men,” of people of the future wanting “their own festivals and weekdays, their own periods of mourning” and whose “greatest enjoyment is living dangerously,” sailing into uncharted seas, building a city under Vesuvius, under a volcano.

Ulises and Arturo build their house under a volcano. They, too, go searching for their own weekdays and periods of mourning. They crop up all over the place, all over the world—Barcelona, Kigali, London, Madrid, Managua, Paris, Rome, San Diego, Tel Aviv—going their own separate geographical ways, wandering in the wilderness; yet, somehow, no matter where they go, Bolaño joins them together ontologically. They do every odd job under the sun, from washing dishes to camp site watchmen, having adventures galore, cropping up in Liberian civil wars and Nicaraguan revolutions, seemingly doing it all with no money nor with any fixed abode. We hear nothing about their writings; indeed, they seem to have given up the act of writing altogether. Their poetic blush is now living, alive, inscribed into practical everyday verse, viscerally real. As one testimony put it, theirs is “the riddle of the poet who’s lost and survives.” The truth is “I don’t remember anymore, but don’t worry, the poet doesn’t die, he loses everything, but he doesn’t die.”

Ulises shows up twenty-years later, still apparently youthful but he must be in his forties now, prowling Mexico City’s Parque Hundido, with its floral clock, a shadowy poet fugitive who has an affecting rendezvous, a pure make-believe rendezvous, with old man Octavio Paz, by then a Nobel Laureate. Paz is accompanied by his faithful housekeeper who recounts the secret event. Lima and Paz shake hands, sit down on a park bench. “How long did they talk? Not long. And yet from where I was sitting it was clear that it was a leisurely, calm, polite conversation.” They spoke of Cesárea Tinajero, whom Paz remembers by reputation. A little later we find out what really happened to Tinajero, because The Savage Detectives flips back in time, to New Year’s Day 1976; we’re on the road again, a day on from where we left off, all those pages ago, with Ulises and Arturo and Juan and Lupe blasting along in Quim’s Impala, hurtling through the Sonora desert.

Ulises has learned how to drive like Dean Moriarty and Juan returns as a Sal Paradise narrator. They bivouac in the fictional border town of Santa Teresa—centre of action for Bolaño’s final, incomplete novel, 2666—where they at last encounter Cesárea Tinajero. “She looked like a rock or an elephant,” Juan writes. “Her rear end was enormous and it moved to the rhythm set by her arms, two oak trunks.” She’s lived on her own for years in a modest adobe house in the middle of nowhere, a tragic woman who seems content; she radiates “immense humanity.” She hurls herself at Alberto, helps kill him, though takes a bullet in the chest doing so, losing her own life. They bury her afterwards and discover her valedictory poem, her only written poem. Did she ever need to write another?

Amazingly, it’s just a few rows of lines, lines not words. It’s wordless, made up of straight, wavy and jagged pen movements, zigzags resembling life’s elemental path, verses of ups and downs and powerful feelings. What does the straight line mean, they wonder? The horizon, maybe, calmness, still seas? And the wavy one? Hills on the horizon, movement, change? And the jagged? Shark’s teeth, mountains on the horizon, choppy seas tossed by a gale? The poem says it all. It’s also where The Savage Detectives trails off. We’re none the wiser about what happened to its stars, whether they lived beyond the 1990s? Is it true that poets never die? The closing sequence of Bolaño’s great book lingers, the dénouement to a novel of exquisite artistry that’s finished yet unfinished. We watch the detectives even while we’re kept guessing, even while we never quite know what they were investigating. “What’s the mystery?” somebody asks. “Then the boys looked at me and said: there is no mystery.”

The Savage Detectives filled my head for the remainder of my stay in Mexico City, spent looking at its golden Angel, at the crumbling pyramids near the Plaza de la Constitución, at Diego Rivera’s stunning mural on the stairwell and walls of the National Palace, depicting Mexico’s ancient and modern history. And I wander into more bookstores, dozens of them, along Calle Donceles, chaotic, dusty bookstores that don’t seem to have acquired much new stock since the mid-1970s. I venture further east, to the edge of Mexico City’s historic district, to the traditional market of Merced, a vast roofed labyrinth of narrow alleyways piled high each side with fruit and vegetables; with chillies and chillies and more chillies; with mountains of beans and onions; with garlic and herbs and cheeses; with giant cacti leaves—nopals—whose spines little old women sit around slicing off, skinning them. Then I wander outside, along Anillo de Circunvalación, where there’s a sidewalk bazaar—a super-kinetic tianguis in full motion and commotion, with “unofficial” street hawkers peddling their wares, their jeans and tee-shirts, their mobile phones and candy, their quesadillas and tostadas, poor people selling to poor people. Huddled discreetly in doorways, meanwhile, are scantily-clad young prostitutes, touting business in this renowned “tolerance” zone.

Mexico City literally brims with intense life everywhere; everybody hustles, usually quietly, frequently courageously. Life is a song and dance without much song and dance. I’m sorry I’ve got to leave, sorry I’ve got to put Bolaño down. But I know I’ll come back to him again and again even if I can’t come back to Mexico City again and again. He’ll be my perpetual upper in times of downer. Perhaps it’s just me, but those downers seem more frequent these days. It’s not a great moment for humanist poets, for visceral realists intent on art and literature. Of course, there’s never really ever been a good time for humanist poets; there aren’t too many job openings, never will be. Ulises and Arturo teach us that we should forget about whether there are job openings or not, forget about expectations of “success”—why should a society that rewards liars reward us anyway?—and get on with practicing our art while living our life, creating something that resists by the very nature of its own honest creation. In that sense, it’s true, poets never die, because their spirit will always live on; their art will prevail come what may. Bolaño creates a crazy world of restless romantic dogs, inspiring for younger guys out on the mooch, but likewise inspiring for older guys, too, for people like me, who still want to keep our noses close to the ground, spending our days digging for buried bones.

Posted in All | 2 Comments

Death and Life in Knausgaard

This essay first appeared in Review 31 on 24th January 2017

Storytellers, the late John Berger was wont to say, are ‘Death’s Secretaries’: they borrow their authority from the dead. Death hands storytellers the file, ‘full of sheets of uniformly black paper.’ ‘All the storyteller needs or has,’ Berger reckoned, ‘is the capacity to read what is written in black.’ The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is a Death’s Secretary after Berger’s own heart. His bestselling, 3,600-page ‘autobiographical’ blockbuster, My Struggle, which has been translated into 22 languages, is an epic story scrawled in black. The sixth and final volume – its thickest at over a thousand pages – is set to appear later in 2017, one of the most eagerly awaited literary events of the year.

Midway through the first book, A Death in the Family, Knausgaard says ‘writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.’ The dark shadow looming large over My Struggle, and over Knausgaard’s life, is the death of Knausgaard’s father – a brooding, unpredictable and menacing alcoholic whose death tore son Karl Ove apart. He hated his father, was terrorised by him, psychologically and emotionally. And yet, when the grownup boy heard of his father’s eventual demise, he cried. Why did he cry? Who was this father? Who was the son? What had the son become now that he, too, was a father – a father writing about his father?

The search for answers became Knausgaard’s quest for self-clarification, his attempt to find wholeness again – or perhaps to find wholeness for the first time. It was a literary quest as much as anything else: how to find the right words to represent a life, prompted by a sudden insight into death. Writing wasn’t and still isn’t cathartic for Knausgaard; he insists on that. It is torture, a twisted medium that buys time, that somehow offsets death. My Struggle became Knausgaard’s personal struggle, his trial, perhaps even The Trial. Only here K. is Knausgaard himself, and The Trial in question is one in which Knausgaard – let’s henceforth call him K. – is both judge and jury. The case that follows is to prove his own innocence – or guilt. In My Struggle, K. accuses himself.

At first, he tried to fictionalise things. But that didn’t work. It only pushed events away from K., made it sound phoney, remote. For years it also prompted writer’s block. K. couldn’t advance with the standard novel in a standard manner, creating characters; he had to go elsewhere. The stakes were higher. K. had to bring things closer, inside himself. It’s not what happens there, he says, not what actions are played out there; it’s the there itself: ‘There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?’ So he starts writing in the first-person, compiling his own diary of a madman, wondering if what he was saying was any good. He kept going, was encouraged to keep going by his editor-friend Geir Gulliksen, despite the latter’s balking at the work-in-progress’s title, Min Kamp, like Mein Kampf.

The constant feeling of humiliation

Before long, K. started to reconstruct himself as he reconstructed past years. In order to move forward he went backward, in search of lost time, buried memory. Proust was the writer who’d made the greatest impression on K.; he’d shown K. so many possibilities. But K. makes it clear that his work doesn’t create beautiful art, like Proust’s, using beautiful words and luscious prose. My Struggle isn’t so much about creating beauty as finding meaning. K.’s words are ordinary and plain, nailed to the page with a fierce, sometimes searing honesty, with graphic intensity. This isn’t writing that grabs you by the collar: it’s literature that singes your backside. Still, we’re not talking about anything realist; K.’s work transgresses realism: it’s that which gives My Struggle its artistry, its Proustian flair.

In a way, Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist and playwright, about whom K. has written admiringly, is a better guide. Handke’s novella A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972) deals with the suicide of Handke’s mother and similarly addresses the problem of representation. Its ‘plot’ is likewise a struggle to express death in language. K. quotes Handke describing his method, which might equally be K.’s method:

‘I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach – starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience.’

For all that, My Struggle is K.’s Dream Beyond Sorrows; it’s not a book about despair. K. was glad his father was dead. Yet memory is a weird thing and isn’t ‘a reliable quantity in life … It is for the simple reason that memory doesn’t prioritise truth. It is never the demand for truth that determines whether memory recalls an action accurately or not. It is self-interest which does.’ For K., the sound of the crack of a sledgehammer enters his head, the memory of his ruddy-cheeked father banging away outside their house, pounding rock, breathing heavily. Rural Norway, 1976. An eight-year-old boy runs across the grass because he’d seen death in the sea, on the TV news, bounding over to tell dad. Don’t run across the grass, Dad scowls, sledgehammer in hand. ‘I stared at him. How could he know I had run?’ His back was turned. ‘And shut your gob,’ dad says to son. ‘You look like an idiot.’ ‘You’re a waste of space.’

Another time son returns to find the house ice-cold. ‘Can’t we put on the heating?’ son asks dad. ‘It’s freezing in here.’ ‘Fweezing?’ dad mimics, ‘We’re not putting on any heating, however fweezing it is.’ ‘I couldn’t roll my ‘r’s,’ son says in his text. ‘Never had been able to say “r”, it was one of the traumas of my late childhood. My father used to mimic me, sometimes to make me aware that I couldn’t pronounce it. But I just turned and went back upstairs. I did not want to give him the pleasure of seeing my moist eyes.’ What struck the teenage adolescent was ‘the constant feeling of humiliation.’

‘Nor did he go to any of the innumerable football matches I played in as I was growing up.’ ‘He was never one of the parents who drove to away games, never one of the parents who watched home games.’ On one rare occasion he did come, by default. ‘He drove me to the shale pitch in Kjevik, he was going on to Kristiansand, we had a practice match against some team from upcountry. We sat in the car, as silent as ever . . . Then I had a sudden inspiration and asked him if he wanted to see the match. No, he couldn’t, he had to go on, didn’t he. Well, I hadn’t expected him to say yes, I said.’

But later, ‘when the second half was nearing an end I spotted his car by the sideline, behind the piles of snow. Could vaguely make out his dark figure behind the windscreen.’ With only a few minutes left, son had a chance to score a final goal, receiving a perfectly weighted pass. To his left foot, his wrong foot. It skidded off. He’d fluffed his opportunity. ‘You didn’t put your chance away,’ comments dad later. It was the first thing he said to son. ‘I didn’t think you’d mess that up.’ ‘Oh well, I said. But we won anyway. What was the score? Two-one, I said, glancing at him, because I wanted him to ask who had scored the goals. Which, mercifully, he did. Did you score then? he asked. Yes, I said. Both of them.’

A chill wind

And then in 1998, the 30-year-old son hears dad is finally no more. Dad’s life had imploded; over the years that K. had grown estranged from him, a spiral of decline hit, worse than son ever imagined. Once upon time, dad was an upstanding local schoolteacher, a relatively normal lower-middle-class parent. Mum and dad were together. But their marriage failed. Mum moved to Bergen, son went to school in Kristiansand, lodged a while with grandma, dad’s mother. Dad moved to northern Norway, with a new partner, had a daughter; then they split, partner leaving dad who began drinking heavily. Dad lived alone, drank even more. Then he went to live with grandma, and kept on drinking, drinking with grandma. He had no job. He drank away everything. Bloated, he no longer ate. Then, one day, grandma finds him dead. ‘Dad is dead,’ writes son, with his own italics. ‘A chill wind blew through me.’

Some of K.’s most harrowing writing in My Struggle, the denouement of Book One, describes him and his elder brother, Yngve, sorting out dad’s funeral. They had to go to grandma’s to put dad’s affairs in order, little imagining the nightmare soon to befall them. ‘The smell inside the house was unbearable. . . What is that bloody stretch? . . . I turned and went into the living room.’

‘For as long as I could remember, it had been used on church holidays and special occasions. Now dad’s huge TV was in the middle of the floor and two of the large leather chairs had been dragged in front of it. A little table swimming with bottles, glasses, pouches of tobacco and overflowing ashtrays stood between them. In front of the three-piece suite by the wall lay some articles of clothing. I could see two pairs of trousers and a jacket, some underpants and socks. The smell was awful. There was excrement on the sofa, smeared and in lumps. I bent down over the clothes. They were also covered in excrement. The varnish of the floor had been eaten away, leaving large, irregular stains. By pee? I felt an urge to smash something. Lift the table and sling it at the window. Tear down the shelf. But I felt so weak I could barely walk.’

A week later, at the funeral parlour, K. sees his body.

‘And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the table lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.’

In delving deeper into dad, and deeper into himself, K.’s real struggle unfolds, a struggle that gives body and soul to My Struggle, to books that destroy linear time and conventional narrative flow, that shift between past and present, memory and intuition, observation and conjecture, fact and feeling. A boy-island struggles to become a man, a man in love, a man who dances in the dark, a man who struggles to become a husband who struggles to become a father who struggles to be a writer, a better writer, giving order to his disorder, bringing sunshine to the falling rain. My Struggle becomes a struggle with the inexorable fragility of being wholly human.

Ever so steadily the spectre of death is shrugged off. Death gives back a sense of urgency that we know belongs uniquely to life. If we can read the torrent of K.’s words, get beyond the tedium of some of the detail, we can glimpse a modern-day Bildungsroman, a coming of age portrait of the artist as an ordinary man. He quits school in 1987, goes off to be a supply teacher in a village on a northern island, planning to write his novel in the evenings, saving enough money to travel around Europe as a free spirit. But he’s accepted onto a creative writing course in Bergen, where, despite dreams of an itinerant life, he stays put for nine years, learning his craft, writing music criticism for a student rag, publishing his first novel, Out of This World (1998), which wins the Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He moves to Malmo, to Stockholm, has a kid, eventually marries another woman, has three more kids and ends up in rural Sweden, in a tiny village called Glemmingebro.

A literature of boredom

In K.’s hands, mundane everyday life gets represented as . . . well, mundane everyday life – and somehow it assumes an epic quality, like Brecht’s great play about his great hero Galileo: ‘GALILEO: (washing the upper part of his body, puffing, and good-humoured:) “Put the milk on the table”…’ Oftentimes it’s a literature of boredom we’re reading, or frustration, the woes of a writer without time to write – though having the time to tell us. K. lets us enter the familiar world, the world we all recognise and live out, and then, without us really seeing how, he wrenches us out of this familiarity, takes us elsewhere. Everyday objects, acts and images – making coffee, smoking a cigarette, staring out of the window, the light, the rain, people’s faces, changing nappies, kids’ parties, walking down the street – all the routine trivia and décor of daily life becomes, for K., an existential quest, a metaphysical drama. Little is portrayed directly as we inhabit it. Instead it becomes a world of shudder and dread, of nothingness and ecstasy:

‘While the muted winter light that had forced its way through the clouds seemed to draw all the colours and flat surfaces towards one another and minimise the differences between them with its greyness and fragility, this clear, direct sunlight emphasised them. Around me the town exploded with colour. Not the warm biological colours of the summer but the mineral colours of winter, cold and synthetic. Red brick, yellow brick, dark green bonnets, blue signs, an orange jacket, a purple scarf, grey-black tarmac, verdigris metal and shiny chrome. Sparkling windows, glowing walls and glinting gutters on one side of the building; black windows, dark walls, toned down almost invisible gutters on the other.’

At times when we hear K.’s internal monologue – some of his most compelling writing – we’re reminded of Sartre’s anti-hero Roquentin and the nausea he feels touching door knobs, glimpsing gnarled tree roots; the shock of recognition, the spinning of the head, when he, a fully conscious human being, encounters the inanimate coldness of things. K. feels this Sartrean nausea, as nothingness needing to be filled, as isolation and dislocation screaming out for meaning. K. gives our world meaning by writing about it, by having to write about it, by filling the void with words, making it whole, somehow intelligible and above all communicable. That’s why we read him; that’s why we find his books strangely hard to put down.

K. admitted recently that for a long time he’d thought literature lay elsewhere, in the centre not in the periphery, not in Norway, in Bergen, or rural Sweden. He said this in 2016, in his tender foreword to the 100th-anniversary edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the periphery, K. once believed, little happened; there, things were without significance, unworthy of being written about, inconsequential. ‘History belonged to others, literature belonged to others, truth belonged to others.’ But after reading Joyce, K. recognised ‘the true essence of literature is that the conquest of what belongs to the individual alone, what is special and characteristic, and to Joyce’s mind unique, is also what belongs, and is unique, to us. Literature is never the preserve of others, and it knows no centre – which is to say that its centre is any place at which it exists.’ Great literature can happen anywhere, anyplace we find ourselves, anyplace the human spirit is touched, anyplace authentic experience is expressed, shared.

A way through chaos and confusion

This expression can even be voiced from the tiny Swedish village K. now calls home; literature doesn’t have to play away from home. It’s a message conveyed in K.’s latest work in English, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game (2016), at first blush a book about football, about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a series of letters K. exchanged with his Swedish writer-friend Fredrik Ekelund. Ekelund went to Brazil and sends K. tales of matches and soccer heroes, sunshine and beaches, primary colours and caipirinhas, crazy parties and bustling cafés, exuberant people and exotic outdoor life; Fredrik’s world is hot and high-spirited, extrovert. K.’s, meanwhile, is family-oriented, introvert: he falls asleep watching games on TV.

Yet Home and Away is much more than about footfall: it’s full of nuggets on life and death, on culture and class, on the task of the writer and the location of literature. In one letter (12 June 2014), K. explains to Fredrik his need for stability, for structure and repeatable patterns: ‘routines have been a way through the chaos and confusion, and this has worked well, we are fine, all of us.’ In another (25 June 2014), he tells his friend how he had to crash, exhausted, before France versus Ecuador was over.

‘Woken at half past six by Anne [his youngest] making disgruntled noises. I fed her, put her on the changing table and placed a mountain of clean clothes in the cupboards, emptied and filled the washing machine, changed the bedding and tidied the rooms…then I made lunch for the girls—fried fillet of chicken, pepper and a wok sauce with noodles, and then fruit, slices of bread, water, pear juice, yogurt and pancakes…and at half past nine I drove the girls to the theatre, stopped at the local shop and bought our lunch, then sat and worked on an essay for two hours, one page. . . Such is life here. Nothing spectacular, nothing memorable, a life filled with children, cooking, driving, football on TV and sleepy evenings, all set in countryside full to bursting with gentle beauty.’

When it comes to the crunch, K. writes (4 July 2014), ‘being a writer is about only one thing: sitting down behind a desk and looking at an empty page and knowing it has to be filled with something, from nothing. That is where the excitement is, the pleasure, but also the doubt, the uncertainty, the fear of failure. If you don’t want that, if you have had your fill and are better off without it, you are no longer a writer. Success has nothing to do with this.’

Fredrik, we hear, roots for Brazil, with their poetic ball-play. K.’s team is Argentina; Brazil isn’t for him. Argentina never does anything beautiful for the sake of beauty, he says; they’re always well-organised defensively and sometimes even a bit cynical, drawing on an opponent’s weaknesses rather than their own strengths. The first World Cup K. remembers was in Argentina – 1978, as a nine-year-old. ‘I was spellbound,’ he says. ‘Argentina, both the country and the team, represented an adventure for me. . . There’s a lot of romanticism in this, but it is a different kind from the romanticism I see in your letters. For you Brazil is lived, it is alive. Argentina for me? I have never been there, it is no more than a dream, a fantasy, anchored nowhere else but in the books I have read.’ You know, he tells Fredrik, he’d originally wanted My Struggle to be called Argentina. Not a treatise on megalomaniacal world-historical domination, conquering everything and everybody, but a stoic, unheroic struggle for self-knowledge, for inner meaning, for finding life in non-life, for unearthing a yes from a no, an Argentina from a Brazil.

This is perhaps one reason why, over the past year, during 12 months that brought us Brexit and Donald Trump, terrorist explosions and trucks ploughing into innocent people, I’ve found a strange pleasure and peace reading Knausgaard, absorbing his struggle into my own little struggle, reading him when I could barely face reading anything else, least of all a newspaper. His words leapfrog across national boundaries, transcend specific times and spaces and enter into you directly, almost by osmosis, as authentic human experience, above and beyond politics. Where Knausgaard begins his great masterpiece is what he leaves us with at the end of it all: a beating heart. Sooner or later it will stop; he knows it, we all know it. But in the meantime, its pounding action belongs to a precious life-form in which we are constantly surrounded by phenomena from the realm of death. Knausgaard brings death back to life. His is a literature not of release or avoidance but relief: a hushed Nordic scream that struggles to help us struggle on.

Posted in All | Leave a comment

FIFTY-YEARS ON: The Right to the City

2017 marks the Golden Jubilee of Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City, his “cry and demand” for a more participatory and democratic city life. It’s a cause both to celebrate and commiserate. But celebration and commiseration have typically been part and parcel of the Left’s dialectic, a dialectic that cuts inside us as people as well as political subjects. For everyone concerned about the fate of our cities, before us now lies a massive expansion of urban life across the planet, an opening up of urban horizons and frontiers, matched by a closing of the political mind, a withering of the established political will.

Ours is an urban society, set to be evermore so during the decades to come; yet political leaders almost everywhere are putting up walls, cowering before provincial smallness rather than embracing cosmopolitan vastness. When Lefebvre long ago spoke of “planetary urbanisation,” he did so because he thought the scope and possibility for the right to the city might enlarge, that our narrative about cities might become bigger and more inclusive. The right to the city needed to flourish within this immensity, he said, had to understand it, keep its frame of reference and plane of immanence open.

Lefebvre announced the right to the city at the centenary of Marx’s Capital, doing so with a self-avowed “cavalier intention.” Urbanisation, for him, was and still is a “revolutionary” process in which assorted ruling classes played and continue to play the dominant role. It’s they who initiate the drive to totalise the productive forces, to colonise and commodify land, to valorise people and nature. Just as they’ve fracked deep into the earth and power-drilled monetised value from nature, ruling classes now frack into human nature as well, power-drilling value from different aspects of everyday life, from land and housing, from the entire public realm.

Lefebvre, though, never imagined that urbanisation would be everywhere, that bricks and mortar, freeways and highways would predominate every which way, that all green space would turn grey; neither was he saying that cities would quantitatively overwhelm the planet. (That’s why he would have been radically at odds with the empirics of UN-Habitat’s “Urban Age” thesis.) Rather, as his commemoration of Marx’s Capital implies, he was warning of the closing of the circle of a particular form of post-war capitalism, one that defines itself less through a model of industrial or agricultural production and more and more through an actual production of space.

This system produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. The process embroils everybody, no matter where; even when it doesn’t embroil, when it abandons people and places, it embroils. Urban society today is tantamount to the progressive production of evermore frackable spatial units. In a way, I like to think Lefebvre was hoping his thesis would become untrue, that the circle can never be complete, that it has to stop, or else be diverted, even if there’s no going back, that urban society, like it or not, is here to stay.

Urban society is thus the battle ground for new forms of radical and progressive politics: it has to be. Lefebvre affirmed this not out of personal whim: capitalism affirmed it out of historical necessity, as our “objective” reality, as an arena in which we all must now engage, willy-nilly. His most explicit reference to planetary urbanisation came later in life, in a valedictory essay from 1989, “Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire,” published two years before his death.

His precise language here is worth pondering on for a moment. Menace stalks us, Lefebvre says; not so much of “planetary urbanisation” but of “the planetarisation of the urban” (“la planétarisation de l’urbain”). The ordering is telling. For the urban doesn’t so much spread as it becomes the vortex for sucking in everything the planet offers: its land and wealth, its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising, because its energising and totalising force “expulses” (expels) people, “secretes” what Lefebvre calls a “residue.” This expulsion process makes urban space expand, lets it push itself out, has it further entangle rural space, and disentangle rural life.

Lefebvre says every big system leaves a residue that escapes it, that is chewed up and spat out by it. Every whole leaves a remainder. It’s an idea most forcefully articulated in Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre’s dense takedown of traditional philosophy, published a couple of years prior to The Right to the City. In Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre says that totalisations like global capitalism always exhibit leakiness, have internal contradictions that both structure and de-structure. Totalisation can never be total; it always secretes and expels a “residual element,” its Other. There’ll always be people who don’t fit into any whole, who don’t want to fit in, who aren’t allowed to fit in. They’re the stuff left over after all the metrics are totted up, after everything has seemingly been accounted for: le reste after la somme. They’re the philosophical anti-concepts, an affirmation of remainders, of marginal dregs, a growing planetary constituency.

Residues are people who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues exist in the world of work: precarious and downsized workers, informal and gig economy workers, petty service sector and agricultural workers—residues are workers without regularity, without salaries and security, without benefits and pensions; they’re workers without any real stake in the future of work.

Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander. They’re displacees, people forced off the land, thrown out of their housing (by impersonal property markets and violent eviction), whose homes have been repossessed, whose living space teeters on the geographical and economic edge. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between, neither traditional city nor traditional countryside. I call this somewhere in-between the global banlieue; I mean it literally and metaphorically, as a concrete and potential space, as a place of political encounter, one not yet fully glimpsed.

Resides are the NINJA (No Income, No Job, No Asset) generation; Greeks who feel the brunt of the Troika austerity initiatives; dispossessed Arab and African youth in French suburbs; Detroiters beholden to “Emergency Managers”; Palestinians lobbing rocks at Israeli tanks; Rojava Kurds in northern Syria; Indignados on the streets of Spain; “June Days” Brazilians protesting public transport hikes; occupiers in Istanbul’s Gezi Park; Umbrella kids in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central; Nuitards staked out around Paris’s Place de la République. The list goes on, and on.

The spirit of Metaphilosophy gets worked through The Right to the City. Planetary urbanisation is itself a metaphilosophical category, a will to totalise, a discontinuity within continuity, a difference in repetition, a breakdown of old industrial society, and its supersession—its overcoming—by a new spatial form: diffusive, unbound and apparently planetary in its reach, beyond any city-rural breach. Thus a profound existential problem is displaced onto the plane of urban society where it now transpires as a complex political dilemma, an attempt to forge a new humanitarianism out of the “bad side” of capitalist development. Capitalism’s cutting edge is a bleeding edge for ordinary people.

While planetary urbanisation has to be a theory trying to figure out totalisation under contemporary capitalism, it shouldn’t itself be a totalising theory. Instead, it’s a theory of residues within a vortex, an attempt to piece together a politics of residues, a politics of remainders in the whole. Lefebvre even suggests that the political ante here is to formulate a new “revolutionary conception of citizenship.” Indeed, he says this is really what he meant by “the right to the city” all along. And this is the working hypothesis he’s bequeathed us fifty-years down the line, left us to figure out practically. The right to the city is about residues reclaiming (or claiming for the first time) their rights to a collective urban life, to an urban society they’re actively making yet are hitherto disenfranchised from: “the right to the city implies nothing less than a revolutionary conception of citizenship.”

So many people have been pushed off-limits these days that it’s extended the limit of limits, created a more expansive social space for a new conception of citizenship, for a citizenship still to be invented. In this guise, citizenship lies inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation. It doesn’t express a legal right bestowed by any institution of the bourgeois nation-state. What we’re talking about is a citizenship without a flag, without a country, without borders. At this point I can only label it a “shadow citizenship,” something phantom-like.

Still, many residues in America’s deindustrialised heartlands aren’t interested in expansive conceptions of citizenship. Nobody has ever shown them any, of course, offered them any. Meantime, these residues seem content with more reactionary kinds of enfranchisement; and when somebody promises it them, they jump, they vote Right. Now, there’s a common theme uniting the whole world: People recognising their own disenfranchisement. It has reached desperate depths. But frustration matched with vulnerability has enabled assorted demagogues (religious as well as political) to step in. Some have voiced populist ragings against the machine, created scapegoats galore, any old or new straw target, anything to further their vested interests and political ambitions. And many residues, for want of an alternative, have believed them.

But parochial nest-building is doomed over the longer term, retrogressive in our age where human interconnectivity has broadened and deepened. To see the world through the lens of planetary urbanisation thus has certain distinct advantages. After all, it’s a viewpoint expressive of commonality rather than difference, a mutually shared planet in which people who look different, who talk different from one another, who don’t know one another, who may even hate one another, have more in common than they might think.

That shared experience is an ever-growing mutuality of disadvantage and despair, of suffering and perhaps hope. There’s affinity even if it’s rarely acknowledged. The right to the city has to help us identify how this affinity gets recognised, how it gets mediated, undermined, upended by forces upending the planet, forces that work together, that throw everybody into a scary mix. The right to the city has to help us create new forms of organisation, new institutions that leap across the nationalist divide. How to invent a new, more “hospitable” form of citizenship that nourishes people’s sense of identity without crushing other people’s identity? How can people—residues—express and become themselves through their connection to urban society?

Jacques Derrida once wondered whether it was possible to define a modern cosmopolitanism that bypassed the nation-state. His response is uncannily similar to Lefebvre’s. Yes, Derrida said, it was and still is possible: through relatively-autonomous cities, independent from any state, separate nodes allied to one another through “forms of solidarity to be invented.” We’re still trying to invent this solidarity; so far it has alluded the Left. But Derrida urges us to make “yet another effort.” He uses an intriguing phase to describe the nemesis of disenfranchisement and dispossession: “villes-refuges”—“cities of refuge” (or sanctuary cities)—crucibles for a new kind of unconditional citizenship.

This ideal actually prevailed in 5th-Century Greece, voiced by Pericles, Athens’ first citizen, in his famous “Funeral Oration,” recounted by Thucydides in Peloponnesian War. Pericles commemorated Athenian war dead and wanted its citizens to remember how their system of government had “a different attitude than its neighbours towards military security.” Theirs was based on openness not closure, discussion not denial. “Our city is open to the world,” Pericles proclaimed, and Athenians should have “a confidence of liberality.” “We have no periodical deportations,” he said. “The greatness of our city brings it about that all good things from all over the world flow into us.” Athens was a paragon of urban citizenship everywhere, “a city that’s the school of all Greece.”

Five centuries on, the Old Testament spoke of cities of refuge set aside as sanctuaries for people, spaces of asylum to protect innocents—and sometimes the guilty: “These towns will be cities of refuge,” The Book of Numbers said (35: 15-17), “for the sons of Israel as well as for the stranger and the settler amongst you.” The Hebraic tradition recognises the right to an urban immunity and hospitality that goes way beyond mere particularism, a simple search for unique refuge: it’s a divine hope for a form of urban sovereignty where people could become wholly human.

What Derrida has in mind are cities of sanctuary for writers who undergo persecution because of their art and political views; but he hints, too, that the concept might apply to all displacees and emigres, to all asylum seekers and refugees—writers or otherwise. Might we broaden this notion even more to include residues in general, safeguarding all the rootless and landless effected by everyday trauma, by the ordinary madness of our political-economic system? A place of asylum where people can become wholly human?

“A new sovereignty of cities,” says Derrida, “would open up a novel space for rights which inter-state national rights have failed to open up.” “We dream of another concept,” he says, “of another right, of a potential right of the city” (emphasis added). Derrida knows this is “an experimentation of a right and a democracy to come.” He knows, like Lefebvre, it’s wishful-thinking, utopian, especially since he gives us little sense of what a “ville-refuge” might look like, let alone how it might be achieved.

Yet the concept might be closer to home than he thought. A number of US cities—Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence—all recently pledged not to cooperate with Donald Trump’s promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Across the US, “sanctuary cities” are gearing up to oppose federal government and its immigration agents. Liberal urban bastions reaffirm their intention to defy the Trump administration. At the risk of losing millions dollars in federal support, they’ll act as bulwarks against mass deportation. These cities have no power to bestow “official” rights to people; but they have the power to resist, putting a new twist on struggles against federal government: this time it’s liberal cities not conservative states who counter what they see as unjust federal intervention.

In response to a crisis of political legitimation, the “spectre” of urban solidarity looms; minorities in cities recognise that national and international rights are “out of joint.” In a way, we now need to read Derrida’s idea of “villes-refuges” in conjunction not only with Lefebvre’s right to the city, but also with the former’s earlier Spectres of Marx, where he spoke of a “New International”; “a profound transformation,” Derrida called it, “projected over the long term, of international law, of its concepts and field of intervention.” This New International is “a link,” Derrida said, an affinity, a suffering and hope, still discreet, almost secret, without status or title, contract or coordination, party or country, national community or common belonging to a class.

We’re not yet sure what this International really is; we can’t name it anything positive. But it’s there nonetheless, we know it’s there, hope it’s there, out on the horizon, if we can look that far. We know it’s more needed than ever before, needed everywhere. It’s a ghostly dream-thought of a new status for the city, a right to and of the city, a will to belong to a democratic urban webbing, a solidarity of confederated assemblies interrogating the essence of politics and the role of the nation-state: just what is a citizen of the urban, a citadin(e) of the twenty-first century? Progressives will have their work cut out in this challenging year ahead. Meantime, à la tienne, Henri!…

Posted in All | 9 Comments

Good to Know You! Tribute to John Berger

A tribute to John Berger, who passed away aged 90 on 2 January 2017. Posted originally on Verso Books blog, 3 January 2017.

John died yesterday. I’ll remember his voice, his laugh, his charm and generosity. His words. Stripped-down words, mystical and carefully chosen words, earthy words, fierce words. They’ll always grab us, make us think, feel and act, piss people off. To weep for John is to weep on the shoulder of life. Remember him, gazing up at Aesop, in front of Velázquez’s great canvas?

“He’s intimidating, he has a kind of arrogance. A pause for thought. No, he’s not arrogant. But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The presence of Aesop refers to nothing except what he has felt and seen. Refers to no possessions, to no institutions, to no authority or protection. If you weep on his shoulder, you’ll weep on the shoulder of his life. If you caress his body, it will recall the tenderness it knew in childhood.”

John didn’t suffer fools gladly, either.

Poetic humanism was John’s language, like Wordsworth. His was a finely-textured animal and mineral Marxism that journeyed over distances and across cultures, beyond disciplinary borders and through mental divisions of labour. John, who called himself a “jack of all trades,” said writing should be an act of joining things together, making sense of disparate things, and seeing that they’re not so disparate after all. He was driven to demystify productive and creative processes.

Death was forever part of John’s life. Storytellers, he said, are “Death’s Secretaries”; they borrow their authority from the dead. Death hands storytellers the file, “full of sheets of uniformly black paper.” “All the storyteller needs or has is the capacity to read what is written in black.” So now we, too, must read John in black. He’s handed us the file.

Decades of riding his Honda Blackbird 1100cc motorbike, along narrow mountain passes at breakneck speeds, must have taught John the thin line between living ecstasy and rapid death. A patch of black ice here, a mishap there, a careless motorist around the bend… it’s all over, you’re rolling down the valley of the damned. Or was it living amongst peasants that sensitised his awareness of death – the proximity of dying people, with moribund traditions, clinging grimly onto bare life? Death let John marvel at the wonders of the life-spirit, of daily life as epic drama and Greek tragedy. “It seems that I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that it is done with a sense of urgency which belongs uniquely to life.”

“Everything’s a question of how you lean,” explains motorcyclist Jean Ferrero in To the Wedding. Ninon, Jean’s daughter, just diagnosed as HIV-positive, recounts this lesson as her father heads to her wedding in a village in Italy. A little parable on life that one: it’s all a matter of how you lean – how you deal with inertia, how you deal with the life’s gravity and grace.

John once took Spinoza for a spin on his Blackbird: “Coming for a ride, Bento?” “I wouldn’t make a direct comparison between a motorbike and a telescope for which you ground lenses,” he wrote in Bento’s Sketchbook, “yet they have certain features in common: both need to be well-aimed, both diminish distance, and both offer a tunnel of attention and the sensation of speed… In the tunnel of speed there is also a kind of silence, and when you get off the bike or remove your eye from the eyepiece, all the slow repetitive sounds of daily life return, and the silence recedes.”

He was still at work on Bento’s Sketchbook, the book I’ll most cherish in his oeuvre, when I was writing my book on his life and work several years ago. At the time he lent me a wonderful handmade maquette of the text in progress, his only copy. Thus Bento’s Sketchbook for me became a fascinating insight into Berger’s Sketchbook, into John’s annotated prose, his crossings-out, his finger-smudged drawings, his doubts–even doubts about its title. If he was trying to access Spinoza’s workshop, as well as the mind behind those propositions and demonstrations, now I could enter John’s own workshop, be privy to the private gleam of his unpolished diamonds.

You pilot a motorbike with your eyes, Bento’s Sketchbook says. All things for John always came back to ways of seeing, his eternal recurrence. Ways of riding are really ways of seeing, and ways of drawing. “For many years I’ve been fascinated by a certain parallel between the act of piloting a bike and the act of drawing. The parallel fascinates me because it may reveal a secret. About what? About displacement and vision. Looking brings closer.”

Think of a motorbike’s trajectory as something similar to a drawn line. “You are riding a drawing,” John said; you traverse an immanent plane, travel over contours, across smooth space, folding, unfolding, and refolding as you go. Drawings and motorbikes unite around intuitive reason and express common notions. This seems to be what John tried to transmit in Bento’s Sketchbook, as he did in all his books: common notions.

John’s whole life represents a species of eternity; his art lies beyond duration, beyond space. A lightness of touch, resembling the “geometrical” deftness of Spinoza’s Ethics, lies everywhere in his work: the culmination of all those years of restless activity, of writing and thinking, of drawing and riding, of meeting and discussing. The finally-achieved “blessedness” and mortality of Spinoza’s “third level of knowledge,” knowledge that John spent ninety-years searching for.

A religiosity, this third kind of knowledge, was present in his being and his work in recent years. Not a religiosity of institutions, of churches and commissars, of higher powers; not a God above us, a transcendent creator who offers us freedom only after death in heaven. John’s God is monadal and metaphysical, like Spinoza’s, a single substance with infinite attributes, inside us, in nature, inside both us and nature, an immanent essence we can tap without meditation or mediators, something we can experiment with, struggle for, sketch out.

And so, too, is the Godhead in the Blackbird, in the Blackbird we can hear starting up in our heads, revving up one last time in our memory, ready for its journey back home, to its final foyer in Mieussy. So long, we might say, like the Woody Guthrie song, it’s been Good To Know You! Fly Blackbird, fly… fly into the light of the dark black night…







Posted in All | 3 Comments

Planetary Urbanisation — The Whole and the Remainder

This essay offers another take on debates about planetary urbanisation—or “planétarisation de l’urbain,” as philosopher-urbanist Henri Lefebvre calls it. I will come back to why I think he calls it that later on. Before then, I want to start out with a little excursus into the countryside, into rural life, without which much of debate about capitalist urbanisation makes no sense. I want to grasp rural life, though, via the imaginative eye of John Berger’s triology Into Their Labours, debuting with Pig Earth, his otherworldly depiction of all-too-earthly French Alpine life. When Pig Earth appeared in 1979 the majority of the world’s population lived in the countryside and toiled as peasants. Not anymore. Now, almost forty-years on, the balance has tilted. Now, we’re told, the majority of people in the world live and labour in cities, in massively expanding megacities, the bulk of which are in the developing world, in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Pig Earth is about peasants. One is Marcel who clings onto the land for dear life. He owns a shire-horse as strong as an ox, bearing a distinct resemblance to her master. One day Marcel’s son, Edouard, buys his father a twelve-year old tractor: “I got it cheap,” the son announces. Edouard and Marcel aren’t exactly on the same page. Edouard is a modern young man who doesn’t want to kill himself toiling the land, nor does he want to fritter away his life in any factory. So he chooses the life of a traveling salesman, selling soap and other domestic wares, on the road and in the open air. His son cheats people, Marcel thinks, he doesn’t practice a trade. And that tractor he’s bought is useless because Marcel can’t drive, doesn’t want to drive. Machines make monkey-work productive, Marcel says; and the wealth they create goes to those who own the machines.

“They make sure we know the machines exist,” Marcel says. “From then onwards working without one is harder.” Not having the machine makes the father look old-fashioned to the son, makes the husband look mean to his wife, makes one neighbour look poor to the next. After you’ve lived a while with not having the machines they offer you a loan to buy a tractor. What you earn from your milk each year is the price of a tractor. That’s why the peasant needs a loan. But with a tractor he needs all the parts, all the machinery, all the gadgets that come with it. So more loans are required for more machines and gadgets; soon the peasant falls deeper and deeper into debt. Eventually, he’s forced to sell out, get a job, if he’s lucky, in the local factory, providing the local factory hasn’t gone bust, or gone abroad. Selling out, it’s what those city slickers planned all along, Marcel thinks. “The world has left the earth behind it,” says Marcel to Edouard. “And what was on the earth?” demands the angry son. “Half the men here had to emigrate because there wasn’t enough to eat! Half the children died before they grew up! Why don’t you admit it!”

Marcel has a vat full apple dregs—marc—which he ferments each year to create gnôle, rocket fuel eau-de-vie. The dregs gives off warmth in the cold air of winter. Marcel shovels it into sacks and hauls it by horse and cart to the village distillery. Peasants drink gnôle, use it as antiseptic for themselves and for their animals, preserve fruit and herbs in it, cook in it, cook sausages that release dreams because they’re salty and spicy and saturated in alcohol. But the authorities tax gnôle, treat it almost like it’s illegal moonshine, bootleg liquor. From time to time, inspectors tour the villages on the lookout for surplus gnôle, gnôle beyond the statutory twenty liters, gnôle that needs to be taxed.

In the middle of a snowstorm, a strange car stops on the bridge. “The buggers have come back again!” Marcel and other villagers in the distillery call out. Then the two men get out, “wearing city overcoats, spotless green Wellington boots.” They greet the villagers yet nobody greet the inspectors back. “Marcel’s marc has yielded one hundred and sixty liters of eau-de-vie at fifty percent, which meant, the oldest inspector says, speaking as if he were explaining to children, “that he had to pay on eighty six liters the sum of two hundred and six thousand, four hundred francs.”

Later that afternoon, Marcel seeks vengeance, seeks justice as the countryside strikes back against the city, against paper money and its paper laws. He stops the inspectors’ car at gunpoint, leads them away to a distant hayloft stinking of gnôle and piss, and locks them up in the dark with a bunch of shaggy sheep. Meanwhile, he dumps their car over a ravine, and for a while lets them feel a rural cold, a rural suffering. Before he releases his prisoners, before the police come to handcuff Marcel, before they eventually sentence him to two years jail for rebellion against officers of the state, armed robbery and willful destruction of public property, one inspector begs the peasant to tell how much he’s asking for them. Marcel appears not to hear. “You must understand,” the eldest inspector says, “that we have more experience than you of the value of money.” Then Marcel thrusts his fist into the fleece of the nearest sheep, and spoke almost through the animal: “The value of money! The value of money!” he cries.

The sad thing, Marcel knows, is that the inspectors belong to another time, to another world, to linear rather than cyclical time, to urban time. It’s impossible to take revenge on them because they’ll never understand what Marcel is trying to avenge, the logic of his actions, his motives, his concept of justice. Nor will the judge or jury. Theirs is an abstract world, a world of abstract wealth, of abstract laws, of abstract money, of illusions in which everything appears to be a game, a game of role-playing, a game of fictitious assets and extractive practices…

In Berger’s sequel, Once in Europa, from 1989, the factory now dominates: a lot of local peasants finally cave into reality and get jobs there. The centerpiece story is about a woman called Odile, a smart Savoyarde farm kid who grows up into a smart everywoman. Her complexly interwoven soliloquy takes us through peasant generations, from childhood to womanhood, from motherhood to grandmotherhood, from land to factory, from factory to branch plant, from branch plant to city migrant. In the space of seventy pages, Berger has penned a sweeping peasant Bildungsroman.

Odile mediates between a bygone world of her father and mother’s generation and the new one to come, a new world that’s her world but which already seems bankrupt at birth. Her family’s romance is a Freudian Family Romance, full of bitter internal squabbles as much as tenderly love, squabbles between siblings, squabbles between fathers and sons, squabbles between mothers and daughters. Battles to overcome the private world are dramatised by perpetual struggles to overcome the public world: struggles to stay on the land, struggles to stop the factory encroaching, struggles to stop the factory closing, struggles to resist going to city, struggles to resist the city itself.

“The men who worked in the factory smelt of sweat,” Odile says, “some of them of wine or garlic, and all of them of something dusty and metallic.” The factory’s furnaces throb without cease, producing thirty thousand tons of ferromanganese every year, retching toxic blue smoke from its chimneys; men work night and day; the factory makes money, provides jobs for locals whose land no longer provides; it provides jobs for non-locals, too, who begin to arrive in droves; it tests out new alloys, makes experiments, and yet “it is inert, barren, derelict.” Men on the furnaces breathe air that contains four hundred thousand dust particles per liter, lethal amounts; chimneys spew out two hundred tons of fluorine a year; nearby forests are dying, cows and sheep are poisoned; and before long, the factory belongs to a multinational with factories in twenty-one different countries. “Papa had been right about the venom,” Odile laments.

Odile’s story takes us one-step nearer to Berger’s third book, Lilac and Flag, from 1990, an “old wives’ tale” of the urban underworld, a world tellingly above ground and which might await Odile’s own kids. Indeed, Odile herself could easily be the old wife in question and the two lovers, Lilac and Flag, the pet names of Sucus and Zsuzsa, her son and daughter-in-law. Sucus and Zsuzsa are trying to tread their slippery way through the spectral city of Troy, a paradigmatic megacity of expressways and concrete blocks, of money values and deceit, of immense freedom and brutal imprisonment.

Sucus lives with this mother and father on the fourteenth-floor of an anonymous high-rise on the city’s banlieue; papa Clement came from the village as a teenager and worked all his life opening oysters. One day Clement has a freak accident with a TV set, gets badly burned, and slips away in hospital. He’d always wondered whether his son could find a job. “There are no jobs,” Sucus tells papa on his deathbed, “except the ones we invent. No jobs. No jobs.” “Go back to the village, that’s what I’d like to do,” says Clement. “See the mountains for the last-time.” Half the men in the ward, he says, were remembering either their village or their mothers. Sucus’ generation doesn’t know the village, so could never go back; and yet, it can’t quite find itself in the alien city either. Sucus’ and Zsuzsa’s generation can go neither backwards nor forwards: it has nostalgia for neither the past nor the future. And they’re not prepared to take the same shit as their parents. Their expectations are different. Their prospects are almost non-existent.

From life experience, Zsuzsa and Sucus know that our cities are run by corrupt politicians and bent police, by shyster real estate corporations and financial institutions whose corruption is blatant and legal. They know the rules of the urban game are rigged against them. Their tragedy is a tragedy of arriving too late (or perhaps too early?): When their parents came there were still steady factory jobs to be had. But those industries have gone bust or cleared out to someplace cheaper, to somewhere even more exploitable and expendable. Berger knows better than anyone how millions of peasants and smallholders across the globe are each year thrown off their rural land by big agribusiness, by corporate export farming, by land grabbing; these people lose the means to feed themselves as well as the means to make a little money; so, as “seventh men,” they migrate to the city in search of work that’s increasingly disappearing, migrating to an alien habitat they can little afford or understand.[1] Meanwhile, as austerity drives continue to trim urban public budgets, glaring holes appear in welfare safety nets.

The sons and daughters of “seventh men” understand this habitat better, well enough to know that now there are no decent jobs left, only insecure, under-paid work and over-worked workers in its Lazarus informal layers: busboys and valets parkers, waiters and barmen, cleaners and security guards, builders and buskers, hawkers and hustlers. A push-pull effect has taken hold, a vicious dialectic of dispossession, sucking people into the city while spitting others out of the center, forcing poor urban old-timers and vulnerable newcomers to embrace each other out on the periphery, out on assorted zones of social marginalisation, out on the global banlieue. This is the bigger old wives’ tale that Lilac and Flag reveals.

What Berger has grasped here is part of the dynamic that Henri Lefebvre calls “urban society.” This is what the progressive production of our urban age looks like from the standpoint of rural life. Here is how “urban society” has its way, has its sway, how it subtly insinuates and brutally incorporates people and places into its global orbit. It does so slowly, over generations, through “evolutionary” modernisation processes; and it does so rapidly and forcibly, through theft and dispossession, through displacement and dislocation. Long-range entropy typically mixes with sudden and immediate catastrophe. This is how urban society takes hold, takes off, and keeps going, grows, expands, accumulates.

Lefebvre first announced the coming of urban society in 1970. It was a “revolutionary” process, he said, because the revolution in question is a drama in which assorted global ruling classes have played the lead role. It’s they who’ve initiated the will to totalise the productive forces, to colonise and commodify land everywhere, to valorise people and nature. Just as they’ve fracked deep into the earth and power-drilled monetised value from nature, ruling classes have begun fracking deeply into human nature as well, power-drilling value from different aspects of our everyday life, from dwelling space, from land and housing, from the whole public realm. It’s a process of creative destruction, of economic, political and ecological transformation; and it’s global and ongoing, bounded only by the upper limits of planet earth itself.

The opening line of La révolution urbaine sets the tone of things, uttering a bleak warning: “the complete urbanisation of society; today virtual, tomorrow real.” When Lefebvre said this I don’t think he was ever imagining that cities would be everywhere, that concrete and bricks, that freeways and highways would predominate every which way; he wasn’t suggesting the end of all green space and rural life. The latter would live on somehow, depleted and diminished; people would still work the land, likely as agricultural wage-labourers, likely for big agribusinesses who deal with mono-crops for export, to urban markets.

No, what Lefebvre was warning us about was the closing of the circle of a particular form of capitalism that defines itself less and less through a model of industrial or agricultural production and more through a process of spatial production, of producing planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. Otherwise put: he was warning us that urban society could be best defined as the progressive production of evermore frackable spatial units. In a way, I like to think that Lefebvre was hoping his thesis became untrue, that the process had to stop, or at least had to be diverted, even if there’s no going back, that urban society, like it or not, is here to stay.[2]

Berger gives us an narrative of intimate human drama; Lefebvre tries to frame this drama as fraught political struggle, full of threats as well as existential possibilities. Urban society is the battle ground for new forms of radical and progressive politics; it has to be. He affirmed this not out of any personal whim: capitalism has affirmed it out of historical necessity, has made it our “objective” reality, the arena in which we all must now engage. “The urban problematic, urbanism as ideology and institution, urbanisation as a global tendency,” Lefebvre says, “are worldwide facts. The urban revolution is a planetary phenomenon.”

Imagery such as this has lately sparked lively debate in urban studies, homing in precisely on the notion of “planetary urbanisation.” [3] Lefebvre’s allusions to “planetary urbanisation” are scattered throughout La révolution urbaine. Its most explicit reference comes in his valedictory essay from 1989, the two-page “Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire,” published a few years before his death.[4] Lefebvre’s language here is worth pondering on for a moment. Menace stalks us, he says; not so much of “planetary urbanisation” but of “the planetarisation of the urban” (la planétarisation de l’urbain). The ordering of the phrase is telling.

The urban, Lefebvre seems to say, isn’t transitive but intransitive: the urban doesn’t so much spread per se as becomes the vortex for sucking in everything the planet offers: its land and wealth, its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensible labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so menacing, because its energising and totalising force “expulses” (expels) people, “secretes” what Lefebvre calls its “residue.” This expulsion process makes urban space expand, lets it push itself out, has it further entangle rural space, and disentangle rural life.

Lefebvre says every big system leaves a residue that escapes it, that is chewed up and spat out by it, yet somehow, against it all, resists this system. Lefebvre, like Berger, knows how every whole leaves a remainder. (Remainders, after all, are the subject matter of the latter’s books.) It’s an idea most forcefully voiced by Lefebvre in Metaphilosophy, written half-a-decade before La révolution urbaine.[5] In Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre says that in any totalisation like global capitalism there’s always leakiness; there are always internal contradictions that structure and de-structure. Totalisation can never be total. Totalisation secretes and expels willy-nilly a “residual element,” its Other, its shadow. Displacement expulses replacement, dislocation expulses relocation, disenfranchisement expulses reenfranchisement. There are always people who don’t fit into any whole, who don’t want to fit in, who aren’t given the chance to fit in. They’re the stuff left over after all the sums are done, after everything has seemingly been accounted for: le reste after la somme. They are the philosophical anti-concepts, an affirmation of remainders, of marginal dregs, a growing constituency the world over.

Residues are remainders who live out the periphery, who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes that periphery is in the core. Residues exist in the world of work: precarious and downsized workers, informal and gig economy freelance workers, petty service sector and agricultural workers—residues are workers without regularity, workers without salaries, workers without security, workers without mainstream trappings such as benefits and pensions; they’re workers without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are displacees, too, people forced off the land, people thrown out of their housing (by impersonal property markets and violent eviction), people whose homes have been repossessed, whose living space teeters on the geographical and economic edge. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between. I call this somewhere in-between the global banlieue; I mean it literally and metaphorically, as a potential space of real encounter, one not yet fully glimpsed.

True, a few residues have made themselves residual, voluntarily opting out, self-electing and self-selecting to live differently, communually, marginally, in new communities sprouting up in urban squats or in experimental eco-villages. But in general resides are the superfluous ones, the Sucuses and Zsuzsas of our world, the NINJA (No Income, No Job, No Asset) generation; some might be loosely politically conscious of themselves as residues: Greeks who feel the brunt of the Troika austerity initiatives, dispossessed Arab and African youth in French suburbs, Detroiters beholden to “Emergency Managers,” Palestinians lobbing rocks at Israeli tanks, Rojava Kurds in northern Syria, seventh men and women, refugees rejected and rebuked and whose homeland is little more than an “imagined community,” Indignados on the streets of Spain, “June Days” Brazilians protesting public transport hikes, occupiers in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Umbrella kids in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, Nuitards staked out around Paris’s Place de la République. The list goes on, and on.

To affirm residues is to affirm what romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability”: the capacity of human beings to transcend and overcome their contexts, to live with contradictions, to resist contradictions, to innovate and blast through contradictions, to blast through social confinement and confining contexts and structures. To reassemble residues is, Lefebvre says, to think revolutionary thought, “a revolutionary thought-act” (pensée-acte). Throwing in your lot with residues is “to inaugurate an act of poiesis,” to declare war, to step up to the plate, to bat against crushing totality, to challenge it to a duel, “to toss the glove in the face of established powers.” It’s “to rise up in grand defiance against systems and acquired forms, to seize from them new forms.”

The spirit of Metaphilosophy gets worked through La révolution urbaine. Urban society is itself a metaphilosophical category, a will to totalise, a discontinuity within continuity, a difference in repetition, a breakdown of old industrial society, with its traditional city and traditional countryside, and its supersession—its overcoming—by a new form: diffusive, unbound and apparently planetary in its reach, beyond any city-rural breach. The journey from Pig Earth and Once in Europa to Lilac and Flag takes us through and onto the other side of this breach. Thus a profound existential problem is displaced onto the plane of urban society where it now transpires as a complex political dilemma, as an attempt to forge a “new humanism” (and humanitarism) out of the “bad side” of capitalist development.

Point to bear in mind: while planetary urbanisation is a theory trying to figure out totalisation under neoliberal capitalism, it shouldn’t itself be a totalising theory. It’s a theory of residues within a vortex, an attempt to figure out the politics of residues, the politics of remainders in the whole. Lefebvre even suggests that in this urban vortex the political ante is to formulate “a revolutionary conception of citizenship.” He says this is really what he meant all along by “the right to the city.” It’s about residues reclaiming (or claiming for the first time) their rights to a collective urban life, to an urban society they’re actively making yet are hitherto disenfranchised from: “the right to the city implies nothing less than a revolutionary conception of citizenship.”[6] So many people have been pushed off-limits that it’s extended the limit of limits, created an even more expansive social space for a new conception of citizenship, for a citizenship to be invented.

This conception of citizenship will have nothing to do with a passport: citizenship here lies inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation. That’s why it’s revolutionary: it doesn’t express a legal right bestowed by any institution of the bourgeois nation-state. What we’re talking about here is a citizenship that’s not the badge of business or a bickering nationalism. It’s a shadow citizenship without a flag, a sovereignty constituted by a going back to the future, back in the sense that the building block for this citizenship is the light of the ancient ideal of a citadin, a person belonging to the city, a citizen belonging to la cité, having a right à la cité. Only nowadays la cité might be more attuned to the modern word “urban.”

Urban, like cité, suggests a political object that isn’t an object as such; it doesn’t mean a direct link to a territory whose borders are policed. You don’t need a passport to have rites of passage or rights of residence in this jurisdiction. Citizenship means something more than birthplace or naturalisation and isn’t constructed around strict delimitation, between thresholds and frontiers, between citizen and non-citizen. “Being a citizen used to mean remaining attached to a territory,” Lefebvre says. “Now, in the modern city, the city dweller is in perpetual movement, constantly circulating and settling, then extricating themselves from place entirely…in the large modern metropolis, social relations tend to be international, not only for migratory reasons but also, and above all, because of the multiplicity of communication technologies, not to mention the globalisation of knowledge. Given such trends, isn’t it necessary to reformulate the framework of citizenship? City dweller and citizen must be linked but never conflated.”

Here “urban” gets away from seeing cities as just physical entities. Instead, urban incorporates all manifestations of capitalist economic dominance over everyday life, including rural everyday life. Urban, on the other hand, satisfies a “hospitable” ideal of citizenship because it can nourish people’s sense of identity without crushing other people’s identity. People can express and become themselves, expand and enlarge themselves through their connection with urban society, with a polis, within an urban constellation, in an open and shareable form of identity. They’ll be citizens of cities without a state. The modern nation-state is a dubious place to feel at home in, to define oneself by: it’s a toxic concept, a dangerous ideal, full of narrowmindedness and arbitrary prejudice that expresses one person’s identity while denying somebody else’s.

International law is still dominated by the rules of a sovereign state, by intangible and flimsy rules problematic for upholding peoples’ rights. Is it possible to create a citizenship beyond the nation-state, somehow above and inside the nation-state? After three-decades of citizenship denial by Assad’s Syrian military regime, Kurdish self-determination now appeals to a citizenship that isn’t about forming a state so much as affirming an autonomous, decentralised region, a participatory democracy without walls: KURDE AZAD SINORA NASNAKE—“Free Kurds Don’t Recognise Borders.” Kurdish democracy now constitutes a form of “Democratic Confederalism,” the creation of free self-governing communities throughout the Rojava region, with village, town and city assemblies organising themselves into a series of communes, which sort out everyday adminstration and service delivery. It’s an admirable radical experiment gravitating around the area’s major urban areas—Aleppo, Kobane and Qamishli—a die-hard militancy achieved in a bloodied, war-torn Middle-East.

Twenty-years ago, Jacques Derrida mused philosophically along these lines, and wondered whether it was possible to define a modern identity, and a modern cosmopolitanism, that bypassed the nation-state. His response was uncannily similar to Lefebvre’s. Yes, Derrida said, it was and still is possible: through relatively-autonomous cities, independent from any state, separate nodes allied to one another through “forms of solidarity to be invented.” We’re still trying to invent this solidarity; it has so far alluded us. Yet Derrida urges us to make “yet another effort.” He uses an intriguing phase to describe the pancea for urban dispossession: “villes-refuges”—“cities of refuge,” crucibles for a new kind of unconditional citizenship, for a new right to and of the city.

In the Old Testament, cities of refuge were set aside as sanctuaries for people who “killed accidentally” (cf. Numbers, 35: 9-32; Chronicles 6: 42 & 52; Joshua, 20: 1-9); “these towns will be cities of refuge,”Chronicles said, “for the sons of Israel as well as for the stranger and the settler amongst you.” What Derrida has in mind are cities of sanctuary for writers who undergo persecution because of their art and political views; but he hints, too, that the concept might apply to all displacees and emigrés, to all asylum seekers and refugees—writers or otherwise. Might we broaden this notion even more to include residues in general, safeguarding all the rootless and landless effected by everyday trauma, by the ordinary madness of our economic system?

“A new sovereignty of cities,” says Derrida, “would open up an original space for rights which inter-state national rights have failed to open up.” “We dream of another concept,” he says, “of another right, of a potential right of the city” (emphasis added). Derrida knows this is “an experimentation of a right and of a democracy to come.” He knows it’s wishful-thinking, utopian, especially since he gives us little sense of what a “ville-refuge” might look like, let alone how it might be achieved. Still, if we can build new towns, even whole new megacities, what’s stopping us from reconstituting a new ideal of urban belonging, from forging an international urban solidarity for which no state, party, trade union or formal institution seems willing to take responsibility?

In an odd sense, the “spectre” of a shadow citizenry looms, a blurry phantom of solidarity in times of crisis; its activism recognises that our national and international laws and rights are “out of joint.” Perhaps we need to read Derrida’s idea of “villes-refuge” in conjunction not only with Lefebvre and Berger but also with Derrida’s own earlier work, Spectres of Marx, where he spoke of a “New International”; “a profound transformation,” he called it, “projected over the long term, of international law, of its concepts, and its field of intervention.” This New International is “a link,” Derrida said, an affinity, a suffering and hope, a still discreet, almost secret link, but more and more visible, with more than a sign of it. It’s an untimely link, he says, without status, without title, without a name, barely public, without contract, without coordination, without party, without country, without national community, without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class.

We’re not sure what this International really is yet; we can’t name it anything positive. But it’s there nonetheless, we know it’s there, out on the horizon, more needed than ever before, needed everywhere. It’s a ghostly dream-thought of a new status for the city, for cities belonging to a democratic urban webbing, for a solidarity of confederated assemblies interrogating the essence of politics and the role of the nation-state: what is a citizen of the urban, a citadin of the twenty-first century?



[1] A Seventh Man (Penguin, London, 1975) is Berger’s now-classic treatise of European migrant workers. What compels the migrant worker to leave his village and accept this humiliation? Berger wonders. Far from being on the margins of the modern urban experience, the migrant is, Berger says, central to it.

[2] The progressive production of evermore frackable units is a “tendency” rather than a steadfast law. It’s tempered by only one thing: by social reproduction, by the need to reproduce labour-power. If everywhere were fracked for value, if everywhere masses of people (workers) couldn’t afford dwelling space, then the urban system would presumably break down. Marx, in Capital Volume 3 (Chapter 46), warned of the “monstrous power wielded by landed property,” used against “labourers as a means of practically expelling them from the earth as a dwelling-place.” It’s clear that “practically expelling” people from the earth as a dwelling-place is the driving force in the production of residual space.

[3] See Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Towards a new epistemology of the urban,” City 15(2/3) 2015:151-182 and Richard Walker, “Building a better theory of the urban: A response to ‘Towards a new epistemology of the urban’,” City 15(2/3) 2015:183-191

[4] Henri Lefebvre, “Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire,” Le monde dipolomatique, May, 1989, pp16-17. For an English translation, see Laurent Corroyer, Marianne Potvin and Neil Brenner, “Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32(2) 2014:203-205

[5] Lefebvre’s fascinatingly suggestive text has recently been made available to Anglophones: see Henri Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy (Verso, London, 2016)

[6] This is the last line of Lefebvre’s “Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire,” his last essay.

[7] Jacques Derrida, Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort (Edition Galilée, Paris, 1997). The text marked a speech that Derrida wrote (though never gave in person) for a meeting of the International Parliament of Writers, Strasbourg, 6th November 1995. Derrida was Vice-President of a Parliament that included Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Pierre Bourdieu and Edouard Glissant.


Posted in All | Leave a comment

The Amateur of Life

One of my all-time favourite essays on “amateur reason” is by the French poet Charles Baudelaire: The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863. Funnily enough, this set piece of art criticism has been celebrated for many things, especially as a paean to modernity—remember Baudelaire’s famous modern dictum: “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent”? But it has never been fêted for what I think it is: the best evocation of intellectual amateurism and critique of professional expertism. The amateurism in question is that of a singular man, Baudelaire says, an archetype we might say, a man who seeks no approval from anybody. He’s the nemesis of what constitutes self-promotional “success” today, of mediatised showboating. In fact, he wants to go about incognito, doesn’t even want Baudelaire to call him by name. So Baudelaire suppresses his name, uses instead M.G.—after Monsieur Guys, Constantin Guys, the painter of modern life.

No mere painter, Guys, no mere artist or professional specialist whose “conversations are limited to the narrowest of circles,” Guys was something more: “a man of the world,” Baudelaire says, a “world-minded” person, a person of the “whole world.” Guys hates to be called “specialist,” even hates the label “artist.” He hates to be tied down to an expertise like a serf tied to the soil, like an accountant tied to accounts. Guys wants to know everything, understand everything, appreciate all that happens on planet earth, its mysteries and miseries, its delights and charms, embroil himself in everything, depict it with paint on canvas, with pencil and charcoal on paper, with watercolours. How can somebody so open be an expert, a hired hand? Impossible. He’s passionate about passion. Baudelaire searches for the right epithet, calls Guys something thrilling: “a spiritual citizen of the universe.”

All of this is lightyears removed from today’s reality, from our cult of expertism, which is more akin to the blasé attitude Guys hates: the attitude of knowing everything, of having seen and done everything. Indeed, so much of what goes on in public life nowadays is a blasé privatised affair, the exclusive domain of policy wonks and business executives, of professional “experts.” Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation, into a representation done for and by experts, done from above and foisted down from above, onto a public, onto ordinary amateurs. Amateurs might want to have a say, might even be “experts” in their own right—in gardening, in amateur dramatics, in car mechanics, in painting—but what they say, and what they do, is taken as mere amusement, as something unimportant. Professional experts, by contrast, are people who apply themselves to specialisms in an important way. That’s how they’re commonly held. They’re there to be listened to, nodded at, taken seriously.

Experts know everything. To guard this expert status they must know everything. “Expert” becomes a pretext to say what you like in a certain context; it’s an opt-out clause, a denial of open-mindedness, of being inquisitive, of stretching your horizon. Experts affirm what they think they know matter-of-factly, never straying outside their comfort zones, where they’d be insecure, a non-expert, like the rest of us. So they play safe; expert circles shrink, vistas narrow, intellectual curiosity diminishes. Experts can’t drop their professional guard; an esoteric language sets them apart, gains entry into exclusive expert bodies, onto expert panels, ones strictly off-limits to rank amateurs, unless they’re the audience.

A staggering array of experts bodies now dominate the implementation of social needs and the adjudication of public utility. Expert managers and specialist middle-managers step up to the plate to bat at all levels of government; ditto economic policy; ditto health systems; ditto educational policy; ditto the business of science, its Research & Development, its scientific patents and intellectual property rights. Unaccountable agents head up the upper-echelons the Ministry of Finance and its regime of Accountancy Governance; elite technocrats and cabinet plutocrats, expert economists and accountants, consultants and advisors, think-tank experts offer not-so-laissez-faire encouragement to self-regulating market intensity; it’s these professional experts who try to maintain the functioning credibility and sustained viability of this fictitious commodity system, a reality of lies wherein economic crises are terribly truthful.

Experts are a self-perpetuating cabal who tell us what we must learn, what we must read, what needs to be sold, what aspect of public culture must to be written off, is without economic value, is “inefficient.” Experts tell us how we must present ourselves in public, how we must present ourselves to ourselves, how we must do our job, how we must talk and write. Experts tell us about our personalities and about our hopes and desires, about how we must live, and die. They tell us how to invest our money, if we have any, how much tax we should pay, and what our legal rights are. Experts even tell politicians how they should govern. It’s not that some experts are necessarily wrong; it’s more the mantle of power experts now assume, the worshiping of expertism, the degree to which the expert seems to rule supreme, are a law unto themselves, beyond ordinary, non-expert accountability. Experts are both a new church and a new mafia, seducing and extorting at one and the same time.

And then we have Baudelaire. Thank heavens for Baudelaire! Baudelaire tries to keep intact a romantic wisdom that seems ever more vital, more vitally needed than ever. The key section in The Painter of Modern Life is “The Artist, Man of the World, Man of Crowds, and Infant,” a subtle shift in dialectical logic, an amateur’s logic, though no less rigorous for it. To be sure, the movement from artist as specialist to man of the world, and then from man of the crowd to infant loosens the the grip any expert could hope to secure. It took one amateur to recognise his other, his semblable: Baudelaire is the painter of the painter of modern life, an artist who wrote art criticism for fun, about artists like Guys who often painted and scribbled for fun, for their own amusement, for pleasure. (The pleasure wasn’t always about content. Guys sketched modern death as well as modern life: for several years, on-the-spot, he drew battle scenes from the Crimean War, with fields strewn with human debris.)

Baudelaire didn’t consider art criticism or poetry as any kind of job, as any real métier, even if he sometimes got paid to do it, got tossed a few sous for his labours. He’d have done it for nothing anyway, and frequently did do it for nothing. But he was serious about his writing nonetheless, deadly serious. And although he seemed to write in solitary confinement, what he wrote was invariably destined for a wider, popular public. His Paris Spleen poems, like The Painter of Modern Life itself, weren’t written in learned literary reviews but featured as Op-Eds in Le Figaro. They were feuilletons of a roving reporter, episodes of modern vagabondage seen through the lens of a modern vagabond poet. Nothing could compare today. They were provocations rather pacifications, partial and political rather than paltry and platitudinal. The journalist-poet Baudelaire was equally serious as both a challenger and champion of “minor” artists like Constantin Guys, or of “major” ones like Eugène Delacroix, or Edgar Allan Poe, with whom Baudelaire fraternally bonded.

But Baudelaire never saw himself as a professional critic, as a professional anything for that matter. This wasn’t so much self-depreciation as self-affirmation, a furtive sidestep to unaccommodated and unco-opted amateurism, to free-floating outsiderness. Baudelaire had a distinct advantage here: he was never a university prof, was never crippled by wooden language, by academic tiffs, by career pretensions. He wasn’t hemmed in by methodological straightjackets, by the need to defend such-and-such a paradigm of thought. That’s perhaps what separates the specialist from the person of the world, the artist of the whole world who engages with the whole world. Willy-nilly they’ll have impact. Willy-nilly their point of departure is curiosity; Guys had it by the bundles; so did Baudelaire.

For the spiritual citizen of the universe, curiosity is a “fatal, irresistible passion.” Guys may have painted dandies and flâneurs but he certainly wasn’t one himself. The dandy and flâneur aspire to cold detachment, to indifferent restraint, rather like the today’s expert, who’s paid to behave “objectivity,” consulted for their passionless pragmatism, the antithesis of impassioned curiosity. The expert’s nonchalance is the nonchalance of numbers, of metrics, of hiding behind PowerPoint, of coolly voicing “facts” not opinions. Experts are demonstrative with data and deliverables; they are, like Baudelaire’s dandy, blasé “as a matter of policy.”

Spiritual citizens of the universe, though, are perpetually in convalescence (a strange term, I know, a term Baudelaire borrows from Poe), and here convalescence means taking stock after illness, maybe after a professional illness, after a near death experience that shakes you to your existential core. It’s the shock of recognition, a born-again realisation of who you really are. Convalescence is like “a return to childhood,” Baudelaire says, simultaneously a regression and eventual progression, seeing everything again as an infant sees everything, as you once saw everything: that is, with novelty, with newness and freshness, with curiosity, with a perception that’s “acute and magical.”

Imagination flows. Cynicism lifts. New delights glimpsed. New odours breathed. Faculties revived. Genius, says Baudelaire, in a lovely passage, is “childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped with an adult’s physical means to express itself, with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of material involuntarily amassed.” What else is this but the restlessness of non-specialism, the pure delight of wanting to know, of not already knowing, of wanting to know something new: “To this deep and joyful curiosity,” says Baudelaire, “one needs to attribute the fixed gaze and animal ecstasy of children before the new, whatever it may be: faces and landscapes, lights and glimmerings, colours.” But to engage in the world with passion, with the animal ecstasy of the child, you need to get out into the world. Thus, the major methodological motif of the person of the world: épouser la foule, to marry or merge with the crowd, to feel the elemental passions of ordinary life as it is really lived—for better or for worse.

This puts methodological amateurism into practice, very different from professional posturing, when expert protagonists rarely venture out of the office or conference room, and just as infrequently stoop low into the depths of humanity, to see it from the bottom upwards, from the inside. Theirs is a methodological superiority; the very nature of being “expert” already sets you apart, puts you above it all, more knowledgeable than what’s down below, outside. It’s a gaze looking down, not immersion in. Experts parachute into distant lands for a few days; World Bankers “advise” about infrastructure or whatnot, young “expert” consultants at McKinsey’s, with its “global research and information professionals,” collect and collate data, do it online, from afar, throwing themselves into projects with which they have little experience or feel for, notwithstanding Ivy League credentials. (That’s one reason why you get expensive botched jobs. It’s a recurrent theme within professionalism: incompetence.)

A couple of times Baudelaire even adopts the word “amateur.” Alas, it’s bowdlerised in all English translations I’ve seen. So Anglophones lose Baudelaire’s play of meaning, never hear him say “amateur.” Indeed, sometimes he does mean “lover of”; other times what he means really is “amateur,” somebody who does things for the love of doing those things, who does it without pay, with great competence, because of a deep emotional attachment, because of passion and curiosity. Unlike professionals, they’re not alienated from their subject matter. In the original Le peintre de la vie moderne, listen to Baudelaire: “l’amateur de la vie fait du monde sa famille.” THE AMATEUR OF LIFE MAKES THE WORLD [THEIR] FAMILY. It’s a beautiful evocation, worth spelling out in uppercase. But it’s an evocation that gets a bad rap in the “official” translations: “The lover of life makes the world his family,” which strikes as something different. Especially if we compare the next sentence, where Baudelaire says: “l’amoureux de la vie universelle entre dans la foule comme dans un immense réservoir d’électricité.” “The lover of universal life moves into the crowd like they’re entering an immense reservoir of electricity.” That’s how we might put it in English. But we’re lost in translation: the lover of universal life and the amateur of life elide into one great love. Maybe that’s fair enough; but Baudelaire is quite clear: he says both “amateur” and “amoureux” and here we might assume he wants to make a distinction, that there are two different types of lovers and doers, hence two different words: the amateur of life and the lover of universal life.

Doubtless there are plenty of experts who love life, too. Doubtless a few want to break out of their narrow expert confines, be really multidisciplinary, really exploratory, maybe even critical, maybe even childlike again about their learning. I’m not sure. Maybe there are others who’d like to stop their expert performing, pull the curtain down, because they know it’s all a silly game of show, an act. One problem is that experts operate within a professional context, within a whole professionalised apparatus that pumps out its own professional ideology, which grips people, interpellates people, “hails” experts and laypeople alike, slots them into occupational roles, into boxes and moulds. And it’s hard to break out of these moulds.

Oddly enough, it’s perhaps hardest of all for experts to break out. They’ve constructed an iron-cage around themselves, a prison-house in which they’re at once warders and inmates. A lot has to do with the “reputation economy,” with the ever-expanding industry of branding and blanding personal identity. Could we ever imagine Baudelaire or Constantin Guys giving a flying fuck about reputation? As if what they wrote or drew was ever dictated by the endless anxiety of worrying about how they appeared before professional audiences, about how they should forget disagreement, fall into line with the pleasing conformity of groupthink. It’s unimaginable. That’s why we might label Baudelaire and Guys “sincere,” that they were sincere about themselves and about what they did—they were authentic, we might also say. Fear of losing professional face in the reputation economy is a dead-ringer for insincerity, and, God forbid, for being struck off the exclusive “Directory of Experts.”

Most university academics now appear on their institution’s “Directory of Experts.” Here we have a searchable, alphabetic database of the “Research Expertise” of every faculty member, there as a resource for intrepid journalists who have an afternoon to write a story. Who to call to get the appropriate scoop about such-and-such a field? Who can offer the suitably condensed juicy soundbite? It’s all there for media offing, a simple list of words of wisdom journalists can use and abuse. If we hit a letter (either name or expert field), we can get a scholar’s intellectual profile, distilled into a half-dozen expertise keywords, a peculiar and particular branding that all universities have, that every “Centre of Excellence” peddles, which means every university. How to judge the most excellent amidst all this excellence? Which expert out of an endless roster of experts? Who is the most expert expert? Maybe there’s even a “Baudelaire” keyword, an expert on being an amateur in life? Maybe then we can get the relevant lowdown on poetry and wine, on melancholia and moroseness. I wonder which media might be interested?

Within these expert Yellow Pages, moving in and out of categories, if ever the whim strikes you, is a tricky affair. It’s like Agent Mulder or Scully from the X-Files: you’re typecasted and you can’t do anything else; no matter what, you’re gonna always be Agent Scully and Mulder. Disciplinary border controls and intellectual gatekeepers won’t give security clearance, won’t let you enter into unknown intellectual territories, into other thought-spaces where you’ve no reputation, no expertise—unless you bribe them with your big grant money. It’s a lost cause. Baudelaire’s wasn’t the only vie maudite, the only accursed life. Meanwhile, amateurs have their work cut out, too. To seek amateurism, says Baudelaire, is “damnation already done.” Amateurism will be your joy, for sure, but also your eternal curse, your perpetual challenge. It’ll be your mutiny in search of personal authenticity, your quest to tell the truth about yourself in a world that rewards you for telling lies, for playing its game, its Great Game. When you’ve persuaded yourself that bad faith is really good faith, and that you get a big payoff from society’s bad faith, you’re well on the way to living with your inauthentic self. It takes great acts of courage or folly to do otherwise, sometimes self-destructive acts of courage, like Baudelaire’s.

And here there’ll be a politics, always they’ll be a politics. The politics of amateurism is about dismantling our giant professional machine, stripping it of its legitimacy, of its functioning credibility. This dismantling has to be done from the inside as well as from the outside, from inside and outside of professional “expert” camps. It’s a drama involving double agents and great refusers, who’ll call out to others, to those who know how to strategise and disrupt; to those whose value systems are intact. Professional experts will have amateur alter-egos and shadow selves, Edward Snowden-like whistleblowers yearning to break free, warning of the totalitarian expert nightmare we’re all somehow entangled in. Double agents and great refusers will know how resistance today isn’t so much about what you do as who you are, ontological as opposed to epistemological, something that cuts right inside you, into your passionate beliefs, into your convalescence, into your democratic hopes and anti-professional desires. Resistance, in other words, needs to be wholesale, a total way of Being. Walter Benjamin reckoned Baudelaire was “an agent of the secret discontent of his class within its own rule.” Maybe we can see Baudelaire as an agent of secret discontent within our own professional class system, a secret amateur trying to shrug off “expertise.” He’s inviting us on a voyage yet condemning us forever to be an accomplice in a haunting and heartfelt ideal.

Posted in All | Leave a comment