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Dreamworlds of Catastrophe

Among the most affecting and disconcerting moments in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the British filmmaker Adam Curtis’s six-part ‘emotional history of the modern world’, is the tale of Abu Zubaydah, the Palestinian national and alleged al-Qaeda operative who has been detained without charge and tortured by US authorities for almost two decades. We first encounter Zubaydah in the context of the Afghan Civil War as he tries to recover from a shrapnel wound to the brain, and the ensuing fragmentation of his consciousness, by writing a diary. This ‘vast collage of memories and feelings’ (amounting to some 10,000 pages) is a testament to a splintering of experience and the emergence of multiple personalities. Doubts about the path taken by the Mujahideen mingle with reminiscences of youth – the jihadist’s unlikely passion for Chris de Burgh is mined by Curtis as he plays the saccharine hit ‘Lady in Red’ over footage of Afghanistan.

Zubaydah is not just playing a bit part in Curtis’s latest survey of the making of our dejected present, he is also something like an allegorical figure conscripted to embody a collective condition, as well as refract Curtis’s own practice of archival storytelling. As the director observes in his voiceover, ‘there was no story that made sense’ to Zubaydah anymore, ‘he was trapped in a perpetual now, haunted by fragments of memory, with no way of moving into the future’. At his bleakest and most intransigent, this is not just what Curtis says, it is what he does, in the thousands of cuts and samples that make up this Gesamtkunstwerk of the archival film-essay, which replays and remixes sundry leitmotivs from the over three decades of work he has produced for the BBC. The wash of melancholy that accompanies distant footage of Zubaydah being led to and from his cage at Guantanamo, as Curtis intones ‘his fragmented memories are now starting to fade’, crystallizes the claims that Curtis has long been making for ‘our’ politically disoriented and perceptually destabilized condition. (The ‘we’ – generically standing in for inhabitants of depoliticized parliamentary capitalist states – is as ubiquitous here as ‘the elites’, ‘the politicians’, ‘the old system of power’ or ‘the bankers’, along with ‘the scientists’, ‘the white radicals’, ‘the revolutionaries’, etc.)

Born in 1955 to a family with both a political and artistic orientation – his socialist father was a cameraman for the documentarian Humphrey Jennings – Curtis abandoned a PhD at Oxford (about ‘how politics got taken over by economics’, he has said) in his mid-20s for the BBC. Initially a researcher for daytime television, he has since the early 1990s made political documentaries of growing ambition. This latest series marks something of a departure, or at least a heightening of recent tendencies. While the works that made his name traced the unintended consequences of world-changing ideas launched by particular individuals or groups – following the symptomatic career of James Goldsmith from asset-stripping tycoon to nationalist critic of globalized capitalism in The Mayfair Set (1999), the arc from psychoanalysis to the focus group through Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays in The Century of the Self (2002), or the political entanglements of neo-Darwinism in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) – the multifarious protagonists of Can’t Get You Out of My Head are there more for the emblematic significance of their experiences than for their actual impress on events. This is even so for Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, whose counterintuitive figuration as the harbinger of a new individualism allows Curtis to delve into her early cinema career (and the virulent jealousies it seeded), as well as her promotion of the new revolutionary opera, but leaves the complex canvas of the Cultural Revolution painted in a predictable light (Mao’s power-grab, popular frenzy, and so on).

Thankfully, Curtis’s feel for the archive often overwhelms the representative tasks he has enlisted these individual stories for. The more he conveys a situated sense of their individuality – of the transgender activist Julia Grant’s struggles with a callous medical establishment, of countercultural prankster Kerry Thornley’s entrapment in his own conspiratorial fabulations, of black nationalist and enforcer Michael de Freitas and slumlord Peter Rachman as products and agents of a historical violence mainstream England wished to blot out – the more the grand narrative these biographies are meant to embody betrays its two-dimensional character. Whereas previous works sketched impressive if inevitably tendentious genealogies of the present – and were greatly aided in that effort by Curtis’s skill not just as a researcher but as an interviewer – the gain in affective texture in the new series is at the expense of its argument about how we got here.

Ever since The Century of the Self, Curtis has clung to a story that goes something like this: the failed revolutions of the 1960s accelerated the collapse of mass democracy into an individualism that left traditional political parties and elites without a people, sending them into the arms of financial operators and behavioural psychologists to manage and monetize these social atoms. The tale is rebooted here, bringing to mind an abridged version of the arguments that a Régis Debray or a Christopher Lasch were already making in the late 1970s, only with the dossier augmented by the unsparing group portrait of human rights interventionism (from Bernard Kouchner’s rescue of the boat people all the way to Blair’s vainglorious walkabout in Kosovo, not forgetting the unintended consequences of Live Aid on the Ethiopian Civil War). These fragments of our own political memory – as sampled, remixed and collaged by Curtis – are poorly contained by such a monotonous diagnosis, and are more compellingly experienced, especially through the mediation of Curtis’s compellingly curated soundtrack, as historical moods, whose cognitive potential remains at best ambiguous.

The ‘age of individualism’ has been greeted and its demise mourned at other junctures. For members of the Frankfurt School in exile, the America of the 1940s had already seen the demise of individuality and the surfacing of a ‘new type of human being’ – as Adorno wrote in a 1941 memo to Paul Lazarsfeld, his boss at the Princeton Radio Research Project, where the ‘like and dislike’ studies that anticipated the algorithmic manipulations of Facebook or Twitter were first conceived. Even in terms of Curtis’s own periodization, the ‘when’ of these mutations seems rather arbitrary. His animus against the Third Way notwithstanding, the idea that it was in the early 1990s that ‘the shift in politics had begun’ can easily be rebutted by turning to The Mayfair Set, which lingers on Callaghan’s 1976 Labour Party conference speech where, in reference to Keynesian state policies, he uttered the watchword: ‘that option no longer exists’. Curtis could just as well have turned to Carter’s 1978 State of the Union address (‘Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals. It cannot define our vision’). A dogged hostility to what he sees as the debilitating leftist academic narrative of neoliberalism (the ‘n-word’, as he dismissed it in a recent interview), and the effort to trace the mood rather than the origins or structure of our present, leaves an aesthetic of explanation without the required content or complexity – the capture of emotion without the current of history.

There are subordinate storylines grafted onto Curtis’s chronicle that are certainly more compelling, or at least suggestive, than his idée fixe. These include his excavation of the place of an invented folk tradition in Britain’s imperial and post-imperial machinations (which ultimately seems to draw a weird thread between the first Glastonbury festival and the rise of ISIS, while informing us that a biopic celebrating Saddam Hussein’s life shared a director with Dr No), and the adaptation of Timothy Mitchell’s thesis about carbon democracy that connects the geopolitics of the Gulf, the implosion of Appalachian mining communities and Sackler’s shift from medicating alienated suburban housewives with Valium to anaesthetising laid off manual workers with Oxycontin (the material history of emotions, as it were).

There is an irony, most likely intended, in the fact that much as a kind of mimesis takes place between Zubaydah, Curtis and the viewer, so there is a short-circuit between Curtis’s methods – scanning through hard drive upon hard drive of disparate digitized BBC footage – and the myriad projects of pattern recognition that populate this series. This is most evident when it comes to Curtis’s own emotional history of conspiracies, as he moves from Richard Hofstadter’s insights into the paranoid style, to a memo on pattern detection by Jim Garrison, the Louisiana District Attorney who tried to unmask the JFK conspiracy, and into Thornley’s ‘Operation Mindfuck’ and the unwitting birth of contemporary conspiracism from the spirit of the counterculture (the Illuminati presaging QAnon). Curtis also returns to the very real conspiracy that was the CIA’s MK Ultra programme, delving into the Montreal experiments overseen by Donald Ewen Cameron, whose brutal techniques of depatterning, so akin to Zubaydah’s torture, left behind fragmented rather than new selves.

The associative functions of montage, the contiguities of narrative (‘meanwhile’, ‘but at the same time’), the integument of ambient and pop music – all entice us to ‘spot the pattern’, but also to suspect that in the end the mapmaker cannot (and maybe does not wish to) extricate himself from his map. But pattern recognition is also crucial to two other interlinked domains – behavioural science, algorithmic finance – that flourish on the hollowed husk of ‘mass democracy’. Weaving in and out of the series (though not featured as protagonists as in earlier works) are the likes of the mathematician John von Neumann, the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, the complexity theorist Murray Gell-Mann, with their invention of new ways of seeing what cannot be seen, the logic beneath the chaos. In Curtis, ever since his first series Pandora’s Box (1992), the scientific always spills over into the political. Here, Geoffrey Hinton’s neural networks or Michael Gazzaniga’s multiple selves are mined for their resonance with the shattering of selfhood that shadows the ‘age of individualism’, while the monetization of pattern prediction resurfaces in the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s and the collateralized debt obligations that seeded the crash of 2007-8 – not to forget the place of pattern recognition in the understanding of climate change that preoccupies the third part of the series.

The history of pattern recognition as behavioural management (and depoliticization) is ultimately traced back to the classification, mapping and measurement that undergirded colonial power. The afterlives of the British Empire have populated Curtis’s work over the past two decades – accelerated by the ‘War on Terror’ and reformatted here in the flickering light of Brexit. Whether in the dancing of folk revivalists, the tawdry meetings of the League of Empire Loyalists or the brutal footage of concentration camps and informants during the Mau Mau Rebellion, it’s an unflattering collage. A not very cool Britannia.

Curtis is far from the kind of film-essayism – from Marker to Kluge, Miéville and Godard to Sekula – that would reflect back on the powers of the image. In the British context, the preeminent exemplar is the work of Patrick Keiller. But the affinity between his method of storytelling and his subject-matter carries its own uneasy reflexivity. It is difficult here not to consider the archaeology of Curtis’s own medium. The practice of montage has always pivoted around a choreographing of emotions. Eisenstein, the greatest theorist of film montage, summarized his doctrine in ways that could easily be folded into Curtis’s narrative, just as they might unsettle a narrative that waits for behavioural psychology to foreground the manipulation of selves and feelings. The powers that Curtis explores in the domains of psychology and the various behavioural sciences were in a sense pioneered with the cinematic image (so that, following Jonathan Beller, we can even approach our digitalized attention economy as a cinematic mode of production). Eisenstein himself spoke of ‘cinema as a factor for exercising emotional influence over the masses’, while famously suggesting that film, like a tractor, should plough the psyche of the viewer in the direction of a new class consciousness. The rhythmic montage of attractions is both what makes the filmic or video medium ideally suited to an emotional history, but also what always risks the history collapsing into the emotion, the mood. Tellingly, Curtis ascribes his sensibility to an early epiphanic reading of John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, along with Balzac and the nineteenth-century novel. It is Dos Passos’s ‘camera eye’, rather than Vertov’s, that informs his approach to the ‘great dialectic of our time, which is between individual experience and how those fragments get turned into stories, both by individuals themselves, and then, by the those in power above them’.

The danger of doubling down on fragmentation or mirroring our disoriented mood is not one that Curtis is unaware of – it might even be treated as a salient theme of his more recent work, from the installation piece It Felt Like a Kiss (2009) through to his last major film HyperNormalisation (2016). But it is very imperfectly offset by tying the tangled threads of history and biography that he has gathered into a refrain about how ‘we’ let the commodified promises of ‘individualism’ strip us of collective agency. Similarly, bookending this series with David Graeber’s optimistic dictum about our world-changing capacities sits uncomfortably with Curtis’s insistence, everywhere else, on the unintended consequences of passionately held convictions. That what progressive forces require is a good story, that the problem is not so much a deficit of power as one of meaning, is a hobbyhorse of Curtis’s, and may also be seen to fuel his abiding fascination with a supremely equivocal figure like National Bolshevik novelist and provocateur Eduard Limonov. In a recent interview with Jacobin, Curtis, no doubt in a bid to épater les gauchistes, provided a biographical clue for this inclination: ‘I used to be a skinhead when I was young because I loved reggae and ragga music. Skinheads are ambiguous characters, and I’m attracted to ambiguous characters.’

To turn to another of the work’s allegorical figures, the Black Panther militant Afeni Shakur (mother of Tupac, who in turn comes to represent the dead end of a rebellion in the domain of ‘culture’), it is when Curtis allows the framing narrative to fade that his emotional history allows us a glimpse of a politics, and of a political emotion, that refuses to be shoehorned into a story about depoliticizing individualism or hollow calls for the return of collective meaning. Questioning the undercover agent Ralph White as she was tried with the Panther 21, Shakur got him to aver that – though he was conspiring for the state and trying to lead the group into a murderous conspiracy – he had experienced their activism as ‘powerful, inspiring and beautiful’. Tarrying with the history and the everyday life of these political emotions, which no amount of elite depatterning ever fully eradicated, could prove a subtler and more powerful way to repair our fragmenting memories than the vague hope for a new ‘story’ that will lead us out of our ‘hypernormal’ present.

Read on: Alberto Toscano, ‘A Structuralism of Feeling?’, NLR 97.

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Signs Everywhere

Agustín Fernández Mallo is a radiation physicist who writes fiction about reality – or about his own pixelated, anti-realist perception of it. In the mid-1980s, when other students were getting legless at the post-dictatorship party of La Movida, he’d be writing all night with the TV on, guided, as he disarmingly recalls in Nocilla Lab, ‘by a ridiculous but not ineffective feeling of romantic superiority.’ He was on semi-automatic, filtering the world that reached him, pouring out fragments and fantasies distilled from TV, pop culture, science, history, the arts and just about everything else, not excluding literature. But he didn’t meet any writers until the age of forty, he’s claimed, evolving rather in his own mental Galapagos while working as a subatomic engineer. From this detachment he has castigated mainstream Spanish literature, especially poetry, for its failure to reflect global (post)modernity the way contemporary art has done – or even as well as the foreign authors on his altar, paradoxically retro figures from Borges to DeLillo.

Despite the striking novelty of his verbal installations, Mallo should not be accused of ‘originality’, a concept he quite properly rejects. ‘All Origin is a fallacy (in this I follow Nietzsche)’, he told 3:AM in 2017, justifying the right to appropriate. He is more of a beachcomber, though one who picks up less ‘low’ debris than you might expect from his assertion around the same time of the poetic equivalence of the Divine Comedy and a packet of Cheetos. The assimilation of Deleuze and Guattari, for instance, informs sly games with map and territory and allows him to call his storytelling ‘rhizomatic’, ramifying with a fluid spontaneity that relies on minimum research in favour of truth in the moment: many of the misquotes and almost-true facts derive from not looking up, apparently, though they come over as deeply artful. Who cares? For him, trained in systems both macro and micro, reality manifests in perpetual transformations of matter/culture throwing up capricious, quasi-mystical patterns; his fictions chart vast processes poking through on the intermediate, ‘human’ scale, with quantum uncertainty built in, free of psychological or sociological concerns. He considers himself ‘above all else, a poet.’ You don’t, in other words, read Mallo’s novels for the plot or the relatable characters.

The trilogy that so challenged the Spanish literary scene (Nocilla Dream, 2006, Nocilla Experience, 2007, Nocilla Lab, 2009 – Nocilla being Spanish for Nutella and referring to an iconic punk song) led to the instant media invention of a ‘Nocilla Generation’ that was furiously disavowed by the alleged members. What they shared was scorn for cultural supplements, loyalty to indie publishers and pugnacious introspection on select blogs. Then Mallo signed with the publishing giant Alfaguara, and his star rose. Another novel (Limbo, 2014), essays, and several books of poetry fill the interval between the Nocillas and Trilogía de la guerra (2018), now superbly translated by Thomas Bunstead into The Things We’ve Seen. If the Nocillas were disjointed and parataxic, expository of a method and a set of raw sources, this sequence of three books is closer to conventional narrative, in a neutral register allowing for deadpan dissonance, and narrated by three practically interchangeable voices; one of Mallo’s points is that we are interchangeable.

Book I is told by a Spanish artist invited, as Mallo was, to a livestreamed conference on the tiny islands of San Simón, site of a concentration camp during the Civil War. After a period of amnesia brought on by a strangely shaped biscuit, he reappears in New York, where he becomes obsessed with trash, the residues of life and time, and finally in Uruguay, following up a San Simón trail of two men and discovering that the one he’d thought was the prisoner was actually the jailer, there being no essential difference from far enough away. This book dwells on ideas of fossils, archaeology, the past – historical but especially organic. Early on, with grainy Sebaldian photos to prove it, the narrator tracks down the sites of old snaps of prisoners and retakes the now deserted scenes, causing him to meditate on ‘the disappearance of flesh’, something the evening meal does not distract him from: the menu ‘led me to reflect on the special nature of eating … a kind of ritual in which … we made something sacred disappear forever.’ (Or not: vomit will play a major signifying role.)

Not only the narrators proceed in chains of this-made-me-think-about. The people they meet talk the same way and notice the same sort of things at the same sort of length, and there is little dialogue: shades of Being John Malkovich, though the multiplication of flat, sententious POVs tests reader stamina to the limit. Still, with this device among others, Mallo’s structural rather than linguistic plasticity undercuts the linear nature of writing. Echoes, implosions and coincidences soon make us feel we are circulating in a single space-time of displacements and substitutions. Shapes, for example, repeat in different scales or contexts: the reservoir in Central Park has the outline of Iberia. The most bravura example of this form of paranoia – signs everywhere – is given to a Dalí avatar who establishes a connection between the Twin Towers, the twin girls in the corridor of The Shining, the two columns of the pause icon on a screen, and (the narrator’s later input) a line in one of Lorca’s New York poems. It stays with you.

Book II is concerned with the shiny idea of ‘future’. We’re in the mind of Kurt Montana, who grew up in the optimism of post-war America, enjoyed killing people in Vietnam, and after training as a pilot (cue aperçus about forms only perceivable from above) became an astronaut, despite having weak lungs. But he doesn’t appear in any of the Moon Landing photos, because he was the photographer. Always the loser, he is now an alcoholic working in a nursing home. As he rambles back and forth over his life, the future shrinks. Archaeological metaphors reappear, such as the bottomless layers of old carpet and lino lifted to clean a smelly apartment, which prompts a super-Mallo moment: ‘All that had happened was these things being moved to and concentrated in that single point … I fell asleep thinking of the universality of this flow of ideas and bodies.’ Subtitled with an inaccurate quote from ‘Life on Mars?’, this middle book is pretty funny, in a straight-faced way, because Kurt is such an absurd composite, and the writer’s audacity can thrill. At one point Kurt recalls a visit to his lottery-winning parents in Florida, to see their latest hopeful project – holiday timeshares. Nothing could dent their positivity, though the complex was falling apart faster than they could fix it. But just when I’d had enough standard satire on an American Dream always-already in ruins, Kurt describes chancing, decades later, on a Jeffrey Eugenides story  called ‘Timeshare’. ‘I could hardly believe what I was reading: nothing short of a blow-by-blow, word-for-word account of the time I spent in Florida that March, except one or two small circumstantial details’ which he goes on to parse at length, uncurious about the crazy main fact.

There are many such almost-repetitions, landmark nodes in a thickening net. In Book III, following an ex-girlfriend of Book I’s narrator (or of someone almost identical) as she retraces a Normandy hike they once did together, elements of the novel’s mythology can be spotted like beeping, unintelligible transmitters half-hidden in the litter of thoughts and things. They include golf balls in space, fires in Africa, ATMs, fainting, fractals, cookies in the shape of a pregnant dog, KFC, three-coloured pencils, and walking in others’ footsteps. Oddly, for an author who harps on the epistemology of the internet age, there is no social media. War itself, despite the Spanish title, is glancingly dealt with as an amoral mechanism, as much connector as disruptor. Avoiding the obvious, Mallo is after what he calls the ‘B-side of reality’: shadows and parallels, the errors and mutations that are most influential for occurring unseen.

One war-related image, hauntingly reworked – and surely the core of the book – links physical disintegration to a helplessly absorbed residue. For instance, the atomised matter of the Twin Towers: ‘It must be pretty strange knowing you’ve got particles of people’s spleens inside you, particles of pens and hair, of Turkish rugs and asbestos …’ Kurt is afraid he’s got a Vietcong man he killed inside him, after a flock of birds that were eating the body suddenly attack his head, Hitchcock-style. The Normandy beaches are full of ground-down bones, thinks the female narrator: ‘all those souls with phalluses surely still residing among the cockle shells, salt crystals and seaweed, sand too … later to be used in the construction of houses, bridges and motorways’; the stains appearing on cement are the extrusion of that human dust. At an exhibition in the Einstein Museum, she notices hunks of melted matter from Hiroshima, fused with the porcelain of a teacup, which already contains bone ash; this compound makes Hiroshima itself, whose people also took the disaster into their bodies, into ‘the great porcelain artefact of the West.’

At the end of Book II comes a version of this absorption of the other that is genuinely moving, because willed. In a side-story whose text has literally materialised on X-rays vomited by George Bush Sr (I simplify), we are in a future Spain turned desert, almost everyone evacuated by air, à la Ray Bradbury. A family survives on supermarket tins. The little boy, then the wife, disappear. Much later the man finds his son’s rubber ring. He puts the valve into his mouth and squeezes, ‘taking into himself all the remaining air, until not a single drop of what was his son’s breath remains.’

This entropic tendency toward the undifferentiated – first, high and low culture flattened and blended, then our very atoms – is not easy to embrace. After all, no less a philanthropist than Mark Zuckerberg recently crowed that ‘we are moving to a world in which we all become cells in a single organism.’ Perhaps we should set it in the context of something ordinarily existential that Mallo once said: ‘The only subject I really care about is loneliness.’

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘Post-Postmodernism?’, NLR 59.

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You’re Over

Among Bolsonaro’s first acts as president was a scorched-earth assault on Brazilian cinema. He eliminated all state financing of film production, had the Cinemateca Brasileira – home to one of the world’s five largest film archives – effectively shuttered, and suspended funding for film festivals at home and for sending artists to festivals abroad. Then came the pandemic to put the sector out of its misery: the cinemas were closed for much of 2020, and when they reopened, most of the public stayed away.

All that remained were the online film festivals. These draw support from the global circuit which, in recent decades, has swelled the worldwide audience for art films. Such digital events are modelled on the festivals at Cannes and Venice, but with a broader range of films permitted to define themselves as ‘artistic’ – usually resulting in an aesthetic conformism, even when the subject matter itself is not particularly commercial.

This is the case with experimental films and documentaries, both of which are so well-represented at these festivals that they almost make up an aesthetic category in themselves. Many of the former are positively yawn-inducing, awash with empty, self-indulgent images, submerged in a sensibility of false refinement that makes no real impression on the collective consciousness. The documentaries, meanwhile, provoke yawns for other reasons, characterized by the trudging alternation of archive images and commentaries from assorted talking heads. These works suffer from the same flaws that define the worst kind of journalism, compressing a complex reality into a worn-out rote formula. We are a long way from the shock of Chris Marker’s La Jetée or the anguished tenacity of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog.

In this context then, it is remarkable that Brazilian cinema has recently produced three films as creative and politically incisive as Carlos Adriano’s O que Há em Ti, Rubens Rewald’s #eagoraoque, and Bárbara Paz’s Babenco. All emerged through the festival circuit but refuse to be boxed in by its conventions. All were produced either after Bolsonaro’s assumption of the presidency, or in the immediate run-up to it, and each, in its own way, deals with the deeper conditions that gave rise to his ascent.

To start with Adriano’s O que Há em Ti, which is only 16 minutes long. A literal translation of the title would be, ‘What There Is in You’, although the play on ‘Haiti’ in the Portuguese allows it to be rendered officially as Brazil is thee Haiti is (t)here. A word on the director. Carlos Adriano is a rare, perhaps unique, case within the landscape of contemporary Brazilian cinema. He has made dozens of films, of varying length. He doesn’t go looking for success; he is an eminently personal, subjective auteur; highly educated, with two post-doctorate degrees, his raw material consists of cinema footage itself, specifically archive images. His artistic influences can be found in poetry, above all in formalist verse, and Russian constructivism, both visual arts (Malevich, Rodchenko) and movies (Dziga-Vertov, Eisenstein). None of his films is linear: what generally distinguishes them is their sense of abstraction and, in many cases, self-conscious aestheticization.

O que Há em Ti retains this general aesthetic framework, though the crux of the film is the politics of the present moment. It deploys a piece of found footage, whose motif is a two-word phrase: Você acabou – ‘You’re over’. On the night of 16 March 2020, a black man accosted Bolsonaro in front of the Alvorada Palace, his official residence in Brasília. This is where, heading out in the morning or coming home at night, the President stops to consort with his admirers (police ensure that nobody else is able to enter the area). That evening, however, a man came up to Bolsonaro and said: ‘You’re over.’ The President pretended not to have understood, whereupon the man completed his thought: ‘You are no longer president.’

Having said his piece, he disappeared. Nobody knows his name, his occupation or his motives. Was he an avenging angel, visiting from the future to share the good news of Bolsonaro’s downfall? All that is known of him is what he said that night: ‘I’m from Haiti, I’m Brazilian’. 

Adriano replays this scene with variations innumerable times: he provides close-ups on the hand gestures, puts the sequence into black and white, divides the screen, blurs the images, transposes them into negatives. It becomes a kind of visual mantra, with an accompanying musical mantra provided by the lyric ninguém é cidadão (‘nobody is a citizen’), from ‘Haiti’, a 90s rap track by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Both point in the same direction: Brazil and Haiti share a historical trajectory, their development arrested by the deformation of colonialism. The wider historical context appears through a series of references: Toussaint Louverture on the Haitian revolution and the abolition of slavery; the poetry of Aimé Césaire; Paul Robeson’s political interventions; the Black Macbeth of Orson Welles.

Suddenly, the screen turns black and the film takes a sharp detour to the recent past. White text appears onscreen relating the massacres perpetrated by the Brazilian military during its 13-year deployment in Haiti, authorised by the Workers Party government. On 6 October 2005, troops from MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, under the command of Brazilian generals, invaded the slum quarter of Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince and killed 65 people. The film gives the names of the officers responsible for these acts of barbarism, who were subsequently promoted to senior military positions by Bolsonaro. Is it ‘over’? Hardly. O que Há em Ti shows Bolsonaro at the height of his recent agitation for a coup d’état, when he demanded the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court, by force if necessary. Speaking at a demonstration, he roars: ‘It’s over, fuck it!’ The repressive impulse is still very much alive and has now been turned back against Brazilians.

Rubens Rewald’s #eagoraoque#and now what? – contains a scene, only a couple of minutes long, which is so brutal that it seems to last a half-hour. A young black man starts caressing the face of a white spectator, whispering: ‘Buy!’ He gets closer and closer and, when the two are only a few centimetres apart, he roars – 204 times – the furious imperative: ‘Buy!’ You can almost feel the spittle.

In another scene, the same white man, who we now know to be a philosopher, speaks with two favela residents from the outskirts of São Paulo. He tells them that the intellectuals and the favela-dwelling poor can learn from one another and should join forces to revolutionize Brazil. He gets an unwelcome response: no chance. ‘What, us over here, and you tucked away over there?’, one of them asks. A black girl informs the esteemed intellectual that white academics are paternalists and ideologues, looking to manipulate the disenfranchised. The clothing of these young people almost seems like a uniform: T-shirt, piercings, tattoos, a hat or cap. They repeat, ad nauseam, a question that won’t be evaded: ‘Tá ligado?’ (‘You get me?’) ‘Perhaps what I meant to say didn’t come across clearly…’ ventures the philosopher, at which, there’s a hail of shouting. ‘What, you don’t think we can understand you?’ The philosopher falls silent; white as wax, bald and sporting a Lenin-like goatee. He bows his head.

Scenes like this give #eagoraoque a feeling of high voltage. The rather weak title is a gesture towards social media, an area that these filmmakers otherwise do not engage with. It is the work of a collective at the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s most prestigious university: the critic and writer Jean-Claude Bernadet, the philosopher and musician Vladimir Safatle, and the playwright and film director Rubens Rewald. All are part of the left intelligentsia, a category under attack from the Bolsonaro government and often deprecated as well by feminists and black activists from the favelas and poor neighbourhoods. As Bernadet and Safatle appear as themselves, the film elides fiction with documentary to the point of making it impossible to divide the real from scripted or unscripted dramatic enactments.

Bernadet, at 84, is an intellectual of the old-guard who, in his latest work, is returning to the themes that concerned him in the 1960s: the relations between aesthetics and politics, popular struggle and the petty-bourgeoisie. Belgian by birth, Bernadet was a leading critical theorist of the Cinema Novo movement spearheaded by Glauber Rocha. The 47-year-old Safatle, meanwhile, cuts a rather different figure: a philosopher of a newer generation, public-facing and cosmopolitan, attentive to micropolitical details, and eager to connect with the energies of Brazil’s disenfranchised peripheries.

In the very first scene of the film, Bernadet sees a girl playing an extremely violent video game. He asks her if she likes killing people. Quite candidly, she replies: ‘Yeah.’ Afterwards, we see Bernadet practicing marksmanship and then singing the Internationale in the shower. He ends up wounding himself in the breast with a knife. Safatle, meanwhile, against the backdrop of a shelf stacked with books in French, Greek, Latin and English, explains to his daughter that people’s assemblies are a kind of mechanistic political theatre, but nonetheless an indispensable element of revolution. Without missing a beat, the girl asks him: ‘How do you want to make a revolution without listening to other people?’

The film is full of philosophical exchanges between Bernadet and Safatle, but these frequently become the object of ridicule or contestation. In two of them, for instance, the interlocutors are inconvenienced by the intrusion of poor people: a cleaner vacuuming, and a waitress who serves them coffee. These women exemplify a different species of ‘alienation’ from that which the two intellectuals are fond of discussing. A simple device, but effective.

Equally effective are the snippets of dialogue from various popular Brazilian figures hailing from both the academy and the favelas, including the rapper Mano Brown (‘what’s killing people is blindness and fanaticism: you don’t understand the people anymore, you’ve lost it’) and the leader of the homeless workers’ movement, Guilherme Boulos (‘the people who were holding that space nine years ago have all got themselves a nice little place by now’). But the most damning line of the film is an inadvertent one delivered by the philosopher Marilena Chauí to an assembly of thousands of anti-Bolsonaro students: ‘Goodnight, USP!’ The line brings home that the scene is taking place within a bubble at the University of São Paulo, isolated from the lives of the mass of impoverished Brazilians.

The disorientating alternation between skits and non-fiction sequences underlines the fact that Rewald, the director, aims to foreground contradictions rather than to provide ready answers. Leaving the viewers to draw their own conclusions, #eagoraoque sometimes seems to flail without direction – and may itself provoke some murmurings about the gulf that separates middle-class intellectuals from the masses. Indeed, this is a classic subject of discussion in Brazilian culture, which Rewald, Safatle and Bernadet are seeking to exhibit in its contemporary form. They are principally committed to noting the differences in the language used by the two social strata. As in Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth), the great Brazilian film of the 1960s, the ‘trance’ of rhetoric supplants the firm ground of the real for many of the intellectuals depicted.

The third film, Babenco – Alguém Tem Que Ouvir o Coração e Dizer: Parou, is directed by the actress, Bárbara Paz. (The subtitle has been translated for Anglophone viewers as Tell Me When I Die, but a closer rendering would be, Someone Has to Listen to the Heart and Say: Stopped.) Although its apparent subject is Paz’s late husband, the film director Héctor Babenco (1946-2016), this is no straightforward biography; and though it has been selected to represent Brazil in the documentary category at the next Oscars, it is far from conventional Hollywood fare. Babenco does not concern itself with didactically imparting knowledge. Though the film reproduces scenes from Babenco’s films – Pixote, Ironweed, Carandiru, At Play in the Fields of the Lord – it does not identify them. It doesn’t proceed chronologically, nor give the names of those who speak about Babenco.

The film is deeply unconventional, just like its subject. Born in Argentina to a family of Jewish heritage, Babenco left the country in his youth and spent years wandering penniless in Europe. He read the Beats, worked as an extra in Italian films, frequented the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, before going to live in Madrid. Imprisoned in Spain for theft, he was convicted and served a sentence – an experience that he would draw on when filming Carandiru, his portrait of the Carandiru Penitentiary in São Paulo, Latin America’s largest prison, in 2003.

Eventually settling in São Paulo, Babenco began to sell cemetery tombstones and, for the first time, found himself with some money to spend. He fell in with people in the film industry, and started helping out on set as a lighting technician, a cameraman, a continuity supervisor. Eventually he got the chance to direct, and revealed himself to be a great talent. In 1980 he made Pixote, a powerful denunciation of the plight of impoverished children in Brazil. Hollywood opened its doors after he made Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), based on the novel of Manuel Puig, which won William Hurt the Oscar for Best Actor. Around the same time, at 37, he discovered he had lymphatic cancer, which would afflict him for the rest of his life.

The film, though, refuses to transform Babenco into a celebrity or a cult icon. As a narrator, he is aloof and elusive: he sees himself neither as Argentinian nor as Brazilian; he is not religious; he doesn’t believe in collective solutions to the oppression and poverty in Latin America. He appears – young, hirsute and robust – and discourses on the past and present. He appears – old, bald and with one foot in the grave – and continues dreaming of the future. When we hear him idly humming ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, we feel his presence in the here and now, yet we also feel that he is nowhere, a slippery and timeless figure. 

The images from Babenco’s films ultimately acquire a distinct value of their own in the documentary: that of laying bare this stateless man, this ‘wandering Jew’, this most rootless of artists. The film also lays him bare in a very literal sense – spotlighting the irreducible reality of his naked body. Paz’s camerawork roams freely across Babenco’s fragile form. With no sense of morbidity, she discovers his beauty as he rests on the verge of death. She has composed an elegy, which almost seems to be grabbing her lover by the shoulders, looking him dead in the eyes, and saying: ‘You’re over.’ Héctor Babenco might indeed be ‘over’, but this powerful film proves that – despite the best efforts of Bolsonaro – radical Brazilian cinema is not finished yet.

Translated by Max Stein

Read on: Roberto Schwarz, ‘Political Iridescence’, NLR 75.

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Macron’s Wars

Hard to put it simply, but perhaps (Groucho) Marx can help. ‘Why, a child of five could understand this’, he would exclaim, gesturing at the staff map. A pause. ‘Fetch a child of five.’ What would that prodigy make of the sight of France, battling in Africa – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad? First, that a civil society for which the death of two soldiers on manoeuvres is a national trauma, meriting an emotional ceremony and a presidential address, has reached the point where waging war anywhere has become unthinkable. In 1914–18, a thousand killed at the Front was a good day; ten thousand in a single offensive, a bad one. Today, for the first time in two centuries, France is governed by a generation with no experience of civil, colonial or world war. For these young managing directors, soldiers are civil servants, held to accountancy principles. When nothing is worth the loss of life – and life, therefore, worth nothing – better assign them to less dangerous tasks: psychological – patrolling the city; technological – robotization or cyberwarfare, most urgent of all.

Yet a nation, like an individual, inherits certain repetition compulsions from its past – ‘uncontrollable processes’, as Freud put it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as a result of which the subject unconsciously but deliberately places himself in distressing situations, thereby repeating an old experience, but without recalling it. The subject, by contrast, is under the strong impression that the situation is fully determined by the circumstances of the moment. For France, one of those amnesiac processes is known as ‘Foreign Ops’. This is an unvarying drama, composed of three phases.

The first is euphoria. Not conflict but intervention, pacification or ‘regional stabilization’ is at stake. Initial success swells the optimism. The operation appears to make good sense, for it targets the same enemy everywhere: a conquering, multifaceted ‘ism’ – communism yesterday, terrorism today. That communist countries could come to blows – the USSR against China, Vietnam against Cambodia – should have been sufficient proof that this was not a homogeneous entity. Terrorism even less: no Comintern or Manifesto, and the practitioners can equally well set about exterminating each other (Shiites versus Sunnis, for example). To take the adjective for the noun is to mistake the subject; to forget about national, religious or tribal factors. The discourse serves to conceal a complex reality behind a simplistic abstraction: a textbook definition of ideology.

The ‘ism’ simplifies the process of selling the military operation to public opinion. The expert, the adventurer and the intellectual affirm the consensus. The first, a retired military type, will talk tactics, logistics, last-minute reinforcements (the ‘surge’). The second, a worldly, well-travelled sort, will evoke on his return from the conflict zone the suffering but also the hard-won virtues of the intervention. The third, a blowhard, will speak in capital letters about values and the West (to the point of transmuting Taliban into ‘freedom fighters’ and jihadis into admirable rebels). Heading this trio is the Commander in Chief – the most dangerous of all, because the occupant of the presidential palace knows nothing of the regions where the shooting takes place; his compass is the latest opinion poll and he thinks – if he thinks – in the very short term: about his re-election.

A more helpful trio would be the ethnographer, the historian, the geographer; regional specialists, not opinion-makers. The risk with these over-prudent scholars would be to see too clearly the mounting complications – the entanglement of traditions, tribes, climes, faiths. Thus, for example, the brilliant invasion of Libya was undertaken without consulting specialists on the country, nor even the French Ambassador to Tripoli, an eminent Arabist. A telegenic ignoramus served as expert opinion.

And so, with the best of intentions – responding to a cry for help, reacting to an atrocity – these valiant interventionists find themselves among populations of whose history, language, religion, cuisine and family structures they know nothing. Armed missionaries are not loved, and the natives know well enough that Robocops descending from the skies will leave again one day; after which will come the settling of scores (another reason to be careful). On paper, the ‘human’ of ‘human rights’ has no memories, no gods, no attachment to the soil. On patrol, there will be some surprises.

Robert McNamara, Defense Department overseer of the Vietnam War, drew up a balance sheet 27 years later. Effectively, he said, we knew nothing of Vietnam and its people. We were not in our own country and we could only lose this war of independence, despite our formidable military superiority. The domino theory proved false (if Vietnam falls, so does the rest of Asia). But no history lessons were learned. McNamara’s later candour did nothing to prevent his country imperturbably following suit in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria – same line, same bitter outcome. There is good reason to think that France, at the appropriate scale – 5,000 troops, not 500,000 – intends to take up the burden (though with the decisive logistical support of its big boss leading from behind). With one notable difference: in France, the military-industrial complex pales beside what Pierre Conesa, former Defence Ministry official, has dubbed the military-intellectual complex. It’s a longstanding paradox: civilians with no experience of battle tend to be more zealous warmongers than the military themselves.

The second phase is despondency. Things get off to a good start, given the overwhelming disproportion of forces – mastery of the skies, the seas, the cities; spy satellites, drones, etc. – and the chest-thumping President has seen his popularity soar. But soon afterwards, amid general inattention and indifference – people have other fish to fry – the intervention force is bogged down in a war of attrition, with its victims and its blunders. An appeal is made to the allies, who jib at it, despite the humanitarian support of the UN, for only an empire can smoothly cobble together an ‘international coalition’. It is beyond France’s means.

The next big idea is training local forces, so that those we have come to save can bail out their saviours. There will be talk of Vietnamizing, Afghanizing, Sahelizing, etc., the outcome, of constructing an ‘Iraqi’ or ‘Malian’ army. This is the hour of nation-building, under the direction of a foreign occupation. Result: corruption, desertion, double-dealing, listlessness. The supposedly brand-new local army, charged with protecting the protectors, fails to render the expected service. It is seen from the start as an auxiliary force and thereby discredited. Anti-occupation sentiment spreads among the exasperated population, erupting in protests. In the metropolis, questions begin to be asked – at first cautious murmurs, then voiced aloud. What’s the point of all these deaths, all this sacrifice, for such ingratitude? All these millions spent far away when there is such a crying need for them at home?

The third phase, then, involves covert preparations for returning home. It starts with an official denunciation of the ‘cowardly advocates of a pull-out’, heedless of the dire consequences that will ensue; because, of course, there is no negotiating with terrorists. This is the obligatory prologue to the opening of secret talks, soon made public. But it is already late and there is little to discuss other than the modalities of a – hopefully, honourable – retreat, which rarely include the fate reserved for local recruits. The West houses an invasive species, but one which has the knack of waving goodbye, in Kabul or Tripoli alike, without worrying about what will follow (the USSR in Afghanistan was no exception to the rule).

With good reason: coming to remedy disorder, the intervention leaves chaos in its wake. The page will be turned without a word being said. ‘How can a 100-to-one ratio of conventional forces result in failure every time?’ is the question not to be asked, the critical balance sheet to avoid – allowing the same process to be repeated the following decade, with other presidents, moralists and humanitarians, as if there had never been a precedent.

What then, should the West stop defending its interests, its businesses, its citizens? Tear up its defence agreements, abandon its dependents? Here a realist à l’américaine could whisper a few words of advice to such epigones. There are two ways to proceed: a knock-out punch – aeroporting in and out, commando-fashion; and/or an entrenched ground camp, as in Iraq. This solves nothing in the longer term, but it limits the damage. A cynicism with little honour, to be sure. But in asymmetrical warfare, where superior intelligence racks up stupidities, it is pointless to dream. The Bridge of Arcola – seizing it was Napoleon’s glory – is and will remain beyond your reach.

Translated by Ros Schwartz

This article was originally published in Le Figaro under the title «La France du XXIe siècle face à la guerre, l’éternel retour des mêmes erreurs»

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The Centre Can Hold’, NLR 105.

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Burning Bodies

The acute, tender personal essays of Megan Nolan have developed a significant online following in recent years. Her readers – myself included – look forward to the publication of her next piece, where we will no doubt find some aperçu that will illuminate things we knew to be true about ourselves but lacked the words to articulate. Nolan, born in Ireland in 1990 and now based in London, specialises in unflinching self-exposure: her articles for the New Statesman, the New York Times and elsewhere are assured exercises in introspection that tend to circle around the body, sex and relationships. The particular feeling or concern to be anatomized tends to be announced in the opening line. A recent essay on what lockdown has meant for those like her, for whom ‘social comfort comes from dating or from having sex with strangers’, begins: ‘In early lockdown, I spent most evenings in the front room of my mother’s house, drunk, staring at a computer, reeling at the prospect of my body being deprived indefinitely of touch’.

One of her most affecting pieces deals with her history of self-mutilation and compulsive biting of her fingers. It is a condition Nolan shares with the unnamed narrator of her debut novel Acts of Desperation. The essay, published in 2019, is typical of her writerly procedure: an event, in this case the engagement of her best friend, prompts her to focus in on an aspect of her life she considers shameful. Her ‘dermatophogia’, as she categorises it, is then traced back through her history – she notes how when single she would let the tearing of flesh become so bad as to grow infected, causing her to be ‘ashamed of what feels like uniquely, viscerally ugly behaviour, the mess of skin and bone and chewing, all so animal’. Violent imagery and polysyndeton are both characteristic of her prose. The essay concludes on a redemptive note – but it is not that Nolan has overcome her condition, only made peace with it: ‘There is no end to me, my body, myself; I am a problem there is no solution to’. It is an elegant ending, and one that evades resolution, lifting the reader from the specific concerns of the piece in a volute of thought.

I return to Nolan’s journalism so as to better understand her novel and its limitations. At the turn of the millennium, the critic James Wood proposed a new genre by which to assess Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth. He called it ‘hysterical realism’, also including within its rubric ‘big contemporary’ novels like those of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo. These novels were ambitious, the kind of work that ‘knows a thousand things’ but in Wood’s analysis ‘does not know a single human being’. So anxious were they to represent the complexities of the modern world that they neglected the individuals inhabiting it; a restless zaniness and propensity to caricature elided the complexity of human beings, when for Wood the novel’s essential domain is the realm of consciousness. Acts of Desperation, by contrast, might be considered as the polar opposite type of novel: a work that wishes to know nothing at all, but for a single human being.

This need not be a negative appraisal. Though willing to consign her own novel to Wood’s new category, Smith objected to his bringing every other ‘big contemporary’ novel down with her. ‘Whatever the weaknesses of the various writers Wood mentioned,’ she responded, ‘I don’t believe he would wish for a literary landscape missing a book such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or DeLillo’s White Noise’. Both polarities in truth offer rewards as well as risks. The attempt to contain the whole world inside the pages of a novel is a commendable ambition so long as the writing is good, so long as the reader feels the attempt has value. To understand just one person may likewise be a productive limitation, and in the broad church of contemporary authors bidding to do just that, there are some outstanding examples: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, to name a few. Whether such books are successful, then, depends on something much harder to articulate: the book’s ability to hold us, to last, to mean something.

Acts of Desperation shares the lineaments of the work by this crop of autofiction writers. Nolan has written of the profound influence of Knausgaard in particular – how his writing gave her permission to write of the ‘emotional minutiae’ she feared were ‘trivial, unintellectual and altogether too feminine’, how she read nothing but his work while writing her own book. The narrator-protagonist of Acts of Desperation resembles Nolan; as in her essays, the writing is intense and introspective, with the camera held so tightly that one catches little sight of the world beyond her own frantic mind. The novel is a confessional account of an abusive relationship that the narrator fell into in her early twenties, while living alone in a Dublin bedsit and regularly obliterating herself with drink. When she first meets Ciaran, she thinks him the most beautiful boy she’s ever seen. But as the infatuation develops, Ciaran’s unpleasant traits begin to accumulate. He is bad-tempered, mercurial and increasingly manipulative. And yet, she loves him so fiercely that his impression on her mind is like a continually erupting firework, burning with such intensity that, even when she tries to look away, she can see nothing but the afterimage of that brightness.

It is a promising starting point: an exploration of the way one’s sense of self might be annihilated by a toxic, all-consuming relationship. Her narrator’s manic devotion to Ciaran is movingly depicted, as every other aspect of her life becomes blurred and monochromatic. ‘If it was possible for me to have lived just like that, no other life coming in at the edges, no friends, no family, no work – if I had been successful in my attempt to boil my whole universe down just to us, burning bodies welded together in a cold bed – I could be happy there, still.’ Larger structural and stylistic flaws, however, prevent the novel from doing justice to its primary themes.

Its narrative takes place over two time periods: Dublin, between 2012 and 2014, and Athens in 2019 (where Nolan in fact wrote much of the novel). The Dublin sections proceed chronologically with calendrical headings (‘April 2012’, ‘November 2012’), while chapters from Athens are interposed periodically. Such a technique might allow for a distanced, reflective view of the main narrative. But tonally, despite the intervening years there is no shift from the voice of the Dublin chapters, nor a convincing change in psychological distance from the relationship. This is a novelistic requirement, different in kind to that demanded by the essay. Other novels might also have inspired more imaginative means of achieving the same effect. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018) for example – which if contracted to a single question asks ‘Should I have a child?’, just as Nolan’s asks ‘Is it possible to live for myself?’ embeds the narrator’s experience of flipping a coin to answer particular questions, in an adaptation of the I Ching, the Chinese divination device. ‘Is it that making babies is not a woman’s special task?’, ‘Is this book a good idea?’ Such moments provide welcome interruption from the anxious, tightly focused perspective of the rest of Heti’s novel.  

Often, the Athens sections begin with an aphorism: ‘Being in love feels like nothing so much as hope; a distilled, clear hope which would be impossible to manufacture on your own.’ These bear a close resemblance to the kinds of perceptions in Nolan’s journalism (Nolan has mentioned in interviews that the book in fact began as a work of non-fiction about relationships), but here they do not have the same effect. They stick up awkwardly, neither advancing the narrative nor being embodied or illustrated by it. Though some critics have drawn positive comparison with Knausgaard (something encouraged by his prominent commendation displayed on the novel’s back cover), these succinct lines are indicative of the distance between them. In Ben Lerner’s review of the third volume of My Struggle, he wrestles with the fact that ‘Knausgaard isn’t really quotable.’ The narrator’s thoughts are too digressive and circuitous; one would have to quote for pages on end just to illustrate a single idea. Such resistance to quotation is in fact part of Knausgaard’s mastery; his writing evades simplification. And, perhaps, the kind of thinking achieved in an essay would do well to be just as complex. Returning to Nolan’s journalism between readings of her novel, I found my relationship to it somewhat altered. I noticed more keenly the moments where my own experiences were seemingly condensed into the simplest of sentences. But what of those that aren’t ‘really quotable’?

While reflections within chapters tend to be short-lived and undeveloped, most chapters as a whole end so abruptly as to feel incomplete. I include one in its entirety below:

‘I remember the last meal I ever made for him, before everything changed for good, because it looked so pretty that I took a picture – crawfish and crab, arranged in neat pink scoops of lettuce leaves, lime juice and chilli, a spoonful of avocado, a sprinkling of black sesame seeds, and as I took the photograph, my phone lit up with a call from another man.’

There is nothing wrong with the writing itself. But there is not enough behind it. So brave in her personal essays, here Nolan seems to lack the courage to delve more deeply into the emotional texture of the story she is telling. For much of the novel, the narrator glides above memories of the relationship instead of entering into them for any significant duration – we tend to hear of them rather than witness or experience them. This again is symptomatic of the novel’s close relationship to the personal essay, which must be efficient and terse, providing fleeting vignettes extracted from the writer’s life. Of recent novels, perhaps Acts of Desperation’s closest stylistic relation might instead be the works of Jenny Offill. Reviewing Weather (2020), last year, Lauren Oyler mordantly suggested there was no reason why the narrator’s capsule-like paragraphs ‘should be organised as a novel and not a particularly literate Twitter feed.’ The implication was that there was something missing from the novel which might have given it life – the messy parts of experience that exist in the gaps between the short paragraphs and neat thoughts.

There are several longer chapters in the latter stages of Acts of Desperation though that indicate Nolan’s potential as a fiction writer, where the narrative is allowed to develop uninterrupted. The concluding section, after the narrator has fled Dublin for Athens in the wake of Ciaran’s last act of violence, is the strongest of all. A friend comes to visit, and she is again forced into sex against her will. More so than anywhere else in the novel, here one feels the presence of both bodies in a bed, the shifting power dynamics illustrated by what is said and what is not. The power of Nolan’s essays is transmuted into narrative. Afterwards, she finds ‘he was easier to listen to now, less grating. I was able to laugh along without it hurting too much.’ It is a heart-breaking moment. Sometimes it can feel easier just to let things happen. The novel ends in much the same way as Nolan’s essay on her dermatophagia. While so often it is the recognisable features of Nolan’s journalism that hold Acts of Desperation back, here this is not the case. Nolan refuses to offer a definitive answer to the question of how the narrator will live now, leaving a space for a future that is unfixed, but is at least more hopeful than the place from which she has come: ‘What would I think about, now that I wasn’t thinking about love or sex? That would be the next thing, trying to figure out what to fill up all that space with. But that was all right. That would follow.’

What might follow for Nolan? Might she widen her perspective a little, beyond that of a single human being? In a recent interview, she has suggested that her next novel will have ‘more of an expansive story, and more of a world’. One of Acts of Desperation’s epigraphs comes from the The Divided Self by R. D. Laing: ‘A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her’. It is an evocative quotation, and yet, in its original context, the image was contrasted with another, more disturbing vision. Laing continues, ‘That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from “reality” than many of the people on whom the label “psychotic” is affixed.’ The horrors the girl internalises are not of her own imagination; they are the product of those in power.

Read on: John Frow, ‘Thinking the Novel’, NLR 49.

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Hungarian Liquor

‘Are you a Soviet woman?’ asks Lyudmila Syomina in an opening scene of Dear Comrades!, the latest film by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. The question is more forceful than inquisitive. The person that she is interrogating is no enemy hostage, but rather Lyudmila’s local grocery store clerk, a kind, visibly younger woman who, when we meet her, is standing in the stock room, pulling one coveted item after another – a roll of salami, a bottle of rare Hungarian liquor – out of the fridge and off the shelves for Lyudmila to take with her. Outside, other shoppers coalesce into a small stampede around the cash register, buying whatever they can get their hands on. ‘People started coming at seven in the morning, all of this talk about prices going up’, the amiable clerk explains. ‘Are we going to starve?’ she asks Lyudmila, who reacts to the question with a stunned look on her face. ‘Starve? In the Soviet Union? Do you hear yourself? Keep your mouth shut.’

Communication failure between generations lies at the heart of Dear Comrades!, a film that is as much about the personal challenges of historic political change as it is about what happened in 1962 in the city of Novocherkassk, an industrial town located just over the south-eastern Ukrainian border, when price increases led to one of the most violently repressed strikes in Soviet history. Konchalovsky, amongst Russia’s oldest and most recognised directors, provides a clear-eyed reconstruction of this long-suppressed episode, but in doing so he explores the pull that even the most incontrovertibly evil forces have on ordinary people. Through Lyudmila, played by his wife Julia Vysotskaya, he tracks the crushing disappointment that people face when history tells them to move on, be happy, and never look back.

The end of a dark era and the beginning of another; winter thawing into spring: most would greet this with optimism either muted or unrestrained. Not Lyudmila. As the people around her talk gleefully of communism’s imminent arrival, the latest agricultural advances, and above all, the gentler, kinder leader in the Kremlin, all she can do is scoff. Not because of any scorn she harbours towards the Soviet state. Just the opposite. Early in the film we learn that Lyudmila – likely to be in her early forties when we meet her – is a proud party activist, and a member of her local party committee where she oversees the city’s production sector.

She would have first become involved in the party in her late teens or early twenties under Stalin. During the Second World War, Lyudmila went to the front as a nurse where she met the man who, before dying in battle, fathered her daughter, Svetlana, or Svetka. We learn that, for her wartime sacrifices, Stalin’s government bestowed upon her a handsome consolation package: an apartment large enough for her daughter and elderly father to share, a government job, promises of indefinite raises and promotions, and, of course, the material privileges to match her high-ranking position ­– specifically, access to rare consumer goods like those we see her stuffing into her shopping bag in the grocery store.

To show her gratitude, she hangs portraits of Stalin on her wallpapered apartment doors, laments the fact that Khrushchev ordered his body moved out of Lenin’s mausoleum, that holiest of sites, and defends his record whenever someone, above all her daughter, tries to remind her of all the terrible things that Comrade Stalin did. ‘He executed so many innocent people!’ Svetka insists during one particularly strained exchange with her mother. ‘What do you know about Stalin?’ Lyudmila snaps back.

Then comes May 1962. That month, Khrushchev signed off on an abrupt 25% increase in the price of meat and butter, a reform designed to stimulate government revenues and boost collective farmers’ incomes to offset stagnating economic growth. In Novocherkassk, the increases stung particularly sharply. The city’s workers, nearly a tenth of whom were employed by the Electric Locomotive Plant, built in the 1930s as the Soviet Union’s largest producer of train engines, had just learned that their pay would be slashed, in the middle of a city-wide food shortage that forced citizens to stand in line at all hours of the day. Many became accustomed to saving their potato peels to get them through to their next meal. When workers at the plant learned of the price increases, they organized a strike, something which, at first glance, should register as neither a shock nor a rare occurrence in a country that called itself the world’s first workers’ state. Yet as far as party officials were concerned, labour strikes had no place in a socialist country where class conflict – and classes in general – had ceased to exist.

When the factory strike develops into a city-wide strike, workers spilled out into streets holding portraits of Lenin, signs that read ‘Proletarians of the World Unite!’, and pamphlets with demands for ‘Meat, Butter, and Higher Salaries!’. In the film, Konchalovsky shows city officials, watching from their office windows, respond with confusion and derision. ‘A fucking strike in our socialist country?’ one party official gripes. The protesting workers eventually storm the city’s party headquarters and go on a smashing spree, marvelling with disdain at the rarefied foods which the party officials treated themselves to as the rest of the city goes hungry (‘Look what they’re eating! Hungarian liquor and ham!’). ‘Arrest them all’, Lyudmila recommends, unflinchingly, during a meeting of local party committee members, who are joined by a coterie of bureaucrats flown in from Moscow to monitor the situation. ‘These people are extremely angry at the Soviet government, you never know what they might do’, she warns her peers. ‘Arrest them and take them to court, to the full extent of the law.’ Stalin may have been dead, but his methods lived on.

The officials end up taking her advice. What happens next would come to light nearly half a century later in 1991, when Gorbachev called for an honest, moral reckoning with even the most unsavoury aspects of the country’s past, including what happened that summer day in Novocherkassk. As the protestors enter the city square, we watch as bullets begin to rain down on the workers and their supporters. To this day, it’s unclear whether the call to shoot came from the Soviet Army or the KGB, but we know that 26 people died (87 more were injured and 110 sent to prison for their involvement in the strike). Knowledge of the event remains scarce. When I told my mother, who grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States in 1987, that Dear Comrades! was about the Novocherkassk massacre, she had no idea what I was talking about.

One of the most underappreciated and – not incidentally – insidious aspects of Stalinism was the moral simplicity it offered. Dividing the world into good and evil allowed citizens like Lyudmila to navigate the cataclysmic changes brought about by the First Five-Year Plan, the wave upon wave of political purges, an apocalyptic world war. Of the many things that Khrushchev overturned when he denounced Stalin in his 1956 ‘Secret Speech’, perhaps this simple code of right and wrong represented the greatest loss. Practically overnight, ‘enemies’ were rehabilitated as ‘victims’, ‘heroes’ turned into opportunistic collaborators, and ‘foes’ into ordinary neighbours, who, after years labouring in the gulag, returned home to haunt the people next door who had turned them in to save themselves. ‘It was so easy then’, Lyudmila reflects at one point, because it was clear ‘who was an enemy and who was ours’.

For a while, Lyudmila refuses to give in to the topsy-turvy moral universe of Khrushchev’s making. She continues to refer to former gulag prisoners as criminals, invests her hopes for society in the KGB, and advises the government to seek the death penalty for the strike’s organizers. But her world view is challenged when she learns that her teenage daughter, herself an employee at the locomotive plant, is planning to participate in the strike despite, or in spite of her mother’s protests. An enemy? In her own family? The possibility leaves Lyudmila visibly unsettled. When Svetka goes missing after the shooting, Lyudmila immediately embarks on a search for her daughter’s whereabouts, a search that continues for the rest of the film.

Her odyssey takes her to the city’s various agencies and offices, each with a portrait of Khrushchev hanging where a portrait of Stalin once rested, the sloppy mounting job visible. We see her visit a morgue, where she almost trips over the bodies of people who died in the shooting, their corpses strewn on the floor like clutter. We watch her visit the city’s army headquarters, where a gang of young soldiers conduct a rough search of Lyudmila, neglecting to pay her the respect that a war veteran, long-time party member and panicked mother deserves. Finally, we join her as she pays a visit to a cemetery outside the city, where victims’ bodies are rumoured to have been clandestinely buried in plots already occupied by the dead.

Like many features of the film’s plot, this one, too, is rooted in historical fact. Researchers in the early 1990s revealed that party officials – those whom Lyudmila would have called her own – had dumped the bodies of the massacre’s victims in nearby cemeteries. Reeling from the realization that her daughter’s body might have been thrown, anonymously and thoughtlessly, into another’s grave, Lyudmila breaks down, a moment that we are instructed to interpret as her loss of faith. In one of the last scenes of the film, we watch as she sips unceremoniously on a bottle of unlabelled Soviet vodka, a far cry from the Hungarian liquor we saw her purchasing with delight earlier in the film. In this way, she becomes, perhaps for the first time in her life, a true comrade.

Yuri Trifonov, a Soviet writer who made his career during the Khrushchev years, described members of the generation that preceded him as ‘people of the beginning of the war and people of the end of the war’, who despite their best efforts, ‘remain such to the end of their lives’. Lyudmila, by this formulation, is a child of the end of the war. Konchalovsky however, like Trifonov, is a product of the Thaw, and is no stranger to the need to move with the times. Born Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky in 1937, the year that launched Stalin’s Great Terror, into a family as close to royalty as possible in the Soviet Union – his father wrote the Soviet national anthem, and his relatives, the Mikhalkovs, were old Russian aristocrats who traced their lineage to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – his life’s trajectory maps neatly onto Russia’s long twentieth century.

His is a rare career that transcended not only the Soviet-post-Soviet divide, but also that between Russian and American film circuits (his brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, also an actor and director, accomplished a similar feat when he won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Burnt by the Sun (1994) about Stalin’s Great Terror). The seeming ease with which he’s managed these transitions is a testament not just to the strength of his artistic vision and its broad appeal, but his ability to acclimate, even thrive in political environments which others would find prohibitively hostile. In his more than sixty years of directing, writing, acting and producing, Konchalovsky has had to navigate institutional alliances with everyone from Communist Party bureaucrats to Los Angeles studio executives to Russian oligarchs. One of this latest film’s producers is Alisher Usmanov, a Moscow-based metal and mining tycoon worth an estimated $11.68 billion dollars – an unusual choice of funder for a film about a labour strike. This also helps to explain how and why he has embraced film styles as varied as socialist realism (1964’s The First Teacher), avant-garde (1962’s Andrei Rublev, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Andrei Tarkovsky), and Hollywood action (1989’s Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell). Lyudmila may have had trouble adapting to changing times, but Konchalovsky has not.

Or has he? A consistent theme that runs through many of the interviews, profiles and discussions of Konchalovsky is his refusal to accede to prevailing moral binaries, or to depict his own life story as a gradual move away from darkness and towards light, from unfreedom to freedom. When asked in 2011 whether during the Soviet part of his career he worried about his ability to express himself in the face of government censors, he responded with an automatic no. ‘Creativity’, he told the visibly confused interviewer, has nothing to do with ‘freedom of self-expression; it’s an illusion, for me’. He then consciously upended the interviewer’s assumptions about what the end of the Soviet Union bestowed upon artists like himself. ‘Russia got a lot of freedom in the nineties, and no masterpieces or great films appeared.’

In an interview conducted in 2018 at an election-night victory party held in Moscow to celebrate Putin’s ascendancy to his sixth term in office, a Russian news correspondent runs into Konchalovsky and asks him to offer his thoughts on the results. ‘Extraordinary joy, a realization of my hopes, and I was almost sure it would happen’, he told the reporter in perfect English. ‘And Putin will lead’, he added, a banner with the words ‘A Strong President; A Strong Russia’ strung visibly behind him. When asked what he thought about the thousands of anti-Putin demonstrators who were out on the streets that same night – many of whom were organized by the now-jailed Alexey Navalny – Konchalovsky did not mince words. ‘It’s not important.’ Like Lyudmila, he would not – perhaps could not – succumb to other people’s assessments of reality. For both of them, it’s too indecent, too unnatural, to bite the hand that feeds.

Read on: Sophie Pinkham, ‘Nihilism for Oligarchs’, NLR 125.

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Accelerating Decay

Spring is in the air, and Brussels should be buzzing with activity. Remember von der Leyen’s Next Generation EU (NGEU for short), the €750 billion ‘Corona recovery fund’ borrowed from the owners of capital and divided according to an incomprehensible formula between the member states, all 27 of them? This was agreed in July last year, and one might have thought that the EU would now be busy selling debt to its favourite banks. These would then sell the debt on to the European Central Bank, with a healthy profit, making their shareholders happy while fuelling quantitative easing, thereby keeping asset prices up and further adding to their shareholders’ happiness (‘stabilizing financial markets’ is the politically correct term). Well, we’re not bankers, so we don’t really need to know, and, anyway, isn’t such sensitive business better conducted behind closed doors?

But wait. By now shouldn’t we have heard of at least some of the 27 national parliaments giving their required blessing to the Next Generation money production scheme not provided for in the Old Generation Treaties? Above all, shouldn’t we be observing countries putting together the projects which their Next Generation cash will fund? Under NGEU these are to be forwarded to the Commission which, so we were told, will check if the cash would be well-spent, not for consumption but for investment, and for additional investment for that matter, rather than being used for, say, tax relief. The idea was that the money should be spent for something related to Corona while also making countries more ‘competitive’, whatever that means, by the time it was to be repaid (purportedly at the end of 2028). To date, we have only heard of Italy, the main benefactor, due to receive €209 billion (followed by Spain’s €140 billion), where the Corona money led to the breakup of the Conte government, which was unable to put together enough domestic support for its evolving project portfolio. Its place was taken by an almost all-party coalition under the indispensable Mario Draghi, who immediately turned national recovery planning over to McKinsey, for a healthy fee one assumes, so it remains in the global financial family. We also haven’t heard who will sit on those committees in Brussels that are supposed to decide on which member state projects are worth funding.

As said, we don’t need to know everything, and the EU, its Next Generation included, was never intended to be a democracy. Meanwhile we can busy ourselves beholding the Union’s vaccination statistics. By mid-March they looked strangely similar to how they looked in mid-February: Germany 7.4 percent, up from 5; Italy 7.5 up from 4.9, France 6.8 up from 4.3, and Spain 8.1 up from 5.2. By comparison the UK had moved from 23 to 35 and the US from 15.9 to 20 percent, while Israel had already vaccinated more than half of its population, almost 60 percent. Even in Germany, where critics of the government and the EU risk being accused of AfD sympathies, people are now invidiously comparing vaccination rates in the EU with those in post-Brexit UK and even the US.

Elsewhere patience is already running out. Denmark and Austria are setting up a joint venture with Israel to learn how to obtain and dispense vaccines. Italy imposed an export ban on the AstraZeneca vaccine about to be shipped to Australia, only to be told by German free-traders that they must stick to the EU trade agreements. The French president now demands ‘European solidarity’ while refusing to use the Swedish–British AstraZeneca vaccine. In this he was joined by Merkel, who told Germans that, being 66 years of age, she would never take the AstraZeneca jab, since this works only for people below 65: waiting for Sanofi? AstraZeneca later announced that it would cut deliveries to Germany by half due to ‘export restrictions’, after Biden – supposedly the benevolent ‘America-Second’ President – let it be known there will be no vaccine exports from the US until all Americans are immunized.

Presumably in retaliation, Germany and several other member countries suspended the use of AstraZeneca for the time being altogether, while Hungary and others are about to buy vaccines from Russia and China. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian would-be strongman, seems to have given up on Brussels altogether and seeks to close ranks with his Russian soulmate, Vladimir Putin. Austria and four other member states are demanding an inquiry into what they consider a ‘vaccine bazaar’ in Brussels, but contracts with vaccine producers are secret. At some point someone will put numbers on the deaths caused by the Great Vaccination Slowdown. Until then the EU insists that its members keep their mutual borders open even where local infection rates in border areas differ dramatically.

There has been some good news, although not for the EU. Democracy returns to where it belongs, in that national politicians are learning that the virus is too important to be left to the virologists. They are also learning that that they cannot simply lock their voters up for as long as the virologists recommend: longer, one has the impression, than quite a few people’s remaining lifespan. Merkel – who at one point seemed to have fallen into the hands of a gang of ZeroCovid zealots composed of virologists, theoretical physicists and philosophy professors – made one of her inimitable U-turns, allowing restrictions to be relaxed in spite of a rising ‘seven-days incidence rate’, probably resulting from more frequent testing, and in the face of this ferocious beast which Germans call ‘the British mutant’. Of course, whether governments will be able to devise and apply the more demanding targeted measures needed to keep the virus in check and live with it in a complex urban society remains to be seen; right now, under the spell of Brussels, they can’t even organize a vaccination campaign.

Otherwise the news is bad. Here’s a small selection. The next wave of migrants is waiting to set sail, and the EU has done no homework during the winter to prepare. The German political class is enthusiastic about Biden keeping American troops in Afghanistan; so Germany can keep its troops there too, hoping that as long as the Taliban haven’t formally taken over, there will be fewer Afghan refugees arriving in Europe, meaning Germany. Delivering increased arms spending to Biden, two percent of GDP, will be a little easier given the shrunken overall GDP levels post-Corona. At the same time, Biden wants more hostility toward Russia and more support for Ukraine; as a consequence, Russia seems to have abandoned hope that American and European sanctions will ever be lifted, making it more hostile in turn. This is not good for Germany in particular, which, if the worse came to the worst, would supply not just the ground troops but also the targets for Russian nuclear missiles.

And looming in the background there is Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. It is heartily disliked by the US, which hopes to sell Germany liquid gas, and by France, which hopes to sell Germany nuclear electricity – as well as being hated by Poland and, of course, Ukraine. All Merkel can hope for is that her friends, including von der Leyen, don’t break her pipeline’s back, and thereby jeopardize her ‘energy turn’, until after her retirement this autumn. Add to this the anti-Brexit fanatics in Brussels and Paris, eager to fool around with the Irish border, and yes, some sort of collapse may not be as far away as one might have thought a year ago.

Read on: Christopher Bickerton, ‘The Persistence of Europe’, NLR 122.

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Decline of the Dutch Left

Some countries experience the occasional election fever. A period in which political passions rise, when the heartbeat of political life reaches an elevated pitch. The Netherlands is not such a country, even under normal circumstances. The Dutch campaign season tends to be exceedingly short, the rhetoric bland, the political landscape complex and highly fragmented. This lack of intensity is even more acute in times of lockdown, without gatherings and proper campaigns. With the elections restricted to television screens and social media, they have taken on an eerie, virtual character. Commentators speak of one of the most boring campaigns in Dutch history. ‘Nothing happens’, pollsters complain, ‘because there is nothing happening’. Rather like the pandemic, the election needs to be sat out and passively endured, instead of actively engaged in.

With tomorrow’s elections taking place in the midst of an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, there is in fact much at stake. But the prevailing sentiment seems to be that the dice have already been cast. The right-wing liberal VVD, the dominant party in the ruling centre-right coalition, is outperforming all the other parties in the polls (leading at 25% of the vote). While the crisis management of the government leaves much to be desired, the rally-around-the-flag effect that is in evidence in many countries has also made its mark on Dutch politics. The pandemic appears to have given Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) an ineradicable guardian-of-the-people aura. Much like the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, the VVD has seized the opportunity by adopting a more centrist position on socio-economic policy, combined with a hard-line nationalist stance on cultural issues to ward off the threat from Geert Wilders’s right-populist Freedom Party, which continues to draw a sizable segment (13%) of the vote.

While the centre-right and the populist right are ascendant, the left is on course for one of its worst election results in post-war history. In the 2017 elections, the left-wing parties failed to gather more than a third of the vote. The present polls – generally quite reliable in the Netherlands – seem to confirm that this was not a freak result. This historic unpopularity is all the more surprising, since the pandemic has led to a resurgence of economic ideas previously associated with the left. The major Dutch parties now all claim to oppose austerity and favour public investment and expanding social security. The political climate then seems to have become friendlier to progressive policies but hostile to left-wing parties. To better understand this paradoxical and depressing political landscape, we can turn to three underlying trends: the crisis of Dutch social democracy, the culturalization of politics, and the return of the state.

The story of the left’s decline is, to a great extent, tied up with that of the once powerful Social Democratic Party (PvdA). For decades, the party formed one of the three main pillars of Dutch political life, together with the VVD and the centrist Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). Since the 1990s however, the PvdA has experienced steady electoral decline. The final implosion came in the 2017 elections, when it lost 29 of its 38 seats. Voters punished the party for the austerity measures it had imposed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In coalition with the VVD, the PvdA had signed off on a historic spree of austerity, which included a series of controversial reforms to social security and social care. Internationally, it was the PvdA Finance Minister and Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem who became the face of this government, in his memorable confrontations with Yanis Varoufakis. While broadly supportive of austerity in Greece, Dutch voters were less enthusiastic about some of the same medicine being applied to the Netherlands.  

The 2017 elections proved the death knell for a mode of politics that had been pursued since the 1990s. In a landmark lecture in 1995, party leader Wim Kok had proclaimed a ‘definitive farewell to socialist ideology’, which he presented as the shedding of old ideological ballast, necessary for modernizing the party and moving it to the centre. But in the Netherlands, with its proportional voting system, this immediately opened up space for left-wing contenders. The Socialist Party gathered votes from the disenfranchised working class, while the GreenLeft party gained popularity among a more academic progressive milieu (both tend to fluctuate between 5–10 % of the vote). In response, the PvdA followed a different strategy to that of New Labour or Clinton’s Democratic Party. Rather than loudly proclaiming a Dutch Third Way, the party leadership stuck to its old class-based rhetoric, while implementing typical market-based policies once in government. Put more crudely: the party talked left and governed from the centre. 

This somewhat schizophrenic approach allowed the PvdA to appeal to a large segment of the electorate. As the biggest party left of centre, it was the natural choice for those who hoped to move an incoming coalition government somewhat to the left. In the 2012 election campaign, the PvdA had railed against austerity, rightly claiming that it had deepened the economic crisis in the Netherlands. Once in government, it all too quickly came around, citing the need ‘to take responsibility’, and chiding its own electorate for their nostalgic attachment to welfare state provision. In a 2015 conference in Amsterdam with then Labour MP Chuka Umunna, the PvdA Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher lambasted Corbynism and the critiques of austerity put forward by economists like Krugman and Stiglitz:

We have to end the debate on austerity. The truth is as follows: we cannot pretend to offer people better living standards, better education, better health care, if the budget is a mess. It would be like a father with large debts, addicted to gambling, who comforts his children by promising that they will go on holidays next summer. The children will know better. […] Progressives have to be serious about budget discipline and economic competence.

In reality, however, the debate on austerity moved in the opposite direction. Economists blamed the Dutch government for having deepened the crisis, with even the IMF and the OECD publishing critical reports on its cutbacks. Their hopes repeatedly dashed, voters responded with growing anger and cynicism, wondering why the PvdA always negotiated so badly when it ended up in coalitions with the right. This dynamic led to the party’s eventual electoral implosion. After the disastrous 2017 election results, its initial impulse was to blame communication. Dijsselbloem said ‘he still believed we have done what was necessary’, what was ‘responsible and good for the Netherlands’. The only problem was that they had failed to convince their supporters: ‘we lost them somewhere along the way’.  

Asscher was left with the unenviable task of rebuilding a viable electoral force from the wreckage of his party. He decided to turn left, but without disowning the austerity policies of the past. The rub was that he himself had been so intimately involved with cuts that public recognition of their counterproductive effects threatened to further compromise his own credibility. Ultimately, walking this tightrope proved untenable. In 2019, a political scandal came to light concerning the benefits for day-care provision. Responding to political pressure to pursue benefit fraud, the tax service had incorrectly accused thousands of parents, doggedly pursuing them and driving many to ruin based on ethnic profiling. Responsibility rested in part with Asscher, and he was pressured to resign as leader of the party in January this year. With a new leader, Lilianne Ploumen, the PvdA is now set to gain some seats in tomorrow’s elections, but it is nowhere near its previous standing. Meanwhile the other, smaller left-wing parties have not been able to fill the void (both now poll at around 7–8%).

This crisis of social democracy is tied up with a second important trend: the culturalization of politics. For a long time, the primary terrain of contestation in Dutch politics was socio-economic policy. This provided a favourable context for the left. A sizable chunk of the Dutch electorate combines economically progressive views with more conservative stances on cultural issues, and so as long as socio-economic issues predominate, the left can appeal to a broad electorate. In the 1990s however, a new market-oriented consensus emerged. When Francis Fukuyama visited the Netherlands in 1992, he observed that the Dutch were among the first to have reached the end of history. Dutch political and intellectual elites were initially content for technocratic management to replace the mass politics of yesteryear. Yet hopes for a post-political consensus were quickly shattered. A new cultural cleavage arose around the so-called three I’s – immigration, Islam, and (national) identity – which came to dominate Dutch politics in the next decades, pushing the left into a defensive position, and providing the right with a strong electoral advantage. 

Public concern about immigration had long been on the rise. The Moroccan and Turkish guestworkers who had come to work in the booming industrial sector in the 1960s and 1970s, found themselves out of work during the crisis of the 1980s. Segregation, poverty and urban immigration developed into prominent political issues in the 1990s. Dutch intellectuals soon diagnosed the failure of ‘the multicultural drama’. There was broad support for more stringent immigration and integration policies, and a renewed focus on restoring national identity. Only by clearly articulating the dominant Dutch values – so the argument went – could immigrants be integrated in the Dutch majority culture.

Right-wing leaders started mobilizing on these issues in the early 1990s. In a debate with Fukuyama, the then VVD-leader Frits Bolkestein argued that while communism had imploded, the West was now faced with another adversary: ‘The fact remains that the world contains a billion Muslims, of which many consider their ideology superior to the “godless, materialist, and egoistic liberalism of the West”’. In a series of controversial lectures, Bolkestein argued that the values of Western liberalism were under threat due to the presence of Muslim immigrants in European societies. He proposed to strengthen Dutch national identity and promote the rapid assimilation of immigrants to Western values.

Another important inspiration for the right was the American neoconservative Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. After Bolkestein, it was the charismatic populist Pim Fortuyn that popularized this culture-clash argument, proudly introducing himself to American journalists as ‘the Samuel Huntington of Dutch politics’ and proposing a ‘Cold War against Islam’ on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. Geert Wilders, presently the country’s most successful right-wing populist, similarly built his Party for Freedom (PVV) on Huntington’s theory, arguing in his first party broadcast that ‘Islam orients itself against Western civilization as such’, and calling for a ‘liberal jihad’ against Islam. As part of this same argument, the right derided the left as fluffy ‘cultural relativists’, unable or unwilling to defend Western civilization.

Dutch politics thus became consumed by a never-ending culture war that initially centred on Islam but expanded to include political correctness, ‘woke’ politics, the legacy of Dutch slavery, diversity trainings, gender neutral toilets and – more significantly – opposition to European integration. Mark Rutte, an inveterate opponent of the ‘ever closer Union’, became party leader of the VVD in the midst of the culture wars, and proved adept at positioning his party as a more mainstream alternative to right-wing populism. Seamlessly combining cultural nationalism with an economic policy favouring multinationals (tax cuts, free-trade agreements, austerity), Rutte was able to play a dominant role as kingmaker in Dutch politics.

This new political context presented the Socialist Party and GreenLeft with a major problem, since their electorates were intensely divided on such issues. As a result, they had considerable difficulties positioning themselves, going back and forth between toughening their immigration stance (with the SP even proposing special working permits for people from other EU countries) and speaking ill of right-wing populism. As an entire generation has now been socialized in Dutch culture wars, it has been hard to switch gears, even in the midst of the greatest economic crisis of the post-war era.

The third and final trend which compounded this secular decline is the sea change in economic policy triggered by the pandemic. Dutch newspapers have described it as a ‘swing to the left’ in economic policy. As noted, most major parties now oppose austerity and favour raising the minimum wage, stronger social protections, challenging the power of Big Tech, raising taxes on wealth and business, setting up public investment funds and so on. The political calculation on austerity has changed; the preferred option is now to borrow and spend, eventually paying off the added debt through renewed economic growth. The election platforms of the left-wing parties espouse a degree of ambition not seen since the 1970s. This includes proposals for a job guarantee, creating a new Ministry of Housing to deal with the housing shortage, a Green New Deal, and a cash grant for young people, along the lines of Thomas Piketty’s suggestions. Even the VVD, with its reputation as the party of big business, forms part of this leftward turn. In its election platform, it calls for a government that ‘actively corrects the excesses of capitalism’.

The fact that this shift encompasses all the mainstream parties however has made it difficult for the left to turn economic policy into a central campaigning issue. Instead, the pandemic has pushed everything else into the background. The VVD has been able to bank on the heightened stature of Rutte as head of the nation in a time of crisis. His Covid press conferences have been far more effective in reaching the broader public than the inconclusive election debates. Even the benefits scandal has hardly touched his fatherly aura. It appears that the centre-right electorate is not that concerned by the fortunes of people dependent on benefits.

The fundamental question for the future is whether the broader economic policy shift is a temporary improvisation or a long-term change in economic thinking. There is a good chance that once the immediate fallout of the pandemic has been overcome, there will be a return to the politics of the past. The present shift is only possible because Brussels has suspended the rules for public investment and the Stability and Growth Pact; yet it is also possible that present economic heterodoxies will create a new norm, with European budgeting rules renegotiated accordingly. Amid this apparent social democratic shift in a historically right-wing landscape, it is easy to forget that during the past decade, when the Dutch left was electorally stronger, the policies it favoured were far less radical than at present. Though tomorrow’s vote will return the VVD to power, perhaps that fact provides some cause for cautious optimism. 

Postscript:

Things were expected to be bad, but no one expected them to be this bad. The VVD and the progressive-liberals (D66) emerged as the big winners in the Dutch elections on Wednesday, with roughly 22% and 15% of the vote respectively. Sitting prime minister and VVD party leader Mark Rutte returns for a fourth term, and is set to become the longest-serving PM in Dutch history.

Meanwhile, the Dutch left suffered a historic defeat, winning a mere 15% of the vote between them, the lowest result since universal suffrage was introduced a century ago. Apparently, many left-wing voters had voted strategically for D66. Making matters worse, far-right parties had a decent showing, banking on the pandemic protest vote. Many on the left are now reconciling themselves to life in a solidly rightwing country.

Read on: Adam Przeworski, ‘Social Democracy as a Historical Phenomenon’, NLR I/122.

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Scottish Faultlines

On 26 February, Alex Salmond appeared before a Holyrood committee inquiry investigating how and why complaints of sexual misconduct made against him in 2018 had been mishandled by Scotland’s devolved government in Edinburgh – the devolved government that he used to run. The allegations were false, the former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said. (Salmond was acquitted of 13 sexual assault charges in an Edinburgh courtroom last Spring.) There had been a ‘malicious plot’ in the higher reaches of Scottish civil society to press ahead with them anyway. The plot had spiralled out of control. Information had been suppressed. Key pieces of evidence were ignored. And those involved had tried to cover their tracks. ‘Scotland hasn’t failed’, Salmond declared in his opening statement; its leadership, from the Crown Office to the cabinet, has. 

Five days later, on 3 March, Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as Scottish first minister and SNP leader, sat in front of the same committee inquiry. There was no plot, she said. A number of women had come forward with serious allegations regarding Salmond’s behaviour. The Scottish government had botched its response to those allegations. But procedure, not conspiracy, was to blame for the flawed investigative process. ‘I had no motive, intention, or desire to “get” Alex Salmond’, Sturgeon stated. Indeed, until recently, Salmond – sixteen years Sturgeon’s senior – had been one of her closest friends and political confidants. The first minister’s marathon eight-hour evidence session marked the apex of a drama that has gripped Scottish politics for months. Between them, Salmond and Sturgeon have run Holyrood for almost a decade-and-a-half. In September 2014, at the head of the campaign for Scottish independence, they came close to dissolving the United Kingdom itself. 

By the end of the night, the consensus among media observers was that Salmond’s account of the controversy – or elements of it, at any rate – felt implausible. As a witness, Sturgeon had been direct, engaging, and empathetic; Salmond, somewhat less so. Much of the documentary material that supported his version of events couldn’t be considered by the committee due to legal constraints arising from his trial, Salmond said – a situation he described as ‘intolerable’. Nonetheless, Sturgeon’s position isn’t safe. Even if the committee inquiry doesn’t find her guilty of breaching the ministerial code – Salmond insists she mislead parliament over the nature of a meeting she had with one of his aides at the outset of the crisis – a separate probe being conducted by the independent Irish barrister, James Hamilton, might. A resignation isn’t expected, but it can’t be ruled out. 

As if to add to the underlying tension, Scots go to the polls in seven weeks’ time. The outcome of that election, scheduled for 6 May, could determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country. The SNP wants to hold a new referendum on exiting the UK as soon as possible. Boris Johnson has pledged to block any such move. For commentators on the British right, ‘the Salmond affair’, as it is now universally known, stands as proof that Scotland has become a ‘one-party state’ under the SNP, and that the Scottish experiment with home rule is faltering. (Holyrood was established in 1999 by Tony Blair’s New Labour government as part of a broader decentralization of power from London; its legislative remit covers health, education and justice, among other areas.) ‘These are dangerous days in Scotland’, wrote the Spectator’s Andrew Neil in his typically hyperbolic style. ‘Democratic accountability and transparency are choked in a Kafkaesque fog.’ 

Sturgeon’s preference for behind-the-scenes policy-making lends a veneer of credibility to this charge. In 2018, Scotland’s Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, reprimanded the Scottish government for ‘significant’ and ‘unjustifiable’ delays in its response to Freedom of Information requests. And throughout the Salmond inquiry, SNP officials repeatedly stalled the release of crucial legal documents, prompting claims they were obstructing the committee’s work. Yet accusations of authoritarianism ultimately land wide of the mark. Holyrood’s constitutional authority is tightly constrained and the parliament is elected on the basis of proportional representation. Moreover, the evidence Salmond has produced to substantiate his claim of a conspiracy is circumstantial, at best. Nor is it obvious what the SNP leadership would have to gain politically from trying to discredit him. (The answer, as the past few weeks of negative news coverage have shown, is nothing.)

Meanwhile, beneath the headlines, a darker story is playing out. On 18 February, Rape Crisis Scotland warned that the threat of public exposure loomed over Salmond’s accusers. ‘They have been hounded [and] identified online’, the charity’s CEO, Sandy Brindley, wrote. Women are watching this case unfold and ‘getting a clear message about how they might be treated should they ever consider making a report of sexual harassment.’

Scotland’s unionist parties are currently failing to capitalize on the political implications of the controversy. The Scottish Conservatives, in particular, are rudderless. Last week at Holyrood, Tory MSPs raised the prospect of a no-confidence vote in Sturgeon before abruptly backing down after it became clear the vote wouldn’t succeed. On Wednesday, they staged a separate no-confidence vote in Sturgeon’s deputy, John Swinney, only to see that fall flat as well. Scottish Labour is lost for different reasons. Up to 40 per cent of Labour members in Scotland are open to another independence referendum and one-third of Labour voters want Scotland to leave the UK altogether. Yet the party’s newly elected leader, the Brownite Anas Sarwar – son of an ill-reputed businessman and ex-MP who bought himself the Governorship of Punjab – has adopted a hardline anti-nationalist stance. Labour will oppose any attempt by the SNP to hold a fresh poll on independence, he says. On 9 March, the party’s candidate for the Holyrood constituency of Glasgow Kelvin, Hollie Cameron, was dropped after indicating that she wouldn’t stick to Sarwar’s line.

The crisis of Anglo-Scottish unionism is partly structural. The institutions that once bound Britain together – the industrial economy, the post-war welfare system, the NHS – have atrophied during the neoliberal era, amplifying the appeal of ‘Celtic’ self-determination. Westminster indifference hasn’t helped either. Boris Johnson is a pariah north of the Carlisle border, where his Brexiteer antics are reviled; Labour’s British leader, Keir Starmer, remains anonymous. To the extent that it still exists, the only conspicuous expression of organic grassroots unionism in Scotland today stems from loyalist groups associated with Rangers Football Club. Over the weekend, hundreds of Rangers fans decked-out in Union Jacks congregated in central Glasgow to celebrate the team’s first league title win in ten years, in direct defiance of Covid social-distancing rules. Sturgeon, speaking in her capacity as first minister, denounced the scenes as ‘disgraceful’. But, occasional flag-waving outbursts aside, there is little chance that this community could launch a mass challenge to the SNP.

On one level, the Salmond affair hasn’t derailed Scottish nationalism as much as it might have. Despite the ongoing feud between its two most influential figureheads, support for the SNP remains strong. Bolstered by Scottish opposition to Brexit and the perception that Sturgeon has handled the Covid crisis well, the party is on course for a comfortable victory in May, and possibly even an outright majority. But in other ways the damage has been vast. The independence movement is now badly divided: since his acquittal, Salmond has become an outrider for rank-and-file discontent, and despite her strong appearance at the committee inquiry, questions are being raised internally about Sturgeon’s technocratic governing style. Some nationalist campaigners allied to Salmond, including the former Holyrood justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, believe Sturgeon isn’t truly committed to independence – or, at least, lacks a credible strategy to achieve it. Others, like Independence for Scotland Party, a splinter organization, think her administration has capitulated to an amorphous ‘trans rights agenda’ at the expense of core demands for Scottish sovereignty – though such criticisms are a thinly veiled proxy for bigotry. According to the SNP’s Common Weal Group, a left-leaning party faction, Sturgeon has sold Scottish social democracy out to private-sector interests such as Charlotte Street Partners, the controversial PR firm that enjoys close political access to the Scottish government. For CWG, the first minister now runs Holyrood as her own personal fiefdom alongside her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

As the SNP’s internal fault-lines have become increasingly visible, support for independence has declined: on 11 March, a new poll put it at 45 per cent, its lowest level since last March. One irony here is that many of the criticisms levelled at Sturgeon by disgruntled independence activists could just as easily be levelled at Salmond: the architect of the SNP’s gradualist approach to independence, which anchored the nationalist movement to Labour’s devolutionary reforms in the late 1990s. During his second stint as leader between 2004 and 2014, he centralized the party’s internal operations and imposed a new culture of PR discipline. It was Salmond, not Sturgeon, who engineered the SNP’s embrace of market economics and blunted its more radical republican and separatist tendencies, leaving the party advocating for what is, in effect, a quasi-federal form of separation from the UK. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that much of the hostility to Sturgeon is a delayed and displaced frustration with her predecessor. With both the committee inquiry and the Hamilton investigation expected to report back in the coming weeks, Salmond may be right that Scotland’s leadership has failed. Yet it is a leadership that he helped build.

Read on: Neil Davidson, ‘A Scottish Watershed’, NLR 89.

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Deaths versus Death

The difference between singular and plural can be incredible. Take the noun ‘death’. Across almost every continent, the pandemic has submerged us in a daily trickle of ‘deaths’ in the plural, hour after hour, news broadcast after online update. We’re presented with ‘deaths’ on a near-daily basis, in the form of incessant videos: mass graves in Manaus, sombre army convoys carrying the dead out of Bergamo, refrigerated trucks abandoned in the streets of New York. But in its singular form death is shrouded in silence, obscured. Nobody thinks of it, let alone speaks of it. The vociferous dealers of fast-thought are extraordinarily reluctant – almost shy – to speak on the subject, all the while churning out momentous deductions and weighty commentaries.  

So far, nobody has seriously reflected on how (or whether) the pandemic has altered our society’s relationship to death. To begin with, few have even interrogated the silence around the issue. We act as if it were impolite to mention it; an Italian proverb warns against ‘speaking of the noose in the hanged man’s home’, suggesting that any reference to misfortune in front of those on whom it befalls is to be avoided, as if death was an awkward topic, unfit for gentlemen (we’ll return to this in a second). There is, however, a less avowable reason for the reticence we speak of, one that can also be described by an Italian term that has no equivalent elsewhere. Commonly translated as ‘superstition’, the word scaramanzia actually denotes something far more specific; the belief that simply mentioning an event might somehow influence it, by either encouraging its appearance (if the event in question is negative: an accident, a bereavement, a failure) or by forestalling it (in the case of success, a love story, passing an exam). A hunter is therefore never wished good luck, for fear they might return empty handed; they’re wished in bocca al lupo (‘in the mouth of the wolf’), the contrary of what is hoped for them. The idea, then, is that by simply mentioning death one might provoke it. This belief is more common than what we might think, and is widespread beyond Italy, even amongst people who should be immune from superstition (studies abound on the credulous practices of cultured, ‘rational’ people).

More profoundly though, this silence around death can be explained through two longue durée processes. The first relates to discourse around and studies of death. The second concerns the attitudes Western societies have toward death itself.

The decades following the end of the Second World War witnessed a flourishing of research and interventions on the subject of death. Historically the exclusive terrain of literature, philosophy and religion, death was annexed by the human sciences: psychology, anthropology, sociology and history. Roughly speaking the most significant contributions on death in the fields of anthropology and sociology came from the Anglosphere, whilst the French produced primarily historical scholarship. From the mid-70s, though, studies began to thin out, or at least they lost their influence and relevance. To be sure, given its centrality, books (films, documentaries) on the matter were still being produced, but nothing quite left a mark on public discourse like the previous generation’s texts had.

‘The Pornography of Death’ is the title of a short article by Geoffrey Gorer published by Encounter in October 1955. In it, Gorer notes how in the preceding fifty years death had gradually become taboo:

For the greater part of the last two hundred years copulation and (at least in the mid-Victorian decades) birth were the ‘unmentionables’ of the triad of basic human experiences… around which so much private fantasy and semi-clandestine pornography were erected. During most of this period death was no mystery, except in the sense that death is always a mystery. Children were encouraged to think about death, their own deaths and the edifying or cautionary deathbeds of others. It can have been a rare individual who, in the 19th century with its high mortality, had not witnessed at least one actual dying, as well as paying their respect to ‘beautiful corpses’; funerals were the occasion of the greatest display for working class, middle class, and aristocrat. The cemetery was the centre of every old-established village, and they were prominent in most towns. It was fairly late in the 19th century when the execution of criminals ceased to be a public holiday as well as a public warning… In the 20th century, however, there seems to have been an unremarked shift in prudery; whereas copulation has become more and more ‘mentionable’, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon societies, death has become more and more ‘unmentionable’ as a natural process.

This inversion of sexuality and death – the latter replacing the former as object of the unsayable – merits deeper reflection (Gorer developed his thesis in a more detailed study, which appeared in 1965: Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain). Indeed, the popularity of TV series such as CSI could perhaps be attributed to their pornographic element. Their protagonist is, after all, the autopsy table – that theatre of ‘indecencies’ which blurs the line between forensic pathology and soft-porn. It might be that the repression of the scandal around death contributed to the emergence of what Jessica Mitford termed The American Way of Death (1963); the practice of beautifying corpses and the spread of embalmment as a temporary method of conservation of the corpse, contrary to that of the ancient Egyptians, where the appearance of life in the deceased is made to last for thousands of years. The American funerary industry currently has a turnover of around $20 billion, corresponding to 2.4 million funerals a year. Tony Richardson’s film on the Los Angeles funeral business, The Loved One (1965), is worth remembering here; based on a short novel by Evelyn Waugh, the production also employed Mitford as a consultant. Back then, I thought the film was rather good; who knows what effect it would have today.

Our repression of death, then, is not a novel attitude (especially today, as we’re overwhelmed with the constant news of so many undeserved deaths), but rather the result of a trend rooted in the industrial structure of our society. Here French scholarship comes into play, in particular the work of Philippe Ariès, most notably his collected lectures, Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (1974). Ariès identified various stages in the development of death – from a social death, to a familial death, to a hospitalized death. If somebody was dying at home during the Middle Ages, even casual passers-by would actively participate in bidding them farewell, entering the house to greet them, perhaps sticking around for a groan or two. Death was a communal experience. The family subsequently became death’s main character (here we also see emerge all the rituals of 19th century ‘romantic’ mourning). Then, in a third phase, after being subtracted from society, death was also taken from the family and handed over to hospitals, to which it was ultimately delegated. When one arrives in a new city, one can immediately tell if a hospital is nearby from the number of funeral homes you see in the street. As Ariès summarizes:

The Middle Ages in their entirety – even at their close – lived with a familiarity of death and of the dead. From the 16th to the 18th century erotic images of death attest to the rupturing of the millenarian intimacy between man and death. As La Rochefoucauld notes, men can neither look the sun nor death in the face any longer. From the 19th century, images of death appear increasingly rarely, and disappear altogether in the 20th. The silence that nowadays reigns over death means it has broken out of its chains, transforming itself into a wild and incomprehensible force.

The repression of death is thus a process rooted in industrialization and technological progress. Even the rise of cremation can be understood in terms of this social repression, for the buried corpse acts as a permanent reminder of the departed (no matter how deeply they might be buried under the conscience of the living), whereas cremated ashes ratify a disappearance, sanctioning a more definitive type of rupture. It’s been shown that cinerary urns are visited far less than graves; the former signals the decline of the cemetery as a sacred site and the end of ‘romantic’ mourning, with its characteristic monumental graves and solemn funeral processions that marked the life not just of towns, but also of cities.

From this perspective the pandemic has hardly altered our relationship with death. It has merely intensified already present dynamics – above all the increasing solitude in dying. Once more, the peremptory assertion that ‘nothing will ever be the same’ rings hollow. In no way has the pandemic altered modernity’s tenacious attempts to cancel death, to make it vanish from our horizon of life, to bequeath it to an incomprehensible and unimaginable ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherwhen’:[1] a form of absolute panic, to put it brutally.

It will be objected that one of the past year’s more frequent complaints has been that the pandemic has deprived us of the ability to grieve. Here too we might do well to consult Ariès, who has shown grief to be a category far from immutable, but rather a precise historical construct whose culmination came in the 19th century. In reality, mourning in its various manifestations – beginning with the recurrent ritual of the visit to the cemetery and the spread of funerary monuments – only took shape with the advent of romanticism, when mourning for the dead supplanted the cult of the dead. The previous two centuries have thus seen human society do without that cult of the dead which had characterized it since its origins.

Only in the 1800s did the middle classes begin to express bereavement through the colour of women’s garments, which were black during the funeral and often kept so for subsequent months. As W. M. Spellman recounts in his A Brief History of Death (2014): ‘A period of withdrawal from social life was also expected, again with women taking the lead role. In America many middle-class girls received mourning kits for their dolls, the ritual acted out in the world of play’. In short, before the end of the 1800s, Freud would never have been able to argue that mourning was one of man’s innate psychological processes.

But it would still be inaccurate to say that the pandemic has simply magnified tendencies that have been developing for a century – its effects resemble more a return to a proximate past. For the effects of modernity described by Gorer, Mitford and Airès have lost their prominence in the past decades: deaths in hospital reached a peak, but recently families have preferred to keep their dying loved ones at home.

We know that around 80% of Americans would prefer to die in their homes, but also that 60% die in hospital, 20% in nursing homes and only 20% at home. This percentage, however, is rising, as deaths in hospitals and emergency departments fall, whilst admissions increase. This trend is explained by our growing consciousness of the futility of therapeutic persistence in terminal patients.

The evolution of grief is also less linear than it might appear. The most caricatural, archaic figure associated with it is that of the contracted mourner, the professional weeper. Hiring people to cry demonstrates the theatrical (and therefore deceptive) nature of sorrow. An article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times from 22 March 1908 is rather disorientating. ‘Professional Mourners Strike’, the title announces, and the opening paragraph reads, ‘PARIS, March 14. Those curious, gruesome individuals, made notorious through French romances, known as “croque morts”, or professional weepers, have gone on a strike, as they only get 5 f. for twelve hours’ service, and an additional franc when sent out on an extra call’. What we have here is an ultra-archaic profession combining with a tool of modern class struggle, the strike.

Professional mourners have even entered the world of the internet, participating in the latest technological revolution:

Worried that not enough people will show up to your funeral? Let Rent-A-Mourner help. The ingenious and aptly-named company allows concerned parties to pay for professional grievers to fill a funeral home and make sure that the deceased gets a fitting and extremely well-attended sendoff. For approximately $68 a head, the UK-based business will send ‘professional, polite, well dressed individuals’ to attend your funeral or wake, and will weep, wail and generally appear sad about the passing of whatever person happens to be filling the casket for about two hours. Rent-A-Mourner promises that your paid grievers will be ‘discreet’ and ‘professional’, according to its website.

Unfortunately, at a time of undoubtedly high demand, the service is no longer available – rentamourner.co.uk ceased trading in March 2019.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘The Philosopher’s Epidemic’, NLR 122.


[1] I borrow the term ‘otherwhen’ from H. Beam Piper’s famous 1965 science-fiction novel, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.