By the time Aijaz Ahmad published his now classic, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (1992), he was 51 years old. He had already drifted through Lahore, Harlem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Anatolia and the Palestinian camps in Jordan, before settling in New Delhi. In the book, Ahmad dissected the antinomies of the new theoretical turn in the Anglo-American academy – its schematic conceptions of the third world, its distancing of culture from political economy and activism, its reluctance to highlight its institutional sites, as well as the class locations and practices of its practitioners. I first encountered the book at the University of Delhi. An engineer at the time, I was mesmerized by its feverish blend of a theorist’s insight and a pamphleteer’s loose wit – equal parts revelatory (‘Determination … means the givenness of a circumstance within which individuals make their choices, their lives, their histories’) and rancorous (‘Ranajit Guha … a typical upper-layer bourgeois’). Enrolling in the English department, I soon discovered that this was precisely the kind of writing that is known to sink your academic career. Good thing Ahmad didn’t really have one when he wrote the book.

A year after In Theory was published, the journal Public Culture assembled a set of critical responses. Marjorie Levinson described it as ‘an ugly book’, dismissing it as ‘harangue, jeremiad, flyting, ethnic cleansing: not to make a mystery of it, jihad’. Peter van der Veer started by declaring that the book reminded him of a visit to Calcutta in 1973, where he was shocked to discover a photograph of Stalin in the house of a communist cadre. References to ‘hardline Indian communism’ and Ahmad’s ‘style of inquisition’ duly followed. Talal Asad tersely suggested that the book was influenced by the European teleology of progress. Partha Chatterjee questioned Ahmad’s grasp of Indian Marxism. Nivedita Menon and the book’s commissioning editor Michael Sprinker offered perceptive rejoinders (the only courteous ones) to Ahmad’s portrayal of Edward Said. Andrew Parker wrote that the book failed to achieve an integral unity; it was more a blend of ‘oil and water than political history and literary theory’. And like many other reviewers, Vivek Dhareshwar highlighted the curious disjunction between Ahmad’s focus on the institutional locations of specific scholars and his reluctance to discuss his own involvement in the metropolitan academy. Invoking Ahmad’s criteria, Dhareshwar countered: ‘Does the work/individual have or provide any links with determinate emancipatory movements?’

Ahmad fled Pakistan for the first time in 1966, at the height of Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship. He had recently finished a masters at the Forman Christian College, Lahore. Two years later, he started teaching at the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) Program at the City College of New York. His colleagues there included Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, David Hernandez and Adrienne Rich. Although the college was located in Harlem, the cultural epicentre of the country’s Black community, only 9 percent of its daytime students were Black or Puerto Rican. SEEK was instituted to counteract the college’s racist admissions policy and course design. But radicalized by the Vietnam War and Black Liberation, the students wanted to open more than just the gates to a public college. Screening radical cinema and publishing political pamphlets, they swiftly turned the campus into a site for revolutionary politics. In December 1968, addressing a multiracial assembly of students and activists, Stokely Carmichael offered a thunderous ‘blueprint for armed struggle against American racism and capitalism’ that drew inspiration from the raging anticolonial struggles in the Global South. A decade earlier, this same struggle had thrust Ahmad into the fold of radical politics. When Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt in 1956, massive anticolonial demonstrations erupted in Lahore. The 15-year-old Ahmad had joined the demonstrators, and in a burst of youthful impudence, climbed onto the veranda of a British consulate official’s house, picked up a chair and smashed it to pieces.

Living under the high noon of ’68 in Harlem, Ahmad translated the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, the last Mughal poet, whose career was dramatically transformed by the failed anticolonial rebellion of 1857. In that apocalyptic summer, the Britishers had hanged around 27,000 people in Delhi alone. With his friends either dead or deprived of their patronage and wealth, Ghalib rushed to publish DastAmbooh, a pro-British diary of the revolt. In his private letters, he bitterly censured the reign of colonial terror, and continued writing poems of intense ‘moral loneliness’. Ahmad’s collaborative translations with Adrienne Rich (a close friend), W.S. Merwin and William Stafford first appeared in Mahfil, a mimeographed magazine published at the University of Chicago. Their experiments created a poetic montage, which valued the play of translating over literal translations. Ahmad juxtaposed his ‘prose versions’ with ‘notes’ (explanation and general vocabulary) for each couplet, which were followed by the poets’ own versions of the original ghazal. In this newfound avant-garde collective, Ahmad listened for the echoes of an insurgent humanism: ‘Poetry happens wherever men suffer and posit their humanity against their suffering. Viet Nam, Harlem, the Delhi of 1857. LeRoi and Ghalib. You hold out your hand and you tell another person what you are going through: that is the final poem’.

At SEEK, Ahmad became the Interim Director, but was summarily replaced by a hostile administration in the summer of 1969. He had refused to support the Dean’s decision not to renew the tenures of ten Black faculty members (the charges against one included writing a pamphlet in support of Black workers at a Ford plant). In the fallout of a campus takeover by students, Ahmad was blacklisted from teaching in New York. He crossed the Hudson and started teaching at Rutgers. His translation project, Ghazals of Ghalib, was published the following year by Columbia University Press. By this time, however, Ahmad was occupied by developments in Pakistan, where a militant upsurge of students and urban workers had overthrown Khan’s dictatorship. The Pakistani left was breathing again. A split in the National Awami League had birthed the Mazdoor Kisan Party, a Maoist organization that soon liberated 200 hectares of agrarian land from feudal landlords in Hashtnagar (Northwest Frontier Province). He took a leave of absence from Rutgers, abandoned his PhD at Columbia and returned to Pakistan. In Nothing Human is Alien to Me (2020), a book-length interview with Vijay Prashad (the best source on his life and work), Ahmad reveals that in Pakistan he worked closely with MKP’s leadership ‘at the underground level’. But details of his political activity remain in short supply.

Recently, the anthropologist Shozab Raza told me that, during his fieldwork, he picked up an elusive trace of Ahmad’s presence in South Punjab. Ahmad makes an unexpected appearance in the personal notebook of Sibghatullah Mazari, a poor tenant and member of MKP. Around May 1972, Afzal Bangash, the party’s co-founder, dispatched Ahmad to Bangla Icha, Sibghatullah’s village, where he taught literary and political writing to young students. Raza added that his clandestine presence in the village was ‘likely part of a larger reconnaissance trip, which also included travelling to Hashtnagar’. Ahmad was also a punctual presence in MKP’s official organ, the Circular, where he translated Amílcar Cabral and Lê Duẩn, among many others. Rejecting the stuffy Urdu translations produced in Moscow, he re-translated Lenin in the diction and syntax found on Pakistani streets. If in Harlem, Ahmad grappled with the politics of poetic innovation, now he stressed the poetics of his political interventions. This came naturally to him. During his college years in Lahore, Ahmad had sharpened his convictions on the whetstone of literary style. Novelist Intizar Hussain and the poet Nasir Kasmi had been among his friends. One day he would study Proust, whose ‘sentences ran to five, ten, fifteen, even twenty clauses’, inconceivable in Urdu; the next day, he would translate Joyce’s Dubliners with its ‘short, pithy sentences, hard as diamonds, impossible to cut’. Youthful enthusiasms now bloomed into a desire for new dialectical idioms.

Ahmad was prolific throughout the 1970s, publishing poems, translations, literary criticism and political analyses in various Urdu magazines – not just in Lahore and Karachi, but also across the border, in Allahabad and Hyderabad. His phenomenal critique of Baloch separatism appeared in Pakistan Forum in 1973. The complementary essays, ‘The Agrarian Question of Baluchistan’ and ‘The National Question of Baluchistan’, offered a sweeping account of the tensions between Balochistan’s linguistic and ethnic history, and the contradictions afflicting its severely impoverished economy (founded on inward and outward flows of migrant labour). Though an uncompromising advocate of the liberation of Bangladesh, Ahmad rejected calls for an ethnolinguistic revision of Pakistan’s national borders. A secession, he emphasized, could not resolve the class contradictions of Baloch society. Instead, it would further empower elite landowning Sardars, who would readily become neo-colonial clients of the US or the Soviet Union. As expected, Ahmad’s contentions enraged Baloch nationalists and their sympathizers, including the journal’s editor Feroz Ahmed, who rushed to rebut his friend in a new book. Cracks also developed in Ahmad’s relationship with MKP. The party saluted the Naxalite insurgency smouldering across the border. But Ahmad became increasingly critical of this Maoist adventure, eventually drawing the ire of the party. Writing to the political theorist Noaman G. Ali, Ahmad revealed that ‘a whole session of MKP, with perhaps 60 or 70 members present, was once called in Faisalabad for (him) to be held answerable for this heresy’.

During this period, Ahmad also travelled widely in the Arab world. Defeat by Israel in the Six Day War and the subsequent decline of Nasserism had spurred a wave of Islamist reaction. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat declared Islam the state religion and Shar’ia ‘the main source of state legislation’. Crisscrossing the peri-urban townships surrounding Cairo and the small-town interiors of Anatolia, Ahmad closely studied the unexpected rise of an Islamist bourgeoisie. In Jordan, he discovered that ‘the (Palestinian) camps were just full of Quranic recitations, full of Islamic cassettes of various sorts’. In Lebanon, his comrades in Palestinian liberation organizations painted similar pictures of Birzeit. Ahmad’s analyses were regularly translated and published in Rose Al-Yusef, the Egyptian political weekly, and As-Safir, the leading daily newspaper in Lebanon. He had already experienced similar tensions in Pakistan, where the MKP had tried to meld Marxism and Islam into a revolutionary program. Tariq Ali memorably described it as ‘the party which begins its private and public meetings with recitations from the Koran and whose manifesto is liberally spiced with quotations from the same!’ But this new shift shared little with revolutionary politics. In 1977, Pakistan also fell to the Islamists. General Zia-ul-Haq implemented martial law, disbanded Parliament and ordered the Islamization of the entire country.

Ahmad fled back to the US. A 90-page essay, ‘Political Islam: A Critique,’ soon appeared in three parts in Pakistan Progressive, as well as a ‘balance sheet’ of the rebellion against General Zia’s coup in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Struggling to find a political foothold, by the mid-1980s Ahmad resolved to move to India, the country of his birth and home to a still robust national communist movement. But since laws forbade Pakistani citizens to work in India, he gave up his citizenship and acquired a US passport. It was against the backdrop of these transitions that Ahmad wrote the essay which famously rebutted Fredric Jameson’s claim that ‘all third-world literatures are … national allegories’. Rejecting ‘Jameson’s haste in totalizing historical phenomena in terms of binary oppositions’, Ahmad asserted that capitalism imposed an economic unity on the entire world and that national cultures evolved on a shared, but uneven, political terrain. When Ahmad arrived as a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a new generation of scholars was starting to scrutinize the explosion of theory in the West. In 1990, Suvir Kaul published ‘The Indian Academic and Resistance to Theory’, a moving essay about his return to the University of Delhi after finishing PhD at Cornell, in which he astutely noted how theorists like Paul De Man and Homi Bhabha ‘co-opt(ed) … the language of resistance into … a purely linguistic, tropological activity,’ and neglected that theories of différance are subject to the “invisible hand” that scripts the global equation of knowledge/power’. Composing In Theory simultaneously, Ahmad explained that this new theoretical turn (which took Marxism as just one critical framework among many) was mediated by the successive eclipse of anticolonial struggles, the New Left and the socialist bloc. Driven by his own itinerant political life, Ahmad decreed that theory must be rigorously held ‘accountable’ by the ‘non-academic political field’.

Just three months after the publication of In Theory, a right-wing Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, sparking a blaze of anti-Muslim pogroms across India. In the early 1950s, the growing threat of the Hindu right had forced Ahmad’s family of farmers to migrate from the present-day Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan (his earliest memories included his uncle hoisting the Indian flag on the morning of independence and imbibing progressive Urdu fiction and poetry in a village that lacked electricity and a school). Four decades later, its rise was complete. As In Theory occasioned fiery debates in the Anglo-American academy, Ahmad’s own career now took a sharp turn. In a series of critical essays, later collected in The Lineages of the Present and On Communalism and Globalization, Ahmad dissected the precipitous decline of Indian democracy. Never afraid of challenging popular consensus, Ahmad resolved that there was no contradiction between liberal institutions and the Hindu right. The BJP had no need to suspend liberal democracy because it had already captured its institutions from the inside – judiciary, universities, media, bureaucracy and military. Legitimized by these same institutions, it could freely orchestrate ‘perpetual low-intensity violence’ against Dalits and Muslims. But the left, Ahmad suggested, could not replicate this strategy. The ‘liberal-democratic state apparatus’ is designed to stabilize the capitalist order. It might allow for limited welfare reforms in individual states like Kerala, but it ‘will never permit the communist Left to implement its programme’ on a national level. ‘Every country gets the fascism it deserves,’ was his grim forecast.

Ahmad’s arrival in India also radically transformed his role as an intellectual. While in Pakistan he had lived underground with MKP and published in small Arabic and Urdu magazines (many of them lost to us), now he became a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia, and wrote for India’s prominent Anglophone magazines. In Frontline, Ahmad published over 80 essays, including celebrated long-form coverage of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (collected in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Imperialism of our Times). In Newsclick, he tracked the geopolitical crises of late capitalism: the French bombardment of northern Mali, the fallout of the Crimean referendum, among others. When the BJP came to power in 2014, Ahmad’s visa was not renewed. Aged 75, he was again forced to relocate to the US – now as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, ironically a wellspring of the same theoretical turn that Ahmad had publicly censured.

When In Theory was first published, Partha Chatterjee had charged Ahmad with ‘dissembling’, querying why the book ‘should conceal so strenuously, in its jacket, preliminary pages and text, the fact that the author has spent the overwhelming part of his career studying and teaching in the ‘metropolitan academy’”. But looking back, what is bothersome is not the alleged suppression of Ahmad’s academic career, but rather that of his career outside the academy. Why do we know so little about the political ebbs and flows of Ahmad’s life? Or more broadly, why do we know so little about the lives of those countless organizers and activists, autodidacts and litterateurs, who live and write in the postcolonial periphery? Why does their work rarely travel to the shores of the metropolitan academy? And who is responsible for this ‘concealing’?

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Reconciling Derrida’, NLR I/208.


Theorist in Exile

I first met Aijaz Ahmad in London in the mid-1990s. We ran into each other by chance. As I was introduced, he immediately said, ‘You have a very unusual name. No one from Uttar Pradesh is called Vinayak’. Only a local would make such a comment. Many men from north India of my father’s and grandfather’s generation had noted the anomaly between my firmly north Indian last name and my first name, which has its roots in western and southern India. Ahmad was the last person I met who made this observation; that generation is now mostly gone. What Ahmad said next was more striking. He explained that Vinayak, one of the names of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, was his favourite Hindu deity: a seeker of knowledge, a remover of obstacles, a consumer of intoxicants. But he lamented that the Hindu right’s appropriation of Ganesh now made it impossible for him to view the deity positively.   

It was fortuitous that Ahmad and I ended up teaching at the same university nearly twenty years later. Ahmad had arrived under adverse circumstances. The election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 meant that his Indian visa had not been renewed. His criticism of the Hindu right had finally caught up with him, not to mention his name and Pakistani identity. He could no longer live in the country of his birth. Instead, he had to return to a metropolitan university in the ‘belly of the beast’ – Che Guevara’s phrase that Ahmad often cited. He arrived at University of California, Irvine as the Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature in 2016. I am sure the irony of moving to an institution that was a major site for the ‘theory’ of which he had long been a critic was not lost on him. Nor the fact that he was now living in a city that wholeheartedly embraced the culture of late-capitalism – one that that Slavoj Žižek has described as the strangest place on earth.

Ahmad had experienced displacement at a young age, when his family moved from the north Indian town of Muzaffarnagar to Lahore, Pakistan. The formation of India and Pakistan as newly independent nation-states occurred in a period of great tragedy and violence that Ahmad described as a ‘communal holocaust’. The generation that lived through it never forgot their histories of forced migration. Very few returned. Ahmad, though, was different. He left Pakistan when he found himself in political trouble for questioning General Zia-ul-Haq’s military coup in 1977. But he was not allowed to live in India until he acquired another citizenship; in his case this meant moving to New York and becoming a US passport holder. Ahmad later resided in India for many years on short-term visas. Government policy stipulates that any individual who was once a Pakistani national cannot become Indian again – at least on paper. Living in India also complicated Ahmad’s re-entry into Pakistan; it was no longer possible for him to return for any length of time. The Radcliffe Line arbitrarily drawn on a map as the permanent border between India and Pakistan divided the people of both nations for posterity.

It is not surprising then that alienation is a key theme of Ahmad’s oeuvre. In the 1970s, he was best known for his translations and interpretations of Urdu poetry, especially his work on Mirza Ghalib, considered by some to be the greatest Indian poet of the nineteenth century. There is a personal inflection to his description of Ghalib as a ‘tragic poet’, ‘surrounded by constant carnage’ in a world undone by British domination and the decline of early-modern Mughal courtly culture. Ahmad was acutely sensitive to the historical conjuncture in which Ghalib no longer felt he belonged, describing his life as ‘unbearable’. Equally sympathetic to those forced into exile, he was a fierce protector of the historical legacy of Marx, especially from postcolonial scholars who dismissed him as an Orientalist, a racist, or worse. Ahmed argued that these critics had failed to read Marx’s writings on India (or elsewhere) carefully or systematically enough, countering that his analysis was far more complex and radical than most of the anticolonial leaders of the period. ‘Expecting more from a German refugee who spent much of his pauperized life in nineteenth century London strikes me as somewhat unfair’, he wrote.

The defence of Marx was part of a broader project. As an essayist extraordinaire, he spent several years writing critiques of what was popularly known in the Anglo-American academy as ‘theory’, which were collected in his most famous book, In Theory (1992). For Ahmad, the theoretical formations of postcolonialism, postmodernism and poststructuralism were characterized by a retreat from socialist politics into ‘fashionable’ discursive strategies – their theory not only distanced itself from historical materialism but sought its undoing in the name of dismantling all grand narratives. Ahmad also sharply criticised those postcolonial writers who used ‘exile’ as a metaphor for all ‘Third World’ immigrants irrespective of their circumstances. Some, he argued, were engaged in‘an opportunistic kind of Third Worldism’, whereby wealthy, educated immigrants living in the diaspora for reasons of professional aspiration neglected to distinguish between themselves and those forced to flee their homes for fear of imprisonment, torture or death. Ahmad lamented that this ‘inflationary rhetoric’ had entered the writings of literary theorists who claimed marginality as a strategic subject position in their work.

In Theory received a great deal of attention as a major intervention in Marxist cultural criticism, and for its trenchant critiques of Fredric Jameson, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said. This was softened – or at least that is what Ahmad thought – with a comradely gesture to his interlocutors: ‘Suppression of criticism, I have come to believe, is not the best way of expressing solidarity’. Criticism was ultimately intended to bring them together. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The book provoked a furore, with many condemning its combative tone as well as its insistence on linking Marxist political economy to the study of literary theory. Ahmad regretted that his criticisms were misconstrued as personal attacks, and he emphasised that he celebrated parts of the work of those he criticised. What he found more disappointing was that many of these detractors failed to engage with his central arguments about ‘Third World Literature’ and ‘Three Worlds Theory’ ­– not to mention his essay titled ‘Marx on India’.

In Theory was followed by a second volume of essays, Lineages of the Present (1996). This included an autobiographical introduction in which Ahmad identified himself as an exile and perhaps for the first time publicly discussed his departure from Pakistan, describing the ‘painful cultural price’ of renouncing Urdu as his primary language. He also made clear that the bricolage of essays reflected a personal story about his life: each represented a specific moment of his intellectual and political development. In particular, the collection charts his growing concern with the rise of the Hindu right and the ideology of Hindutva. The demolition of the sixteenth century Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists in 1992 had been a major turning point. If Mirza Ghalib had experienced the decline of the Mughal Empire, Ahmad witnessed the beginning of its historical erasure. The collection also included literary engagements with Urdu writers, as well as a critical analysis of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx that became the leading Marxist response to deconstruction at the time, alongside a defence of Gramsci from cultural theorists whom Ahmad felt no longer interpreted him as a revolutionary socialist.

The book marked a transition of sorts, as Ahmad’s attention increasingly shifted towards journalism and current affairs. Not surprisingly, Ahmad’s project was expansive: US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, Russian concerns about NATO, Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, the domestic economy of China, the persecution of Palestinians in Israel, the global financial crisis. The rise of India’s Hindu right though concerned him most intimately. He argued that there were ‘structural connections’ linking the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies in India with what he called the ‘communal fascism’ of Hindu nationalism, and a new, globalized form of imperialism. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, India witnessed a dramatic increase in violence against Muslims. The Gujarat pogroms of 2002 would establish Modi’s credentials as the next leader of the BJP. Ahmad described the period as reflecting a ‘culture of cruelty’. His work elucidated how the legacy of the communal holocaust of 1947 persisted into the new century.

At Irvine, Ahmad was initially reluctant to discuss the difficulty of leaving India once again. The last time I met him we were on a panel together at a South Asian Studies conference before the Covid breach, where speaker after speaker denounced the idea of ‘South Asia’ as a neo-colonial construction. Many anticipated that Ahmad would maintain his combative position against postcolonial studies as he had done for many years, but instead he opted to share his life-story of multiple migrations and displacements. He described himself as a political exile who could no longer return to India or Pakistan. South Asia meant something to him that others in the room could not know or understand. Now, in an echo of what he had written in the 1970s about Ghalib, his world was disappearing in front of his eyes.

Ahmad never returned ‘home’. He died on March 9, 2022.

Read on: Aijaz Ahmad, ‘A Gift of Memory’, NLR I/237.


Fables of Migration

On 14 April, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood chatting to the reassuring blue uniforms of the Royal Navy with the White Cliffs of Dover clearly in view, courtesy of Downing Street TV. ‘Our compassion may be infinite,’ he said, ‘but our capacity to help people is not.’ On the same day and in tandem, his home secretary Priti Patel was visiting Rwanda to sign an agreement with foreign minister Vincent Biruta. Although details remain scant, the deal means that many refugees arriving in Britain will be sent to Rwanda while their asylum claims are assessed. If their application is successful, they will gain the right to settle – in Rwanda. The expulsions could begin in weeks.

Johnson’s late-evening announcement ensured that the policy was emblazoned on the newsstands the next morning. ‘UK Migrants Off to Rwanda’, barked The Sun, the ‘off’ faintly suggesting that this was a journey the migrants would be making ‘off their own back’. The Mail adopted its usual tone of righteous aggression, proclaiming ‘Rwanda Plan to Smash the Channel Gangs’. Meanwhile, headlines in the Times and Telegraph were almost identically bland – ‘Channel Boat Migrants Will Be Sent to Rwanda’; ‘Channel Migrants To Be Sent to Rwanda’ – as if Patel’s programme were no more than a simple, technical solution to the ‘migration crisis’.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper immediately responded to Patel via Twitter: ‘Desperate and truly shameful announcement from Govt tonight as an attempt to distract from Boris Johnson’s lawbreaking. Unworkable, unethical and extortionate.’ Later that day, the same triad – ‘unworkable, unethical, extortionate’ – was repeated by Labour leader Keir Starmer. Since then, the opposition has continually described the scheme as a diversion from the Partygate scandal, keeping its moral outrage firmly focussed on the latter. Although the ethical content of the Rwanda plan was criticised in passing, its greater evil apparently lies in distracting from what really matters. Much like the Murdoch broadsheets, Labour has stayed mostly silent on the morality of the policy while questioning its practicality and efficiency – Does it work? How much will it cost? The implication being that, if only the government could resettle migrants to third-countries at a reasonable price, Sir Keir would offer his full support.

What explains this emphasis on the plan’s technical details over its human cost? Since Johnson secured a resounding parliamentary majority in 2019, he has sought various ways to maintain the populist energy of his campaign. Exploiting the issue of migration has been chief among them. Over the past year, the Home Office has considered a number of bizarre initiatives to push back dinghies using wave machines, deport migrants to remote islands on the other side of the world, or imprison them in disused ferries off the British coast – all in the name of ‘taking back control’. None of these blueprints were realised, and some have predicted that the Rwanda policy won’t come to fruition either. But their ideological function was obvious: to naturalise the treatment of certain people as objects that can be ‘offshored’, ‘processed’ or ‘relocated’. If this latest announcement prompted more hand-wringing over its administrative complexities than outrage at its political purpose, that was a clear sign of the government’s success: drawing on the history of enslavement and empire to cast migrants (particularly black and brown ones) as inert matter which can be transported, stored or disposed of, according to the priorities of the British state. 

Yet migrant-baiting is a contradictory discourse. On the one hand, the refugee is presented as a lifeless object – a problem in need of a solution. On the other, the public is told to be wary, suspicious, even fearful of those who land on Britain’s shores. Threaded through the Tories’ speeches and statements is a familiar narrative of criminality; and though it is primarily directed at ‘gangs’ and ‘people smugglers’, the taint spreads by association. Johnson warns of the ‘healthy young men’ or ‘economic migrants’ who come here under false pretences, sometimes posing as minors, in place of the truly vulnerable. We are taught to distinguish such pretenders from the ‘genuine asylum seeker’, for whom the government declares its endless sympathy. The construction of this ideal type acts as a ploy to justify state violence towards anyone who dares to cross the Channel. Early announcements of the Patel plan suggested that only single men would be sent to Rwanda, though this was quickly revised to include single women as well. Of course, there is no fixed criteria for becoming an ‘authentic’ asylum seeker. The status is unattainable; yet its imaginary preservation allows any aspiring refugee to be disciplined and demonized.

As such, while migration policy is drained of its ethical content and cast in bureaucratic garb, it is also paradoxically reframed as a pressing moral mission. In his speech on 14 April, Johnson stressed that the Rwanda deal was both an ingenious policy fix and a virtuous crusade:

From the French Huguenots, to the Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia, to the docking of the Empire Windrush, to the South Asians fleeing East Africa, to the many, many others who have come from different countries at different times for different reasons, all have wanted to be here because our United Kingdom is a beacon of openness and generosity, and all in turn have contributed magnificently to the amazing story of the UK.

But this generosity is only possible, he went on to argue, in the absence of illegal migration and people trafficking:

These vile people smugglers are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard, with men, women and children, drowning in unseaworthy boats, and suffocating in refrigerated lorries. And even if they do make it here, we know only too well some of the horrendous stories of exploitation over the years, from the nail bars of East London to the cockle beds of Morecambe Bay, as illegal migration makes people more vulnerable to the brutal abuse of ruthless gangs.

Robust, impermeable borders are therefore necessary to protect both the British public and the ‘good immigrant’ from the criminal Other: a point that Tory ministers repeated in press interviews over the following week. By extension, opposition to Patel’s plan amounts to supporting the traffickers, or siding with Britain’s civilizational enemies. When the Archbishop of Canterbury challenged this logic in his Easter Day sermon, describing the offshoring scheme as ‘the opposite of godly’, Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg seized an opportunity to double down on the Tories’ fable. He described the plan as ‘almost an Easter story of redemption’, since it would involve the UK using its first-world privileges to support a deprived African nation and its people.

The missionary script was vividly present in these remarks. Yet the Tories have also harnessed another, less well-known legacy of the colonial era to their anti-migrant rhetoric. In late nineteenth-century Britain, popular fiction made abundant use of what the critic Stephen Arata has called ‘narratives of reverse migration’: stories where primitive forces threaten to colonise the Western world. In Rider Haggard’s She, Ayesha wants to sack London and depose Queen Victoria; in Dracula, the Count invades Britain by boat after buying a series of large properties. As Arata points out, these stories stemmed from anxiety about Britain’s place in the world when confronted with increasingly globalized competition. They built on a pervasive cultural suspicion of unmoored or uprooted people, who find themselves isolated, far from home, for opaque reasons. Their purpose was to shore up a ‘civilized’ and stable British identity in contrast to this itinerant one. In our post-Brexit age, as Ukania struggles to articulate its role within a multipolar order, the relevance of this narrative has been renewed. Following Theresa May’s invective against ‘citizens of nowhere’, Johnson has moved to excise these nomadic subjects from the British polity.

The outsourcing of what was formerly state provision (health, education, security, justice) to global conglomerates in the name of efficiency and frugality is a familiar feature of neoliberal capitalism. Any public service can be broken down into a set of anonymized technical procedures administered by profit-making companies. Yet Patel’s asylum plan represents a particularly noxious form of public–private partnership, in which the state, its capacity eroded by years of austerity, can only execute its nationalist-authoritarian turn by delegating its repressive functions to unaccountable contractors. This was true of the plan’s immediate forerunner: the Australian practice of removing migrants to Manus, Papua New Guinea and the small South Pacific island of Nauru. Shadowy companies like Serco and G4S were awarded substantial ‘care and justice’ contracts to carry out this programme, and they are now likely to be enlisted by Patel (who hired the architect of the Australian plan, Alexander Downer, in February of this year). If this is the reality of Britain’s ‘post-neoliberal’ settlement, then it is no cause for left triumphalism. It means the empowerment of parasitic companies to compensate for the weakness of the imperial state – whose atrophy and insecurity has not diminished its malice.

Of course, as Justin Welby noted, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker; but the proliferation of various categories of migrant creates a hierarchy of virtue which is easily exploited by those who seek to block migration tout court. Is long-term structural unemployment a less valid reason to leave your home country than state persecution? Is lack of access to education? My father left Karachi by ship in 1955 for what was supposed to be a temporary stay in London. It was a comfortable journey, sharing a cabin with a friend, and he was relatively privileged compared to most of those who were arriving from the Caribbean and Subcontinent. He soon became an immigrant, gradually settling in London without even realising he was doing so. Yet just eight years earlier, he and his family had left Amritsar for Lahore amid the Partition crisis, in which two million were killed and up to 15 million displaced. It is unclear what motivated my father’s onward journey to Britain; and one may have struggled to classify him as either an immigrant or a refugee. But one thing is certain: were he to set out on the same journey today, the machinery of the Home Office would be mobilized to stop him.

Read on: Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, ‘Empire, Twenty Years On’, NLR 120.


Radical Incisions

Critical assessments of Joseph Andras usually start – and remain – at the centre of controversy. In 2016, the young author’s first novel, De nos frères blessés, won the highly prestigious prix Goncourt du premier roman. To the consternation of the French literary establishment, Andras declined the award – the first writer to do so since Julien Gracq in 1951 – stating in a letter to the Académie his conviction that ‘competition and rivalry’ were ‘foreign notions to writing and creation’. Literature, he declared, ought to ‘closely guard its independence and keep its distance from podiums, honours and projectors’. He affirmed instead a ‘profound desire to stick to the text, to words, to its inherent ideals, to the concealed speech of a worker and militant for social and political equality.’

The scandal of this rejection dominated coverage of the novel in the French press, and fuelled speculation about Andras’s identity. With ‘Joseph Andras’ revealed to be a pseudonym, rumours circulated that he was in fact a famous author in disguise. This was dubbed the ‘Andras Affair’ by the literary critic Pierre Assouline, who suggested the author’s potential association with communitarian anarchist group the Invisible Committee and those arrested in the Tarnac Affair on charges of sabotage. Others accused Andras of bad faith, arguing that his refusal of the honour and insistence on anonymity were designed to drum up greater renown by creating a kind of negative celebrity. The anglophone reception last year, when the novel was published in English as Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, tended to follow suit – fetishizing Andras’s reclusion and refusal at the expense of his writing and, just as significantly, his politics. 

De nos frères is a visceral portrait of Fernand Iveton, the only ‘European’ executed for terrorism during the Algerian War. Iveton, a Communist pied-noir affiliated with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), was arrested during a failed attempt to bomb the gasworks factory where he worked on the outskirts of Algiers. While the intention was to destroy property, not human life, Iveton was nonetheless sentenced to death in February 1957. Andras recounts his story on two temporal levels in loosely alternating chapters: the first retracing the narrative of Iveton’s arrest, imprisonment, torture, trial, and eventual execution despite several appeals (voted against by Mitterrand, then Minister of Justice); the second his relationship with his wife Hélène, a Polish Jew whose family supported the resistance during German occupation. This unfolds mostly in the third person, but there are moments where we are granted access to Iveton’s thoughts, in letters from prison, slips into free indirect style – fictional techniques that Andras has discarded in subsequent works. The prose is electric, dense and deliberate, deftly shifting between registers ­– at one moment abrupt and declarative, the next flowing, sonorous and alliterative.

Andras has described his intention to ‘give colour back to Iveton’, whom he admires as ‘a militant, that is, a comrade, a man who works with others and only understands himself in the plural’. Plural, in the sense of being a participant in collective struggle, wary of the egoism of the ‘I’ (as is Andras in his writing), but also in terms of personal identity: Iveton identified as Algerian, was a pro-independence militant who was a member of both the FLN and the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) yet maintained a seemingly contradictory love for – and trust in – France up until his execution. As Andras puts it, he is ‘a rock in the narrative machinery’. 

Critics have reached to Camus’s L’etranger (1942) as a point of comparison, but this appears to be merely the result of canonical familiarity. There is little similarity between Camus’s resigned Meursault and the committed Iveton, while Camus’s cool neutrality (what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree-zero’) couldn’t be further from Andras’s charged, richly poetic style. Camus himself has also been compared with Iveton, on account of their respective relationships to pied-noir identity, yet Camus famously opposed the idea of Algerian Independence (though some believe that he tried to intervene to halt Iveton’s execution). A more apt comparison would be with Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), banned by the French state for exposing the torture of prisoners in Algeria. Alleg, editor of the PCA-affiliated Alger Républicain, was arrested in 1957 for ‘demoralizing’ the French army with his publication. He was subjected to torture of the kind inflicted on Iveton (electric charges, waterboarding, experimental truth serums). Unlike Iveton, however, Alleg survived to publish his account before being forced into hiding. His book – like Andras’s – lays bare the brutality of the French state during the Algerian War.

Since De nos frères, Andras has published four more books, all of which have yet to be translated into English. S’il ne restait qu’un chien (If Only a Dog Remained), a 50-page free verse poem published in 2017, draws on five centuries of the history of the port of Le Havre, where Andras lives (notably its role in the transatlantic slave trade). It is told from the perspective of the port itself and is read aloud by the rapper D’ de Kabal on an accompanying recording. This was followed in 2018 by Kanaky: Sur les traces d’Alphonse Dianou (Kanaky: in the Footsteps of Alphonse Dianou), a second radical character study, this time of a New Caledonian independence leader killed by the French. In 1988 the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front took two dozen police hostages, demanding independence for New Caledonia ­ – a South Pacific island which remains to this day one of France’s ‘overseas departments’ – in exchange for their release. Dianou was shot in the leg during a standoff with the military and died soon after, though the exact circumstances remain contested. Vilified by the French government and press, Andras’s aims to correct this – travelling to New Caledonia to interview Dianou’s family, friends and comrades who retell his story ‘from many voices’.

The book takes the form of a travelogue, woven around a narrative retelling of the hostage situation and its catastrophic unravelling. Though different in approach, Kanaky reads as a continuation of the historical project begun with De nos frères. The careers of key military figures handling the hostage situation are traced back to the Algerian War, and Mitterrand, now President, returns as a target of critique, this time for his brutal handling of the situation (a timely flex of muscle on the eve of elections). The message is clear: despite official decolonization, or the shift from ‘colony’ to ‘overseas territory’, structures of imperialism do not disappear. They merely change form. 

In 2021, Andras published a pair of short books, Au loin le ciel du sud (The Distant Southern Sky) and Ainsi nous leur faisons la guerre (And So We Wage War on Them). The former tracks the shadows of a young, still-unknown Hô Chi Minh through leftist circles in early 1920’s Paris. Drawing on personal archives, police reports, and biographies, Andras, or rather, ‘you’ – the first-person is abandoned here – retrace Minh’s steps through a contemporary Paris animated by a new wave of struggle in the form of the Gilets Jaunes. The latter book is a triptych, composed of three historical scenes focusing on animal rights: the anti-vivisectionist ‘Brown Dog Affair’ led by Swedish Feminists in turn-of-the-century London; a 1985 raid on a testing lab at UC Riverside by the Animal Liberation Front; and the ill-fated flight of a slaughterhouse-bound cow through rural France in 2014. As with De nos frères and Kanaky, these works excavate minor figures, neglected events and hidden sites across space and time, gathering them into constellations of collective struggle. A new book on the French Revolution, Camille Desmoulins’s journal Le Vieux Cordelier, and the War in the Vendée is scheduled for publication next month.

In addition to his literary work, Andras writes regular journalism for the communist-affiliated press, with articles in L’Humanité including political commentary – on the Gilet Jaunes, Macronism, Israel-Palestine, to name a few – as well as a series of portraits of militant poets. For Regards, he has co-written several pieces with the sociologist Kaoutar Harchi, including an obituary of Zineb Redouane, an elderly Algerian woman killed by a tear gas canister thrown into her window by police during a Gilets Jaunes demonstration. Longer articles have appeared on the radical leftist site Lundimatin, notably an account of his time spent with the Zapatistas in Chiapas and a profile of the anti-speciesist group 269 Animal Liberation. Despite his reputation for secrecy, Andras has also given several interviews to leftist publications which offer insights into his influences (Césaire and Sartre are only the beginning of a much longer list which includes Bensaïd, Serge, Luxemburg…), politics and methods, and which allow one to approach his work through his own words.

Andras’s project might be broadly described as a form of radical poetic historiography. ‘I no doubt have a failed historian deep down in me’, he reports. Each book engages with embedded historical structures through patterns of repetition, erasure and what he calls history’s ‘esprit d’escalier’ – that is, its belated logic. Yet these are not reified into impassable monuments. They are approached by way of the countercurrent – the ultimately thwarted actions of the individual militant: Iveton, Dianou, Nguyên Ai Quôc, members of the Animal Liberation Front. ‘Great figures’ and cults of personality are distrusted. Andras is instead drawn to outsiders and underdogs (his interest, for instance, in the young Nguyên Ai Quôc rather than the ‘figure’ Hô Chi Minh). Historical failures are not bemoaned but embraced for their capacity to illuminate the broader mechanisms of the systems they confront. ‘Losing’, Andras suggests, ‘becomes an escape ladder. A way to reclaim one’s dignity when “victory” is the great standard of order.’

Structure and individual praxis are played against one another in his work to reveal forgotten lineages, historical constellations, unlikely proximities. As Andras puts it, ‘to speak of Dianou is also to speak of Balade in 1852’ (when the French first took present-day New Caledonia); ‘to speak of Fernand Iveton is also to speak of General Bourmont in 1830’ (when the French first laid siege on Algiers). In Kanaky, we are reminded of Louise Michel, deported with other Communards to New Caledonia, devoting herself to the cause of Kanak independence. In Ainsi nous leur faisons la guerre, feminist and animal liberation struggles over nearly a century and on both sides of the Atlantic are brought into alignment. In Au loin le ciel du sud,a walk through Paris activates strata of the city’s radical historical memory. 

Given the political and historical character of Andras’s works, one might ask why he has chosen literature – and with such a formally challenging style – as his primary medium. For one thing, a book like De nos frères little resembles the historical novel championed by Lukàcs. Rather than embracing the ‘mass experience of history itself’, it reaches outwards from the trajectory of a historical individual – but again, no great men here – to compose a social ecology and an embedded fragment of history. Andras’s books read like incisions, cutting against the grain of received wisdom. 

In interviews he has emphasised literature’s affective force and poetic language’s capacity to stimulate ambiguity. Literature provides access to ‘trembling, the je-ne-sais-pas, odour, the light which passes through and the glitch in the concept’; the novel ‘allows the expression of tensions, of friction and indecisions’. That is, something about poetic form – and this is apparent in the twists and folds of Andras’s syntax – resists categorical closure and insists upon remaining indecisive, in movement. We might just as well read this into Andras’s interest in reopening jettisoned cases, unearthing forgotten struggles, drawing out minor threads in grand narratives. He is clear, however, that the writer is not alone in this process, assigning them a specific place in the division of intellectual labour: 

The journalist examines, the historian elucidates, the militant elaborates, the poet seizes: it’s left to the writer to move amongst these four brothers: he has neither the reserves of the first, the distance of the second, the persuasive force of the third, nor the élan of the last. He has only his free rein and speaks directly to the skin, coming and going ­– even if this means limping – between gossip and certainty, belly cries and verdicts, with tearful eyes and the shade of trees.

Read on: NLR Editors ‘The Trial’, NLR I/6.


Shrewd Tortoise

It only lasted about an hour, but it was an exhilarating, fluttery, serotinous hour, when anything seemed possible, including an inebriating reversal of fortune that would leave all the overconfident pollsterati, sequacious, subrident and shiny journalists, jabbering, sententiary commentators and imperious editorialists with a thick, yellow slime oozing down their faces. It was 11:00pm; all the candidates had given their speeches, representatives of all the main parties had sidestepped their defeats or humble-bragged about their successes and laid down their markers for the second round of the election, and the France 2 special electoral programme was beginning to wind down, the presenters clearly keen to head back to their loft apartments. The scenario that had been prepared for months – a head-to-head between the forces of light and darkness – was in place and seemingly locked down. And, yet, gradually, mild panic began to afflict their faces, as fissures emerged in the edifice: the projected vote share of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate of Union Populaire (the new electoral avatar of La France Insoumise) was rising again! As it edged forward, like an old nag that, instead of collapsing in exhaustion, picked up a leisurely trot in the last few metres before the finishing line, the vote seemed within touching distance – 0.88% at one heart-stopping point – of overtaking the squamose Marine Le Pen. And the definitive results from the big cities such as Paris and Marseilles were still not in yet! Crowds of UP militants, especially the smoking, singing, adjuring youth, refused to abandon their stations outside the Cirque d’Hiver, where the radical left candidate had pitched his camp that night, as if, by continuing to occupy the space, they were protecting the flickering flame from being extinguished.

But it was not to be. By midnight, the bubbles in the champagne glass had been transfigured into those generated by an Alka-Seltzer tablet. The gap between the far-right and radical-left candidates widened once more, 23.15% to 21.95%, although they remained tantalisingly close (with Le Pen ahead by only 420,000 votes). The ‘mouse hole’ that Mélenchon had claimed as his window of opportunity to break through to the second round – thereby purifying the fetid air of racist, Islamophobic and law-and-order tropes, and repolarising the following two weeks into an electrifying left/right contest – had proven to be just a few millimetres too narrow. It was as if Netflix had cancelled a second season of its French politics series and chosen instead, out of sheer lassitude, to screen a re-run of the 2017 one.

Supernatural powers of restraint and self-discipline would have been inadequate to assuage the feelings of rage and frustration coursing through the mind of a UP voter when confronted by the evident cause of this historic missed opportunity. The Mélenchon vote towered magisterially over all the other runts on the left. Serious differences of electorate and programme could possibly justify the existence of the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot (4.63%), or the two Trotskyist candidates (0.77% for Philippe Poutou of Nouveau parti anticapitaliste and 0.56% for Nathalie Arthaud of Lutte ouvrière). The indiscernible vote share for the ventricumbent Anne Hidalgo of the Parti socialiste (1.75%), plumbing scoriform depths unreached by even the worst results of the Fifth Republic for the centre left – care of Benoît Hamon in 2017 (6.36%) – could inspire nothing more than a mixture of contempt and a sneer of Schadenfreude. But the real piece of gravel in the shoe, digging its secodont edges into the leftist’s sole, was the candidacy of Fabien Roussel of the Parti communiste français, with its at once picayune and ample 2.28%.

This was a party that had twice been in alliance with Mélenchon in 2012 and 2017, which had virtually no programmatic differences with him (support for nuclear power excepted), whose electorate overlapped almost exactly with his. All the arguments in favour of an autonomous PCF candidate (Mélenchon’s astringency in the face of the Communists’ death-embrace alliances with the PS in order to save their dwindling seats in legislative and municipal elections – ‘You are death and nothingness’, he had texted to Pierre Laurent of the CP – and the supposed boost the campaign would give the party) were either specious or self-deluding. But, as if this were not enough, Roussel ran a campaign which chose to accentuate all the most backward and social-chauvinist elements in franchouillard left culture: from attacks on ‘le wokisme’ and ‘communitarianism’ to full-throated defences of hunting, private car use, and the ‘wine / red meat / cheese’ essence of French identity, all vibrating to the comforting thrum of ‘the right to happiness for both workers and bosses’.

Not surprisingly, this unabashed and cloddish rush to embrace Gallic ‘gammonism’ attracted compliments from all the wrong quarters, from the head of the MEDEF employers’ federation and Valérie Pécresse of the right wing Les Républicains, to the abject media philosopher and liberal establishment stooge Raphaël Enthoven, a bonsaï Bernard-Henri Lévy who had famously declared that, faced with a hypothetical run-off between Mélenchon and Le Pen, he would ‘rather Trump than Chávez’ and was, in a bizarre exercise of encanaillement salonard, to produce an interview book with Roussel the scaramouch.

And yet, considered soberly, the results achieved on 10 April by Union Populaire were consequential and, if consolidated and built upon systematically (a big if), could open up new horizons for the French radical left in the immediate future. They are all the more arresting when considered against the backdrop of a conjuncture that did not augur at all well for this current. The sequence initiated by the breakthrough of April 2017 was, generally speaking, very disheartening, studded by electoral disappointments in all the intervening contests, public spats and door-slamming exits by leading figures and the initiation of criminal investigations into alleged financial corruption. The latter led to the abyssal moment in October 2018 when, during a protest contesting a police raid on LFI’s headquarters, Mélenchon was caught on camera tussling with an officer blocking his access and then declaiming histrionically, ‘Do not touch me – I am the Republic!’ After this nadir, a breathing space was opened up by the Gilets Jaunes protests and the social movement against Macron’s pension reforms, but neither led to a dramatic transformation in LFI’s fortunes, and its poll ratings in the run up to the election cycle were a skimpy 7-9%.

Already, the campaign was clouded by doubts due to the apparent state of apathy and disillusionment engendered by the post-Covid phase, but its problems were exacerbated by the absence of any national debates (sleekit Macron not deigning this time to appear alongside the other ten candidates) and by the tremendous cloud of toxic gas produced by the eruption of far-right blatherskite Éric Zemmour, whose made-for-24-hour-TV-channel verbal outrances added a scarcely camouflaged dose of antisemitic subintelligiturs to the already mephitic mix of Muslim-baiting and immigrant-flaying shared by all the main parties. The thersitical and thrasonical saprophage thereby succeeded in pulling behind him a galvanised base of all the most archaic elements of the hard and far right – traditionalist Catholic, royalist, neofascist, Pétainist, as well as a broader range of corybantic bourgie supporters attracted by his social-Darwinist brand of neoliberalism. And, topping off a process that anaesthetised and envenomed the political scene, followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to non-stop shellacking of Mélenchon’s ‘lack of clarity’ on Putin and his opposition to NATO by the full range of mainstream bien-pensance, with Hidalgo and Jadot leading the charge (the mayor of Paris verbigerating that the deputy of Marseilles was an ‘agent’ of Russia and China…)

Fortunately, an overcrowded field of left candidates thinned out a little with the early surrender of the snollygoster Arnaud Montebourg and, in a process that it is difficult to equal in terms of sheer buffoonery, the uliginous ‘Popular Primary’ mobilised thousands of leftist sympathisers to crown Christiane Taubira – who lacked any political programme at all but sought to wing it anyway on the basis of her supposed popularity – as the candidate of ‘left unity’, only for her to withdraw sheepishly, and almost unnoticed and unmourned, a few weeks later. Biting his tongue in an uncharacteristic fashion for such a vitilitigate character, in order to avoid responding intemperately to the barbs launched by the centre-left candidates, Mélenchon ploughed on with what he called his ‘shrewd tortoise’ strategy.

It has to be said that the electoral mechanics allied to this testudineousness were well-oiled: LFI has a highly disciplined, effective and young parliamentary group; the programme L’avenir en commun was widely hailed by experts and political opponents as an assiduous and thorough document; the technophile septuagenarian and his team are crackerjacks of digital communication, especially on YouTube and Twitch; and the mass rallies, although smaller in the post-pandemic period, were imposing, combining large outside events in Toulouse, Marseilles and the ‘march’ to Place de la République in Paris, with indoor spectacles involving either ‘immersive’ 360 degree visuals and olfactive elements (Nantes) or multiple hologrammatic live replications (which allowed him to be simultaneously present in twelve different towns at the last Lille meeting on 5 April).

The former Trotskyist (as Le Monde insists on calling him) was also imperturbable in rolling out the key points of his ‘transitional programme’ such as ecological planning, freezing the prices of crucial everyday commodities from petrol to essential groceries (taking inspiration from the island of Réunion, where citizen consultations are involved in drawing up the list), a minimum wage fixed at €1,400 (currently €1,269) and a minimum pension pegged at the same level, as well as reducing the retirement age to 60, in clear opposition to Macron’s velleities to increase it to 65, and a €1,021 ‘autonomy allocation’ for those in higher or professional education so that they would not need to work on the side. But, sans pair scaldabanco that he is, Mélenchon also persistently sought to inject other themes beyond the social and economic basics: organic agriculture, animal cruelty, the impending water crisis and the problem of malbouffe; spatial and sea exploration (thalassophilia is a constant trope); the internet; femicides; the democratic crisis and need for a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution for a Sixth Republic that would end the ‘presidential monarchy’; an end to nuclear energy and an exit from NATO; indeed, even ‘the right to silence’ and to live in peace and quiet.

A crucial new institutional innovation was introduced in 2022: moving beyond the autotelic LFI campaign of 2017, Union Populaire created a ‘Parlement d’Union Populaire’, made up of 50% LFI members (thereby retroactively conferring a status of membership on what had hitherto been a vaporous entity) and 50% supporters or allies, including trade unionists and social movement activists, as well as figures such as Azzédine Taïbi, PCF mayor of Stains, and Ali Rabeh, Génération.s (Hamon) mayor of Trappes, the writers Laurent Binet, Annie Ernaux, the anti-speciesist activist Aymeric Caron, and intellectuals such as Susan George, Stefano Palombarini, Camille Peugny, Barbara Stiegler as well as those with roots in the far left such as Cédric Durand, Janette Habel, Razmig Keucheyan and Jean-Marc Schiappa. Perhaps most indicative of this opening-up operation was the prominence of Aurélie Trouvé, the former spokesperson of ATTAC, a token of the attempt to connect with the heritage of the altermondialiste movement (an echo also found in Mélenchon’s characterisation of his foreign policy position as ‘non-aligned but not neutral’ and altermondialiste – indeed, the campaign posters were emblazoned with ‘Un autre monde est possible’).

From March onwards, with Hidalgo spiralling into a chasm of her own making, Jadot weighed down by his carefully curated image of respectability and somnifacient insipidity, Roussel arousing severe disquietude even within his own camp, and Montebourg and Taubira lying like flaccid, punctured bladders in the ditch on the side of the road, UP’s polls started to refocillate and pick up a momentum it would no longer lose, powered not only by the perception that it was the tactically wise left vote (an impression reinforced by surprising endorsements by figures such as Ségolène Royal, as well as the unfortunate Taubira and intellectual supporters of the Hamon campaign such as Rémi Lefebvre and Sandra Laugier), but also by the late engagement of those layers of the working population and youth to which Mélenchon appealed, perhaps at least in part spurred by Macron’s inept revival of the spectre of controversial pension reforms that the Covid crisis had hobbled.

The results are, of course, highly uneven and no cause for vainglory. Energised by the increase of 655,000 votes for LFI/UP from 2017, the total left vote rose by 3.9% to 31.6%, but this remains one of its worst scores in the Fifth Republic (from a low point of 31% in 1969, it rose to 46.8% in 1981, after which it continued to tumble despite upticks in 2002 and 2012, with a freefall from 43.8% in 2012 to 21.7% five years later), so the recovery is no rehabilitation. Moreover, as the centre-left kobolds are keen to yammer, a significant sector was a ‘vote utile’ or tactical vote, and thus much more likely to be vacillant henceforth (one poll indicated 44% of UP voters doing so tactically as against 45% doing so by conviction). Even more grievous is the fact that, despite a small increase for LFI/UP, the supremacy of the far right among blue collar and white collar voters still appears tenacious – according to one study, 32% for Le Pen and 41% for the far right as a whole amongst ouvriers (as against 22% – other polls say 27%, which, combined with Roussel, is a 4% increase in 2017 – for Mélenchon and 29% for the Left as a whole); and 34% for Le Pen and 42% for the far right as a whole amongst employés (as against 24% for Mélenchon and 34% for the Left as a whole) – not to speak of its hold in vast swathes of rural and peri-urban France (although there is a significant belt in the south, particularly Ariège, marked by the presence of néo-ruraux and a local left culture, where Mélenchon did very well).  

Moreover, while perhaps easier to patch up in the short term, the Roussel candidacy, epicene as it was at a national level, did amputate the UP vote in formerly industrialised regions such as Aisne, Pyrénées-Orientales, Cher, Dordogne, Allier, Pas-de-Calais, especially in medium and smaller towns. Another colossal impediment to future growth is the generational ravine: whilst the youth vote for the oldest candidate is cause for hope (36% of 18-24 year olds, 21% for Macron and 18% for Le Pen; and 30% of 25-34 year olds), the glowering and pursed lips from boomers and their elders is deeply incommodious (only 13% of over-65 year olds). However, even when this is all factored in, the new mélenchoniste points of strength must be properly commended: leaving aside the settler colonies of New Caledonia and French Polynesia and the exceptional case of Mayotte, the Moroccan emigrant is already president of France’s overseas territories (56% in Guadeloupe, 53% in Martinique, 50% in Guyana and 40% in Réunion).

Also superlative were the results in the former red belt around Paris (44.4% across Ile de France), with high points of 65% at Villetaneuse, 64% at La Courneuve, 61.1% in Gennevilliers and 60.2% in Stains. In such areas, the mobilisation was sufficiently intense – with enormous queues to vote outside many polling stations – to substantially reduce the abstention rate increase, which, at 26.3% nationally, reached its second-highest ever level. More generally, Mélenchon – who won a minimum of 13% in all the départements – came top in cities and towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants (35.8% overall; 29.7% for those with more than 30,000, 30.6% in those of more than 50,000 vs 15.5% and 14.1% for Le Pen), whereas, in a mirror image, Le Pen did best in areas with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants (40.2% overall; 29.9% in towns of fewer than 3,500 vs 16.3% for UP).

Aside from the younger cohorts, UP was in the lead or at least did very well amongst Muslims (up from 37% in 2017 to 69%) – an expression of Mélenchon’s welcome shift from a rigid laïcard posture that refused to even accept the notion of Islamophobia to a full-throated defence of French Muslims and an embrace of the Glissantian ‘creolised’ nature of the country, plus a real understanding of police violence both in the context of the Gilets Jaunes and in the banlieues. He was also popular amongst the poorest (30% of the unemployed, although Le Pen did just as well here, 31% of those earning €900 or less a month) and precarious sections (33% on short-term contracts, 27% of temporary workers); as well as the most credentialled sectors of the working population (25% of those with a Baccalalauréat, 23% of those who have gone through higher education); the milieux closest to trade unions (35%; 44% of CGT supporters, 41% of FO supporters and 25% of cédétistes); renters rather than homeowners (30% vs 17%); and traditional left areas such as the working-class towns of the valley of the Seine. In contrast, the vote regressed among the middling professions intermédiaires (down from 26% to 23% in this category of primary school teachers, civil servants, administrative white-collar employees, service sector workers) but, interestingly, increased amongst artisans et commerçants (22%) and cadres et professions intellectuelles (21%).

Evidently, this is no ‘iron phalanx’, but rather a relatively heteroclite if also classical kaleidoscope of social layers – an alliance of working-class, young and plebeian groups with progressive intellectual strata which goes beyond the hard core of the radical-left constituency to embrace hunks of the centre-left base. That this has been achieved on the basis of a set of ideological coordinates expressing a left that, if not revolutionary, certainly represents a qualitative rupture with the current form of Gallic neoliberalism, that seeks to connect up working class, ecological, feminist, antiracist, even zadiste and other sensibilities without either dissolving them in the manner of the worst forms of identity politics or exposing itself to accusations of reductionism, and the fact that all of this has been carried by a strepant figure who, despite real flaws (statolatry and grandstanding about French grandeur being not the least of these), has refused to concede on key points of contention in the ideological matrix, are all solid points on which to build.

The post-first round initiatives of UP – an invitation to the PCF, Greens and NPA (the PS having been left, so far, to scratch at the door) to participate in an agreement for the legislative elections under its hegemony but not raptorial control, and Mélenchon’s appeal to ‘elect him as prime minister’ by giving him a parliamentary majority in the ‘third round’ in June – seem to indicate political intelligence and trenchancy. But UP will also face extremely challenging existential questions in the next period, beyond just the three-way split of its supporters between voting for Macron, abstention or blank voting, or a real if minoritarian temptation to use a Le Pen ballot as a weapon against the incumbent (something that Mélenchon has strongly enjoined his supporters not to do).

One issue which is often highlighted by a media obsessed with the personal dimension, but which is nonetheless genuinely problematic, is that of succession, given the candidate has said that this was his last presidential campaign. But even more perilous is the issue of organisation: hitherto, LFI has existed as an idiosyncratic, torso-less network, with ramular ‘Action Groups’ at the base (but without horizontal coordination between them) and an unelected, supernatant Activ of Mélenchon’s closest advisors and allies at the head, the two levels connected by digital ramifications. This foreswearing of a democratic partisan structure was a clear choice, in the earlier ‘left populist’ phase, to avoid factional conflicts and facilitate decisiveness, with the added advantage that it was thus also much easier both to co-opt and to disgorge (as with the regurgitation of the sovereigntists such as Georges Kuzmanovic or ethnocentric secularists à la Henri Pena-Ruiz). It must be immediately admitted that this has been positive in constructing an apparatus that proved its effectiveness in presidential elections but much less in all other circumstances. The refusal to sink deep militant roots and develop a well-muscled institutional framework is showing its limits in spreading to virgin or neglected territories, especially those not as deeply integrated into the cybersphere as the megalopolises. With all its limitations (co-optation, no executive power) and callowness, the creation of the Parliament may be a sign of recognition of the ‘mediational lacuna’, and it is to be earnestly desired that a broader discussion will now ensue.

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


The Kingmaker

There are many things we don’t know about Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, one of the most prominent contenders who will be running in Nigeria’s presidential election next February. The first is his name. The Tinubu family is illustrious enough in Lagos (Madame Tinubu was a wealthy slave trader in the nineteenth century after whom a downtown square is named), but they have claimed that Bola is no relation. Then there is his age. He claims he was born in 1952, but that would mean he was just seven years old when he fathered his first child, Folashade, who celebrated her sixtieth birthday two years ago with all the fanfare of a Yoruba chief. (She now claims to be 46, having altered her Wikipedia page at least three times since then.) His education is also a matter of controversy. Nobody has been able to unearth which secondary school he attended. He once claimed to have graduated from the University of Chicago (which everybody had heard of) until the ‘error’ was discovered and it turned out he had meant Chicago State University (which nobody had heard of).

What we do know about Tinubu is that he has a lot of money: $32.7bn according to Forbes, most of it dating from his time as governor of Lagos State (Africa’s fourth-largest economy, with a population of over 20 million). His fortune includes not only a fabulous property portfolio – some have claimed he is the biggest landlord in the country apart from the federal government itself – but also at least one extremely lucrative cash cow: his 10% cut of all Lagos tax revenue. Tinubu’s company, Alpha Beta, was registered as soon as he assumed office in 1999, and the State effectively outsourced its tax collection to the firm. Although he left office in 2007, Alpha Beta earned him $176mn last year alone. That the business continues to enjoy a monopoly testifies to Tinubu’s stranglehold over the affairs of the State, hence his nickname, ‘the godfather’. His successor as governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, elicited the godfather’s wrath by refusing to allow Alpha Beta to double its cut – a transgression for which he was denied a second term. The current governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, then tried to avoid a similar fate by enshrining Alpha Beta’s monopoly in law. He was forced to back down following a public outcry, though it is not yet clear whether he has done what his predecessor refused to do.

It should be said that Tinubu is far from alone in his venality (up to 75% of the country’s national budget is lost to corruption). It’s just that he doesn’t hide it, and even chides those who dare to question him: a habit that was most notoriously on display in the run up to the 2019 presidential election. As the then national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress, he was at the forefront of President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign for a second term, and was busy mobilizing the party faithful when two bullion vans were seen entering the refurbished mansion he was gifted as part of his pension. When queried, he snapped that it was nobody’s business since the vans didn’t have anything to do with the election; but that, in any case, he needed to draw on his vast resources to ensure Buhari’s victory, since even the president ‘doesn’t have the type of money needed for Lagos votes’. Buhari duly won his second term, earning Tinubu the title of ‘kingmaker’ to add to that of godfather.

Now the kingmaker himself wants to be king; but there are reasons why his ‘lifelong ambition’, as he puts it, is unlikely to be realized. One is that he does not have the backing of the very man he crowned. Buhari, from the Hausa-speaking, mainly Muslim north, needed the support of the Yoruba in the south-west because the Igbo in the south-east – the third leg of the tripod who between them constitute about half the population – would never vote for him. Tinubu was instrumental in drumming up the Yoruba vote, but has since become dispensable to Buhari. The latter was only ever using the former for his own ends, as the more perspicacious remarked at the time. By identifying so closely with Buhari during his second-term bid, however, Tinubu has managed to alienate many of his own people, who identified him with the president’s abysmal performance during his first term. Nigeria, a country so richly endowed, has become the poverty capital of the world. About half its 215 million population are now destitute, watching bullion vans drive into the compound of their would-be king.

Nigeria is not working, hence the much-circulated photo of Buhari reclining in an easy chair, a contented look on his face as he picks his teeth, his shoeless feet crossed at the ankles – which many saw as metonymic. Now all the talk is of restructuring. It was precisely because the country was seen as too unwieldy that it was originally conceived as three semi-autonomous regions. That ended with the civil war of the late 1960s and the three decades of military rule that followed. Now we have 36 states, only two of which – Lagos, the commercial capital, and Port Harcourt, the oil capital – are viable. The others depend on their monthly allocation from Abuja, the capital, which jealously guards its powers. Before he decided to vie for the role of king, Tinubu was himself an outspoken supporter of restructuring – ‘Our system remains too centralized, with too much power and money remaining within the federal might’ – but he has since walked back on it. Now he merely says that the country is at a ‘critical junction’, that ‘much work needs to be done’, that we ‘need to continue to transform and improve’.

Whether restructuring will be a panacea is questionable, but it is what most Nigerians believe, which is why Tinubu is out of step with much of the population (including his own ethnic group). He has also alienated the young, the largest demographic by far, following the so-called Lekki Toll Gate massacre in October 2020, when soldiers fired on peaceful protestors, killing twelve. This was the culmination of two weeks of protests across a number of cities under the hashtag #EndSARS. Their original aim was to end police brutality, but the movement quickly adopted demands for more fundamental changes in the criminal justice system. After the massacre, many accused Tinubu of complicity with the authorities following an interview in which he appeared to blame the protestors themselves: ‘Those who suffered casualties need to answer some questions too. Why were they there? How long were they there? What types of characters were they?’ He then proceeded to make matters worse by condemning the killings on the grounds that the soldiers should have used rubber bullets instead. It turned out the electronic billboard above the toll gate – which had been switched off just before the soldiers arrived – was owned by Tinubu’s son, Seyi. There was even a rumour that Tinubu had a stake in the $40,000 that the toll gate rakes in daily, which the protestors had put at risk.

Tinubu denies the latter claim, but it hardly matters whether it is true or false. Either way, he has come to epitomize the tiny demographic of old men – ‘elders’ – whose suffocating sense of entitlement has been a convenient cover for the large-scale theft that has impoverished a country ‘too rich to be poor’. Given the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that power should return to the south at the next election in the interests of equity, Tinubu’s rival will likely be Professor Yemi Osinbajo, his attorney general when he was Lagos State governor and now the country’s vice president (thanks to another gentleman’s agreement which holds that both religions should be represented on any presidential ticket; Osinbajo is Christian and Buhari is Muslim). Last week Osinbajo declared an interest in running, prompting a furious reaction from Tinubu’s camp, which accused the new candidate of displaying a shocking ingratitude toward the person who made his name. Although Osinbajo’s law firm has been linked to money laundering, he is generally regarded as a modest man who doesn’t flout the riches he may or may not have. As a former law professor, his urbanity and articulacy present a sharp contrast with Tinubu.  

Given the odds stacked against him, how far is Tinubu willing to go to capture the highest office? In the past, he has not been hesitant to deploy various cronies – such as his personal agbero or thug, Musiliu Ayinde Akinsanya – to carry out his will. Yet how much this will help him in an election remains uncertain. In 2018, an apparently repentant former managing director of Alpha Beta, Dapo Apara, wrote to Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission alleging that the firm had become ‘an avenue for official corruption’ and ‘conduit for massive money laundering’, at which point he was told by an insider to back off: ‘No one will believe you. We control everything – the press, the courts, EFCC. You will only be endangering your life.’ As it happens, not only is Apara still very much alive; he is currently in court attempting to remove Tinubu from his role in the company. Perhaps, for all his braggadocio, Tinubu is not such a godfather after all.

Matthew Gandy, ‘Learning from Lagos’, NLR 33.


In the Menagerie

Has there been a modern painter more obsessed with animals than Francis Bacon? The third room of Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, the vast, frustrating, often brilliant exhibition soon closing at London’s Royal Academy, is titled ‘Wildlife’. It is a menagerie. There are monkeys; owls; two greyhounds sprinting round a racetrack; a chicken carcass with a chimp’s mouth nailed to a crucifix; a dog pulled by a leash; another panting in the heat. Dog (1952), on loan from the Tate, delights in the surface shine of fur under sun. It is a marvel of sustained attentiveness, not just to the way that bodies react under heat and duress, but to the peculiar synergies between such observations and the material of oil paint. The face is endlessly reworked; thinned and smeared with rags and turpentine, the paint forms shadows that spill from the body and pool on the ground. By comparison, the rest of the painting has no density. The little cars that zip across their coastal highway in the background; the thin blue horizontal line for the sea; the ridiculous miniature palm tree; the massive stretches of empty, unprimed canvas that stand in for earth and sky: each of these devices insists on its own emptiness, on the artificiality of the painted image. Dog displays two sides of modernist art: at once sceptical of art’s connection to sensory experience, and utterly besotted with it.

‘Study for Chimpanzee’ (1957), © The Estate of Francis Bacon. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Bacon is one of very few artists whose commentaries on their own work are better than anything else that has been written about them (Matisse is another). He knew what he was talking about when he told the critic David Sylvester, adapting a phrase from Valéry, that he wanted ‘to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance’. In Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963), the sprinting dogs are blurs. A foreleg bends back and upwards as it slaps off the turf. Force is conjured out of a single thinned smear of mixed cream and black paint. Curved shadows veer around the left-hand side of the track, like tyre-marks left by a race car. These touches are extreme, even crass. There is something cartoonish to Bacon at his best. The paintings show a love of exaggeration that extends from their brilliant colours to their use of citation. He never lost his early fascination with impressionism. The landscape behind the dogs, with its bouncing pink grasses and crazily leaning tree, is like something out of the kitschiest Renoir.

There was more to painting animals than immediacy. The hang in the RA’s third room makes a claim for what the stakes were. Beside Landscape near Malabata is a work made five years earlier, Figures in a Landscape (1956-7). Both paintings place their figures within a centrifugal armature, a broad, circular ground that sweeps its contents into motion. Both make beautiful landscapes out of the remnants and constraints of cubist space. But in place of dogs sprinting, Figures in a Landscape gives us two men, one crouched and reaching between the knees of the other where they poke up from the deep grass. Dogs and men; man and beast; the greyhound race and the sexual tryst in the park – with such equivalences, we arrive at the exhibition’s argumentative crux. The basic question it poses is this: how deep, for Bacon, did the analogy go? All the way down? Did the basic animality of human existence imply no substantive difference between human and animal life? These are difficult questions, and I do not think Bacon ever arrived at satisfactory answers. Whenever he pretended that he had, the results were not auspicious. A painting like Two Studies from the Human Body (1974-5) shows the risks. Its Darwinism is obtuse. The figure in the foreground swings his knuckles like a gorilla. Fur sprouts on the side of his body. His mouth has a rat’s tooth. Behind him, a trapeze artist dissolves into primordial ooze. Gone is the precision that had stretched the surface of a painting like Dog as tight as a drum. In its place a plangent existentialism – affirming the brute in man! – takes centre stage.

‘Study for Bullfight No. 1’ (1969), © The Estate of Francis Bacon. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Two Studies from the Human Body shows Bacon on autopilot, imitating himself. It comes from a later phase in his career, when he was already feted, imitated: recognised, along with Lucien Freud, as the greatest painter of his generation. He painted better when he allowed for more ambiguity. In the trio of paintings titled Study for Bullfight (1969), united here for the first time since they were made, the bull’s pirouette conveys the spiral logic of each painting – from the circular arena within which the contest takes place to the thematics of human brutality that encompass the spectacle. There is panache to the curators’ decision to hang these canvases on three sides of the gallery’s central rotunda. Their spacing forces the viewer to pace in a circle, like one of the bulls lunging after its matador (though I still wished for the chance to see the three images side by side on the same wall, if only to get them all in view at once). In each painting it is the distance between bullfighter and bull that is at issue. Often there is little to speak of. In Study for Bullfight No.1 the line of the bull’s motion connects directly with the matador’s chest. His features are whipped sideways, lips puckered as if he had been punched. In Study No.2, the man seems to have the upper hand in the contest; there is enough space between him and the bull for his rear to come into view. In the final Study there is little doubt that the bull has bested the man. The human body melts away before the horns. The face is a grim shadow. Bacon made frequent use of Nazi imagery – photographs from Nuremberg shared space on his studio floor with those of rhinoceros and x-ray patients. The screen-like towers behind the first two Studies show figures from the rallies as if from a Leni Riefenstahl reel. The presence of a crowd of baying national socialists suggests one more twist in the knot between man and beast; Nazism was the ultimate historical instance in which the pursuit of social Darwinism tried to transform human beings into animals. But the figures are ghosts; they flicker as if in projection. The swastikas are hollowed out. They suggest a different register of experience, besides and apart from the heat of the bullfight.

Like so many modernists (Goya, Picasso, Hemingway…), Bacon was drawn to the bullfight because it mixed sex with death, erotic display with ritual killing. In such images, he took up the more brutish aspects of human existence, but in such a way as to paradoxically highlight those orders of experience that are not reducible to animality. Violence and sexual pleasure might be felt by human and animal alike; but they are lived differently. Take Figures in a Landscape once again. The posture of the crouching man is simian, his spine elongated. The way he reaches out an arm while tucking his face into his armpit has something in common with the ape man of Two Studies. Naked, Bacon’s figure takes refuge in the crevices of his own body. His legs are tensed as if to hop. But the impetus for such concealment could not be further from the animal world. Chimpanzees do not hide themselves in order to copulate. Plunged in the multicoloured grasses, Bacon’s two figures pursue a desperate secrecy. And that secrecy, that fugitive intimacy, is part of their humanity, part of their belonging to a complex, social world of norms, prohibitions, and repressions. Transgression – the expression and performance of forbidden desire – is policed in this social world. Yet it is also realisable; the policing is never absolute. There is an unspeakable gentleness to the manner in which the lowermost man in Two Figures in the Grass (1954) turns his head towards his lover’s. Nose touches ear. The painting’s rendering of the human body as a mass of heaving muscle takes on new meaning as a result.

‘Portrait of George Dyer Crouching’ (1966), © The Estate of Francis Bacon. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Bacon told Michael Peppiatt that before deciding to become a painter he spent his early twenties in Paris reading Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche who wrote of the ‘painful embarrassment’ posed to humanism by Darwin’s discoveries, Nietzsche who gave fullest recognition to the challenge offered to all elevations of humanity by our common animal heritage. But he also saw distinctions. In his second Untimely Meditation, Nietzsche wrote that:

the animal lives unhistorically: for it is contained in the present, like a number without any awkward fraction left over; it does not know how to dissimulate, it conceals nothing and at every instant appears wholly as what it is; it can therefore never be anything but honest. Man, on the other hand, braces himself against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark, invisible burden which he can sometimes appear to disown and which in traffic with his fellow men he is only too glad to disown, so as to excite their envy.

A self-proclaimed ‘latecomer’, Bacon knew what disowning human history could amount to. He was conscious of arriving at modern art in the wake of its great innovations – separated from its triumphs by the gulf of a disastrous war. Each one of the 45 paintings in this exhibition reveals a preoccupation with art history that goes far beyond the usual citations of Velázquez and Muybridge. History mattered to Bacon, and it worked in the opposite direction to animality. His Nuremberg figures loomed large for a reason – they are visions of a society hell-bent on ‘natural order’, a totalitarian social organisation in which the state holds secrets, but its citizens have none. In their fugitivity and dishonesty, in their (temporary) disavowals of their own animality, his human figures reject such enforcement. They are redoubts against the nightmares.

Read on: Julian Stallabrass, ‘The Hockney Industry’, NLR 73.


After Life

I suspect that most people would rather live in a work of fiction than in reality, but the narrator of Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel, 10:04, fails to appreciate his good fortune. He is lucky enough to find himself in a book by one of the supplest stylists in America, but often, he seems intent on clambering out of art and into life. Not only does he bear such an uncanny resemblance to his non-fictional creator that the two threaten to bleed together, but, on a series of visits to his moribund mentor, he reflects that if he were the one on his deathbed, ‘I wouldn’t even think about literature, would just be asking for morphine and distracting myself, if possible, with reality TV.’

This scene could not contrast more starkly with a strikingly similar sequence in Pure Colour, Sheila Heti’s latest genre-defying effusion. The book’s protagonist, Mira, is tasked with tending to her father in his final weeks, but her loss does not convince her of the frivolity of aesthetics. Instead, ‘it seemed to her the week her father was dying that nothing mattered but art and literature’. Heti’s, whose own father died when she first set to work on the book, is no stranger to the sharp bite of grief, but she is nonetheless unequivocal about beauty’s primacy. Mira’s stifling depression lifts only when she marvels at the Christmas lights in her neighbourhood and becomes ‘choked up with gratitude over all those tiny shining souls that adorned the trees and the falling-down porches’.

Both Heti and Lerner are often hailed as progenitors of the slippery non-genre of novel-adjacent meditations commonly known as ‘auto-fiction’. Auto-fictionalists – are they novelists, exactly? – are defined by their propensity to draw heavily on their own lives, yielding books – are they novels, exactly? – that are potent blends of truth, embellishment, and outright fabrication, not unlike the reality TV that Lerner’s narrator believes he will crave when he dies. Unsurprisingly, autofiction is alternately praised and chastised for its supposed impatience with invention. In his 2012 review of Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010), which declares itself ‘a novel from life’ in a provocative subtitle, the New Yorker’s James Wood cautioned against indulging too greedy an appetite for reality. ‘The writer who is seeking “life”, who is trying to write “from life”, is always unappeased, because no bound manuscript can ever be “real” enough’, he warns. The novelist would do better to make peace with the unabashed unreality of fiction.

Wood has many canny insights into Heti’s work – for instance, that her novels consist largely of what he calls ‘essayettes’ – but, fundamentally, he gets her project backwards. Heti mines her own biography not in order to subordinate fiction to life but in order to subordinate life to fiction. As she explains in a 2019 Yale Review essay about painting and her father’s death, ‘to draw your life is to attempt to transform it with your magic. Your life invariably comes to resemble the depiction layered on top of it’. Accordingly, Heti submits reality to scrupulous aestheticization.

Wood might counter that she is known for formal experiments in which she seems to cede all agency: in How Should a Person Be?, she transcribes a number of actual conversations and emails with her friends, and in her most recent book, Motherhood (2018), she asks questions and then flips a coin so as to allow ‘the universe’ to answer. In truth, however, her work subtly yet ferociously asserts the primacy of the artist at every turn. Dialogue is rearranged, the results of coin flips richly reinterpreted. Nothing – even a chance occurrence – is safe from authorial appropriation. Both How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood are not concessions to randomness but records of a restless intelligence at work. In both of them, and now in Pure Colour, life is justified only as a basis for art.

* * *

If Heti is hostile to fiction at all, it is not in virtue of favouring truth over imaginative acrobatics, but in virtue of preferring argument to narrative. Her books are typically organized around questions rather than events: How Should a Person Be? asks how people in general, and artists in particular, ought to cultivate their identities, while Motherhood asks whether women in general, and artists in particular, should have children. On the face of it, Pure Colour deviates from this model: it is less first-personal, more fanciful, and even less readily categorizable. But its sense of humour and its animating curiosity are the same, and though it is not quite as explicit about the question at its core, it too centres on urgent uncertainties. In various ways, it asks: How important is art, really? Is it important enough to continue to matter at times of true tragedy? Is it the kind of thing we will care about on our death beds, or will we crave reality TV? And perhaps most importantly, as the world is burning, will there be any role for art after the destruction of humanity?

In Motherhood, Heti wondered if ‘art is what humans do’, and the universe, or at least its numismatic ambassador, answered affirmatively; in Pure Colour, she graduates to asserting, ‘we make art because we’re humans, and that’s what humans do’. But this step towards certainty is also an advance into more elaborate confusion. If art is what humans do, what will become of it when mankind is extinguished in a climate disaster? ‘When you are sad about the humans being gone, it’s the art you think of that won’t be seen, not the humans, who maybe don’t deserve to be here’, Mira’s father tells her from beyond the grave. Mira knows – and tries to accept – that ‘art is made for our situation. Whatever comes will be another situation, and our art won’t be needed for it’. But she cannot reconcile herself to the prospect of art’s needlessness, and neither can her creator. The proof is in the pudding – in Pure Colour, a work of art that clearly aspires to endure.

Part theological meditation, part religious fable, it is a book so whimsical and so conspicuously strange that it would court ridicule if it were not so self-aware and, vitally, so funny. Indeed, it is less of a novel than a sort of theodicy, reminiscent of a medieval mystical tract. Its central premise, presented in simple and solemn language, is that the universe is God’s artistic creation. He has stepped away to contemplate it ‘like a painter standing back from the canvas. This is the moment we are living in – the moment of God standing back’. Now that God has a chance to survey His work, He is disappointed. Like all artists, he is incapable of achieving perfection without ample revision. We are unlucky enough to reside in ‘the first draft of existence’, where ‘nothing would be as we hoped it would be’.

All of the action in Pure Colour is staged somewhere in this draft, though the novel’s universe is difficult to place. Sometimes, the book’s characters seem to inhabit a world as ecologically ravaged as our own – a world where ‘all the water had plastic in it, even the safe water that came in plastic bottles’. Sometimes, however, Mira and her father seem to live somewhere distant, surreal, even mythological. ‘Friendships were different then’, writes Heti with dark, vatic emphasis.

Whenever and wherever Pure Colour is located, the events it relates are hazy and allegorical, perhaps because the first draft of the world could not fail to be somewhat roughly sketched. When the book opens, Mira works in a lamp shop; from there, she proceeds to the highly competitive ‘American Academy of American Critics’, where students must develop a ‘style of writing and thinking that could survive down the ages, and at the same time penetrate their own generation so incisively’. Here, she meets and falls in love with a woman named Annie. Then her father dies, and Mira’s spirit joins his in – of all places! – a leaf dangling over a lake. In this unlikely situation, their thoughts are scrambled together: ideas unseparated by paragraph breaks and uncontained by quotation marks run together, sometimes with trite results. Eventually, Mira is coaxed back among the living, but not before she has mustered the sort of New Age musings found in horoscopes, for instance when she reflects that the ‘loving part’ of us ‘shines through us so beautifully’.

But Pure Colour is more concerned with cosmology than it is with the jumbled reflections a dead man and his daughter might voice from within a leaf. It opens with a strange and compelling taxonomy: ‘God appears, splits, and manifests as three critics in the sky’. There is ‘a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in its arms’. A bird is ‘interested in beauty, order, harmony and meaning. They look at nature from on high, in an abstracted way, and consider the world as if from a distance’. Fish, in contrast, are concerned with ‘fairness and justice here on earth’, while a bear loves one person in particular.

Which is best? At points, Heti gestures unconvincingly at pluralism: ‘fish, birds, and bears are all equally important in the eye of God’, she writes. But for all her attempts at neutrality, she cannot conceal her own affiliation. Mira is a bird, and Heti is clearly on the side of her protagonist. By her lights, ‘God is most proud of creation as an aesthetic thing’. ‘Those born from the bird egg are the most grateful’, for the world is beautiful, despite its many moral and political failings. People err, kill, disappoint, and even die in droves, but art lasts, undimmed, far outstripping its sordid creators.  

* * *

One reason that a bird appreciates art above all else is that it is less fragile than earthly ephemera, among them the human body. In Motherhood, Heti reasons that a baby is prey to all manner of diseases, whereas a great book is immune. Mira reaches similar conclusions as she watches her father disintegrate. She lies in bed alongside him and thinks

how great art was… and how faithful; how faithful a book was, and how strong, a place you could be safe, apart from the world, held inside a world that would never grow weak, and which could pass through wars, massacres and floods ­– could pass through all of human history, and the integrity of its soul would stay strong.

Yet even if art is more durable than any one of its makers or appreciators, it depends on the continued existence of an audience of some sort. Perhaps for this reason, Heti makes several attempts to imagine consciousness without humanity. In Motherhood, the narrator’s boyfriend urges her to write a book about the French mystic Simone Weil, who yearned to blot out her individuality so that she could be more wholly enfolded into the universe. Perhaps Pure Colour, which envisions consciousness sustained by a sentient leaf, is a version of that book.

It is not clear, however, that a leaf could care about art, even if it could function as a seat of experience. After all, art is what humans do. It responds to human imperatives, not the unknowable needs of a leaf. Despite her devotion to her father, Mira never manages to feel at home in so vegetal an environment. ‘It takes a certain discipline to be dead. She never had much discipline’ – so she returns to navigate the flawed first draft of her life. 

* * *

Does Mira’s departure from the leaf signify resignation? Is the answer to Pure Colour’s guiding question that art cannot outlive us, that it must end when we end? Bird that I am, I do not think so: art is for humans, but not for our contingent parts. Or, as Heti herself puts it, ‘Art is not made for living bodies – it is made for the cold, eternal soul’. Perhaps literature could not survive the demolition of the spirit, but it can survive the demise of the body, whose inner essence, ever avian, swoops up and away. ‘The idea of the thing is so much more shimmering than the thing itself’, writes Heti in her Yale Review essay. Around visible objects hovers something better and more indestructible – namely, their fictionalization. Heti writes to transmute a frail physicality into an ethereal permanence, and she writes about her own life because she hopes to etherize it, saving it from disintegration by transforming it into spirit.

Why should we believe that there is any such thing? We lack material evidence. But as Mira tells her father, ‘I don’t think the scientific method is the only way to prove that something is real’. More real than reality, she proposes, is ‘imagination’. We should believe in the soul’s invulnerability because it is more beautiful to do so ­– and for Heti, beauty is what confers truth. Whether beauty in fact confers truth, then, is of course irrelevant; what matters is only that this is a beautiful idea.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Caution, Metaphors At Work’, NLR 127.


Pakistan’s Godfathers

Over the Pakistani airwaves, sports commentators frequently groan that the national cricket team – which most people follow with religious fervour – is ‘once again in trouble’. The same lament applies semi-permanently to Pakistan’s politics. This month has seen yet another crisis in the upper echelons of government. To avoid a no-confidence vote that his Party for Justice (PTI) would undoubtedly have lost, Prime Minister Imran Khan asked the President to dissolve parliament and call new elections. This unusual move was necessary, he explained, because the US, backed by the opposition parties, was engaged in a soft coup to topple him. The Opposition appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to rule on the legality of the dissolution. On 7 April, the five judges unanimously agreed that the government had breached the constitution. They reconvened the Assembly and declared that the no-confidence motion must be brought by 9 April.   

There are credible rumours that Khan tried unsuccessfully to sack his Chief of Staff, General Bajwa, and promote his old chum General Faiz Hamid (once head of the Inter-Services Intelligence), while planning to declare a state of emergency. The Army insists no such plan existed, but I have my doubts. Panicking politicians will do anything to retain power. (On the last such occasion in 1999, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempted to kidnap his then Chief of Staff, General Musharraf, by keeping his plane in the air and not letting it land in Pakistan; he was soon out of a job and Musharraf seized power.) Ultimately, though, Khan’s efforts were futile. The Assembly met, the vote was held and the PTI defeated. The next morning, Shahbaz Sharif, president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, was sworn in as the new Prime Minister. Large, predominantly middle-class crowds gathered in the major cities to support the ousted leader. The main chants were anti-American.

Khan was once Pakistan’s most popular cricket captain, and a national idol after the team won the World Cup. This status helped to launch his political career. But unlike in cricket, where generational shifts have produced some fine new players, the country’s political parties rarely change with the times. Dynastic rule ensures that large reserves of capital, often illegally acquired, remain in the family. And the uniformed umpires at military GHQ in Rawalpindi, who make and break governments, are provided with huge grants of land and other perks. A retired senior general in India once complained to me: ‘If only I had been a general in Pakistan, I would not be spending my last years living on the tenth floor of this three-bedroomed apartment for retired officers in Delhi.’ And that was twenty-five years ago.

The basic structure of Pakistani politics can be briefly summarized as follows. There are essentially four political blocs in the country and one overwhelmingly dominant province – Punjab – whose votes decide each election result. Two of those blocs are dynastic parties: the Pakistan People’s Party, run by the Zardari-Bhutto clan, and the Muslim League-N, run by the Sharif family. The first was discredited by large-scale corruption during its reign. Asif Zardari, who served as President from 2008 to 2011, was a wizard on that front. No paper trail, no evidence and, hence, no one eager to betray him to the courts or the National Accountability Bureau in return for immunity. Nonetheless, the PPP was damaged by its shameless profiteering, and at the last general election it lost Punjab to the new kid on the block: Imran Khan and his PTI. Since then, the Zardari-Bhutto clan has been confined to the province of Sind. Its current leader is the young Bilawal Bhutto, who was given the role as a kind of heirloom after the tragic assassination of his mother Benazir. He and his cadre have been noisy but ineffective provincial politicians, who have turned Sind into little more than a despotic fiefdom.  

Are the Sharifs any different? Alas not. During their heyday in power, looting public money was virtually institutionalized; Nawaz Sharif was ousted as Prime Minister in 2017 after the Panama Papers revealed that he had stashed millions of dollars offshore – a common practice among the younger Sharif family members. The clan has a power base in the cities, and enjoys support from commercial traders large and small, as well as big capital. As far as Pakistan’s oligarchs are concerned, the Sharifs are currently the safest pair of hands. They know how to run a business, so they can administer a modern state.

Then there is the bloc of Islamist parties, the largest of which is the JUI, led by Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman. It enjoys some support in the frontier provinces: 26 seats in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provincial assemblies. Despite its supposed piety, the JUI is no less motivated by commercial interests. It struck a deal with a previous PPP government to offer parliamentary support on condition that its leader was given the diesel franchise in his province. Ever since, he has been affectionately known as Maulana Diesel, or just ‘Diesel’.   

When the PTI came to power in 2018, the Z-Bs and Sharifs alleged that there had been widespread ballot-rigging facilitated by the Army, but they failed to produce evidence. Notwithstanding the trustworthiness of the final tally, Khan had run a powerful campaign. He promised a fresh start and gained the confidence of young city-dwellers from all social classes, desperate for an alternative to the corrupt dynastic parties and the interference of the military establishment. But to build his electoral vehicle, Khan sought out advisers and fixers who were deeply embedded in the system, having previously worked with every other political grouping. They constituted a core of bandwagon careerists, many close to the Army, whose loyalties were liable to shift the minute they smelled change in the air. Quite a few ran for national and provincial assemblies on the PTI ticket. Most of them won, although the PTI failed to secure an overall majority.

Khan rapidly squandered the goodwill that followed his election victory. Clientelism, a major cause of public discontent, has blighted Pakistan since its inception, and the PTI did nothing to confront it. The departure of traditional industrialists (most of them Hindu) from Lahore and Karachi after the partition of 1947 left a vacuum that was filled by the direct intervention of the state and the dominant political party, the Muslim League. Subsequently, the industrial boom of the early 1960s consolidated a layer of nouveau riche capitalists in Lahore with close ties to the political class (while also enriching the remaining industrialists, mainly non-Sindhi parsis and bohras in Karachi). Today, one of Pakistan’s top five oligarchs is a construction mogul who became a billionaire by leveraging his elite connections to secure contracts for military and civilian projects. Malik Riaz describes himself as ‘Pakistan’s leading real estate developer and philanthropist’. His modesty is deceptive. He bankrolls political parties, police officers and members of the armed forces – buying and building homes for those in power. A recent recording shows him handing over a briefcase containing gold jewellery to one of the ‘First Lady’s’ couriers. The police have, on occasion, assisted his children in intra-elite disputes and shielded him from scrutiny. (This kind of collusion is beautifully captured in Mohsin Hamid’s 2014 novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.)

Riaz embodies Pakistan’s iniquitous politics. Whether one classifies it as a military dictatorship or a managed democracy, its guiding principle is the reproduction of a filthy rich elite. The country lacks an education system or functioning health service; the poor, both in cities and outlying villages, are regularly evicted so that their land can be stolen and sold at exorbitant prices; the condition of women remains appalling, and on many social indicators Pakistan lags behind Bangladesh. Khan vowed to heal these ailments by ending corruption and building a proper social infrastructure. But in power he did no such thing. Accounts of wild corruption continued to circulate in PTI-controlled areas, with good reason. In lieu of a new social settlement, the government turned to the IMF, whose most recent impositions caused a massive rise in electricity and gas bills, crippling many middle-class households while contributing to rising malnutrition.

All of this was par for the course. But what annoyed leading members of Khan’s own party was the debacle in Punjab, where his wife insisted on handing the role of Chief Minister to the PTI parliamentarian Usman Buzdar: a man that even the most charitable observer would describe as a dim-witted and low-grade politician. The appointment divided Khan’s supporters, angered the Army and played into the opposition’s hands. The Z-Bs and Sharifs publicly accused Buzdar of being little more than a thieving cash-cow for the First Lady. They alleged that she, her first husband and her son were taking a cut from all the business deals he negotiated the province. Buzdar enflamed the situation through his own stupidity, arrogance and gangsterism, antagonizing many in the PTI. Two factional splits, both led by oligarchs, ensued.

As a result of this and other scandals, the opposition parties began to lay the groundwork for a no-confidence motion. Then came the US collapse in Afghanistan and Putin’s assault on Ukraine. After the Taliban’s triumph in Kabul, Khan declared that the Americans had ‘made a mess’: a common view in the region and elsewhere. The US expressed its displeasure at this remark, which was swiftly contradicted by a senior Pakistani military delegation participating in talks at the Pentagon. They reassured their American allies that Pakistan’s foreign and defence policies were decided by the Army, not the Prime Minister. That was that. Yet a few months later, Khan accidentally found himself in Moscow on the day Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine. He adopted the position taken by India and China, refusing to support either Putin’s invasion or the NATO-sponsored motion at the UN General Assembly. Again, this provoked the ire of the State Department, which published a communique singling out Khan for criticism.

At this point, the opposition campaign to eject the PTI mysteriously accelerated. The plotters thickened. Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, allegedly warned Khan that there would be consequences if he managed to survive the impending no-confidence motion. It is not uncommon for imperial envoys to issue such threats (though they are usually delivered to the Army, which can be relied upon to call recalcitrant politicians to heel). But Lu’s actions indicate that the UN vote seriously upset the White House, which perceived it as a direct challenge to American hegemony. Shortly afterward, the Biden Administration began to publicly and foolishly threaten China, and it no doubt reprimanded India’s leaders in private. Yet it also paid particular attention to Pakistan, given the country’s nuclear status, proximity to Afghanistan and close links to China. Now, in light of Khan’s insubordination, the hegemon has evidently swung behind the opposition, hoping to install one of its leaders as PM.

The effect of US diplomatic pressure following the UN vote was immediately visible. General Bajwa made a public statement on Ukraine to re-tilt Pakistan towards the US. The bandwagon careerists jumped ship and began negotiating deals with the opposition. Meanwhile, the minority parties that had helped to secure Khan’s majority deserted him. PTI parliamentarians were offered substantial dosh to do the same. Zardari, the wizard of Sind, who had been languishing in hospital, temporarily left his sickbed to join the party games. Well-versed in such political crises, he was trusted by the entire opposition to buy out weak-kneed PTI members, whatever the cost.

Khan warned his wavering MPs of dire consequences, reminding them that he could send goon squads to visit their relatives and openly threatening their children (‘they will be bullied at school’). His actions increasingly evoked the cold-blooded assassination of Fredo (ordered by his brother) in that famous scene from The Godfather II. Indeed, there is more than a touch of the mafia in Pakistani politics. One of the smaller parties, the MQM, runs protection rackets and armed gangs that shamelessly rob and steal. Once part of Khan’s coalition, they’ve now abandoned him as well.

The upcoming national ballot, which must be held by October 2023, will at least bring some temporary relief for the poor, as money circulates in the quest for votes. Election time is when the lowest strata get tiny subsidies from the rich, badly needed to buy flour and sugar. It’s better than nothing. Ideally there would be annual elections. If Khan loses the vote, as he is likely to do, will his successor be any better? Doubtful. None of the contenders offers an alternative to Pakistan’s hyper-corrupt status quo – which, incidentally, is why Khan himself is unlikely to walk away from politics. He believes he’ll get a second chance, even if his wife has to serve time in prison alongside her former husband and son. He may be right, given that he remains popular among the urban middle-classes and petite-bourgeoisie. But whatever Khan’s fate, nothing will change in Pakistani politics for the foreseeable future. The monstrous greed and immovable indifference of the elites brings to mind the words of Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri, the great secular tenth-century poet from Aleppo:

And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek

Of wind is flying through the court of state:

‘Here,’ it proclaims, ‘There dwelt a potentate,

Who could not hear the sobbing of the weak.’

Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘The Colour Khaki’, NLR 19.


Metabolizing Nostalgia

When Joan Micklin Silver died in 2020, she was justly celebrated as a pioneering figure in American cinema. Born in 1935 to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Silver was one of a number of female directors – among them Elaine May, Claudia Weill and Barbara Loden – who worked contemporaneously with the vaunted New Hollywood movement, but never enjoyed the studio largesse of their male peers. They received a different kind of bequest: the lacunae that blight their filmographies. After the early-career triumphs of Girlfriends (1978) and Wanda (1970), Weill and Loden were unable to break into Hollywood; May was driven from the industry following the box office disaster of Ishtar (1987); and Silver, too, found her career unceremoniously truncated after Crossing Delancey (1988), and she was relegated to forgettable comedies and hired-gun TV gigs. Prior to this, however, she managed to eke out a number of remarkable films, each a triumph in the face of a misogynistic industry. Yet these works sit uneasily with any straightforward portrayal of Silver as a feminist. The latent strain of conservatism that courses through her films was perhaps difficult to detect for the same reason that it continues to be peculiar: it cuts across familiar political fault lines. A keen awareness of the corrosive effects of liberalization is at the core of her cinema, which seems at times to be pushing against the cultural currents that made her own career as a director possible.

In their broad outlines, Silver’s feature films follow the template of the unbalanced or one-sided romance. Her debut, Hester Street (1975), recently released on Blu-Ray in a new restoration, transplants this emotional dynamic into the Lower East Side of the late 19th Century. Jake is a Jewish sweatshop worker, eager to assimilate and shed the trappings of his ethnic background. His wife’s unexpected arrival in New York proves to be an unwelcome intrusion, as Jake has started an affair with a more cosmopolitan woman, Mamie. As the film unfolds, its centre of gravity shifts towards his spurned wife, Gitl, and her attempts to render herself acceptable to Jake’s new standards. The tension between Jake’s zeal for modernization and Gitl’s clinging to tradition is channelled through the question of how she wears her hair. Jake wants her to abandon the wigs and kerchiefs that she uses in accordance with orthodox Judaism; she resists at first, but eventually the pressure of sexual competition pushes her to compromise on her piety. Throughout her other films, Silver would continue to convert portraits of dyadic intimacy into vehicles for exploring the tensions of historical progress. In the same way that Jake is torn between the two women, and between the worlds they represent, Silver’s films share in his indecision; they can’t quite make up their mind whether the new ways are better than the old.

Another early effort, Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, also portrays a woman’s decision to change her hairstyle as a vessel for the Hegelian world-spirit’s ineluctable forward movement. Shelley Duvall plays a shy transplant from Eau Claire named Bernice, visiting her sophisticated cousin in St. Paul and struggling to fit in. (In an indication of Silver’s focus on the ways that race intersects with social ostracization, the cousin attributes Bernice’s awkwardness to ‘that crazy Indian blood in her.’) Trying to make herself more popular with the boys, Bernice undertakes a full-scale renovation of her personality, which climaxes in cutting her hair into a bob even though she views it as ‘immoral’. Silver doesn’t depict the haircut directly; instead, she gives us the horrified reactions of the onlookers in the barber shop, who evidently believe themselves to be witnessing some kind of ritual slaughter. Which, from the retrograde perspective the film encourages us to inhabit, they are – the sacrifice of a girl’s virtue on the altar of sexual liberation.

Things start to get more properly Hegelian (which is to say, more dialectical) by the time Silver makes Between the Lines (1977), which centres on a Boston newspaper called The Back Bay Mainline, a stand-in for legendary counter-cultural weeklies like The Village Voice. John Heard plays a burned-out investigative reporter named Harry, stuck in an on-again off-again relationship with a staff photographer, Abbie. These days, Harry produces barely any writing at all, an affliction that he shares with several other staffers, such as Jeff Goldblum’s music critic Max, who skulks around the office trawling for LPs to resell. All things considered, the paper’s editor is remarkably tolerant of these layabouts. But from the start, it is clear that this more forgiving era is already over. Suffused with an elegiac atmosphere, the film abounds with wistful reminiscences about ‘what the Mainline used to be.’ The staff all agree that the paper’s best days are behind it, with one of them trying to sell a book about ‘the death of the counterculture’.

The final blow comes when the paper is bought by a new publisher who makes advertising the top priority and fires Harry for asking impertinent questions. This imposition of fiscal discipline sends convulsions through the lumbering institution of the Mainline. Ominously, Max appears in the film’s closing scene without his signature red jacket, having swapped it for a more understated houndstooth blazer – a casualty of the paper’s new era of buttoned-up professionalism. But, as the credits roll, he is still not above squeezing a couple of drinks out of an admiring fan. His exacting of this tribute is a little sleazy, but it is also a holdover from that older age of journalism, and a variation on one of Silver’s persistent motifs: the way that institutional structures facilitate interpersonal encounters and forge enduring bonds as a result. When Harry and Abbie leave the bar arm-in-arm (as Max pleads with them to buy him a drink), it seems like their relationship has finally settled into an equilibrium. What outlasts an institution after it has been washed away by the inexorable tide of the market, Silver suggests, are the relationships that it made possible. And insofar as this kind of conservatism is rooted in an urge to protect the beautiful things of the past from the forward march of progress, it seems broadly amenable to a leftist sensibility.

What is perhaps more difficult to metabolize is Silver’s nostalgia for an older model of organising sexual relations, grounded in the specific customs and lifeways of a contained social world. In her most widely celebrated film, Crossing Delancey, Silver returns to the modern-day landscape of Hester Street. Isabelle (Amy Irving) lives on the Upper West Side and works in an indie bookstore where she coordinates, as she puts it, ‘the most prestigious reading series in New York’. The film follows her half-hearted attempts to fend off a suitor whom she in fact seems to be falling for. Her resistance stems from the fact that the match was set up by her grandmother through a Jewish marriage broker; she furiously exclaims, ‘This is not how I live. This is a hundred years ago!’ The film projects that cleavage between tradition and modernity onto the landscape of the city. Isabelle somewhat snobbishly points out to the man she’s been set up with, a Lower East Side pickle vendor named Sam (Paul Riegert), that ‘I don’t live down here. I live uptown’. The contrast is vividly illustrated in a scene depicting her journey to her grandmother’s apartment. When she emerges from the Delancey Street subway station, the proliferation of Hebrew shop signs and sidewalk vendors indicates that she’s now in foreign territory, where the codes of the modern world don’t apply. To cross Delancey Street is not only to traverse a physical boundary, but a temporal one. Isabelle clutches a book by the sophisticated writer she has a crush on, as if it’s a lucky charm warding off the ghosts of her past.

Those ghosts are also of a city that has long since disappeared. The film’s Lower East Side is still a working-class Jewish neighbourhood, populated by family-run businesses that exemplify an older model of exchange not yet colonised by neoliberalism’s ruthless logic. Especially striking is the way these businesses simultaneously operate as a kind of social infrastructure, routing intimacy through the pathways carved by commercial transactions. This network encompasses both Sam’s pickle shop and the marriage broker, who is, of course, running a business, one that works to forge the kinship relations sustaining the community. This marks a shift in how Silver pictures the relationship between society and the economy from Between the Lines. Here, the free market does not subsume and destroy interpersonal relations in order to remake them in its own image, but is rather ‘embedded’ within them, to use Polanyi’s term; these two spheres fit together in an interlocking, mutually constitutive relation, comprising a locally rooted network of giving and receiving. But if this all appears rather quaint and benign when counterposed to the rapacious financialization portrayed in Between the Lines, it is still a societal model that relies on racially policed boundaries to maintain its integrity.

Serving as a kind of emissary for this alternative political economy is Isabelle’s grandmother, whom she calls Bubbie, played by a legend of the Yiddish theatre named Reizl Bozyk in her only film role. The archetypal meddling relative, her most audacious effort comes in the film’s last scene, as she makes a final gambit to get Isabelle and Sam together by feigning dementia. The path she sees from point A to point B is not entirely clear. It seems to involve forcing Isabelle to articulate the role she sees Sam playing in her life: ‘Who is this man?’ Bubbie asks, deviously. If there’s a way to interpret this as just another instance of her charming quirkiness, there’s also a morbid undercurrent to it: what ultimately pushes the couple together is the spectre of memory loss, or the possibility of cultural erasure made frighteningly concrete. Seen in this light, Bubbie’s behaviour looks almost like a threat: that’s a nice cultural heritage you’ve got there, it would be a shame if something happened to it. She thereby does her part to preserve the racially delimited neighbourhood, in which commercial exchange and social reproduction are bound together in a synchronous loop.

Throughout her career, Silver was preoccupied with the myriad ways in which social worlds could be tethered to physical settings, and the question of what kinds of intimacies could flower in these habitats. In the absence of a neighbourhood like Crossing Delancey’s, that nurturing role is often played by the workplace, and one way to understand Between the Lines is as a paean to the fragile possibilities to be found there. Silver would again take up this setting in another collaboration with Heard titled Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979). But if Between the Lines ran on the fumes of a prelapsarian world, Chilly Scenes takes place long after the fall. Heard plays an alienated government functionary, drinking on the clock in an office geared towards maximizing productivity – what the Mainline might look like if it was bought out by Alden Global Capital. The tone is almost apocalyptic, as characters struggle to get by in a bleak Salt Lake City on the cusp of Reaganism. The living arrangements of these characters differ from those in Silver’s previous films – single-family homes, rather than communal neighbourhoods – which seems to suggest a link between this film’s atmosphere of spiritual malaise and the social atomisation of suburban sprawl. It is important too that the characters play a direct role in creating this environment: Heard’s civil servant works in the city’s ‘Department of Development’, while his lover’s husband sells A-frame houses. Their emotional desolation is in this sense a self-inflicted wound, something they’ve done to themselves, just as it’s Heard’s own narcissism that drives away his lover. The built environment parodies his sins – reflecting his isolation back at him – at the same time as it exacts payment for them.  

Whether it is the immigrant enclave or the alt-weekly’s office, what these settings share is the degree of protection they offer from the ravages of liberalization. Notably, Hester Street was financed by Silver’s husband, a real estate developer, after being turned down by multiple studios on account of her gender – ‘women directors are one more problem we don’t need’, one executive told her – which may partly account for her nostalgic view of the shelter traditional structures can provide from an inhospitable economy. But when she alchemized these circumstances into her films, Silver saw both sides of the issue. If a gendered relation of dependence was the condition of possibility for her own career, that same dynamic is reproduced in Between the Lines in the form of staff writer Laura and her boyfriend Michael, who tries to convince her to move to New York with him when he gets a book deal. She refuses at first but eventually gives in, and Silver sees the tragedy of the situation that forces her to reluctantly accept her subordination. In Hester Street, Mamie stresses the importance of financial autonomy for a woman – ‘I don’t want no man to say, “I had to take her just as she was, without a penny.”’ – which makes it all the more surprising when she blows her hard-won savings to pay for Jake’s divorce so that they can get married. When abstract principles collide with messy reality, the allure of tradition often proves irresistibly strong.

Silver, though, never moralized in either direction. Even Gitl, a seemingly archetypal embodiment of tradition, finds it within herself to welcome the benefits of progress when she leaves Jake for his roommate, a devout Talmudic scholar. Insofar as marrying for love is a modern invention, this pairing is an uneasy amalgamation of past and present. If there is anything in Silver’s worldview approaching the rigidity of dogma, it is her conviction that the clock can never be turned back. At one point, Gitl marvels at the self-enclosed homogeneity of the Lower East Side: ‘Rivington Street, Delancey Street – everywhere Jews!’ Even in 1975, the line would have carried the frisson of dramatic irony, and one need only walk down those streets today, taking in the odd mixture of Chinese restaurants and soaring high-rises, to see how much things have continued to change. Silver’s nostalgia might be intense, even to the point of being reactionary – but it will never be irrelevant.  

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘Hollywood’s New Wave’, NLR 121.