Corrosive Methods

The biographical outline that typically opens an essay on Paula Rego begins with her birth to Lisbon-based Anglophiles in 1935. It registers her first encounter with England in the early 1950s when her parents – despairing at the Estado Novo regime – sent her to a finishing school in Kent. Via the Slade, the young Rego developed through contact with the London Group, coming to serve as the feminist cherry on their cake. Dividing her time between the two countries for several years, she eventually settles in London with the English painter Victor Willing. From there, her story arcs towards recognition by the British establishment, culminating in honours (she was made a Dame of the Empire in 2010) and retrospectives (the latest runs at Tate Britain until 24 October).

Fame of this kind has led Rego’s career to be plotted as a kind of social narrative, its twists and turns bent to fit agreeable cultural metaphors. Her early work – drab oil paintings like Interrogation (1950), in which a woman flanked by the bulging trousers of two male torturers collapses on herself like a broken Anglepoise lamp, and Portrait of José Figueiroa Rego (1954–55), where the face of Rego’s father wilts into his own fist – are said to articulate a raw breed of anguish connected with her birthplace. Paintings such as Salazar Vomiting the Homeland (1960), which depicts the dictator, his red and white belly stuffed with chauvinist dogmas, disgorging a curl of bile into the canvas’s bottom-left corner, soon garnered Rego a reputation as a fearless critic of the dictatorship. Yet as she becomes established in London a bifurcation occurs: the biographical image of Rego qua British national treasure comes to exist almost independently of her art. She is ‘one of our own’, yet the critical implications of her work are conceived as applying exclusively to the country of her birth.

Paula Rego Interrogation 1950. Collection Ostrich Arts Limited © Paula Rego

Tate Britain’s exhibition is a case in point. Foregrounding Rego’s examination of the female experience, it confines the political and cultural critique her work offers, or else reduces its import to individual psychology. This is primarily achieved by unmooring her paintings from their historical context. By the time of Wife Cuts off Red Monkey’s Tail (1981), Salazar has been replaced with the titular animal: a thin pale, orange monkey who vomits while his wife stands behind him wielding a pair of scissors. Biographical readings of this work and others in which the monkey recurs (Red Monkey Beats His Wife; Red Monkey Offers Bear a Poisoned Dove) refer to Willing’s marital betrayals and Rego’s fantasies of revenge: domestic dramas that occlude any wider political landscape. The same interpretation is affixed to the renowned pictures of stocky girls looming over pets or performing household chores, which are framed in terms of Willing’s late illness. These complex portraits of female aggression – in which women are variously rendered as lovers, carers and murderers – are presented as less concerned with matrices of political power than with psychosexual impulses. The bulging fossilised skirt of the bullish girl in Snare (1987) may hint at the darkness of the Portuguese metropole, but it has nothing to do with Thatcher’s Britain.

Instead, we are told that such paintings are primarily about personal revelations Rego had while undergoing Jungian analysis. As Jung himself observed, there are hazards involved in inferring an artwork’s social meaning from the intimate life of its creator. The curators direct us to find in Rego’s art ‘the repressed desires, weaknesses and sexual instincts within the unconscious mind’, but Jung distrusted any such approach. ‘The golden gleam of artistic creation’, he wrote in 1923, ‘is extinguished as soon as we apply to it the same corrosive method which we use in analysing the fantasies of hysteria’. Rather than hunting for visual symptoms of the artist’s subterranean desires, he proposed that we view art as a reflection of a collective unconscious which, contra Freud, was never ‘repressed’ or forgotten. Nor was it pre-political. For Jung, the archetypes revealed by artistic creation were social constructions – manifestations of collective thought, or the ‘psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same type’.

Paula Rego The Policeman’s Daughter 1987. Private collection © Paula Rego

The exhibition presents the paintings completed during Rego’s ‘annus mirabilis’ of 1987 as referencing specific Portuguese people and places, but they can be better understood as archetypal constructs: The Soldier’s Daughter; The Policeman’s Daughter; The Cadet and his Sister. In these renowned de Chirico-esque stonescapes we find menacing military WAGs, their strong arms engaged in acts of force that belie the softness of their faces. The soldier’s daughter straddles the neck of a large, floppy goose whose plumage she grips with knuckles almost as white as the feathers themselves. The policeman’s daughter plunges her fist into daddy’s long black boot, polishing it with such intensity that her knee seems to grind against the table. These figures may resonate with themes from Salazar’s Portugal, yet they have no literal kinship with the state or its servants. They are neither psychological portraits of individual women nor ‘indictments of Salazar’s dictatorship’ as the Tate’s curators claim, but rather archetypes of feminine desire as produced by the carceral-military imaginary. For Rego, this imaginary operates in both the Estado Novo and the British Empire, though it is reducible to neither. 

In The Dance (1988), a redoubled husband figure, appearing once with his wife and once with another woman, twirls around a moonlit beach in the shadow of a military fort. The figure of the wife is multiplied such that she appears in five separate stages of her life. Here, the drama of familial loyalty and betrayal is indivisible from the backdrop of war, but the resemblance between the military base in The Dance and the Fort of Milreu on Portugal’s Atlantic coast is incidental. The fort, and the husband, are instead symbols of masculine power without specific referent. It is precisely the generality of these images that gives them equal resonance across Rego’s two national contexts. 

Paula Rego The Dance 1988. Tate © Paula Rego

For Jung, the beauty of the archetype lay in its connection to lost forms of greatness. Types unlock ‘ideals’ which are generally linked to forms of reactionary nostalgia: ‘the mother country’, ‘the symbolic value of our native land’, and so on. Jung writes that art’s social function is to conjure up essential virtues that the spirit of the age is lacking. Although Rego’s work is indebted to Jung on various levels, this is precisely the vision that she seeks to overturn. Where Jung sees valour, Rego sees only vomit. Her excavations of the collective unconscious spurn idealism for brutal realism. Many of her paintings are tragic, rather than triumphal, retellings – of folk tales, nursery rhymes, cartoons, novels, plays and poems. Take The Maids (1987), which reimagines the eponymous protagonists of Jean Genet’s play Les Bonnes (1947): a stylised narrative of the real-life Papin sisters, famed in the nineteenth century as servants who murdered their mistress. Genet depicts the sisters as furtive sadomasochists, restaging scenes of their own domination while wearing their employer’s clothes. When Rego represents them forty years later, the ‘mistress’ is the one who appears to have dressed up for the occasion; thick, burly legs extend beneath her skirt, while the faint outline of a moustache can be seen above her upper lip. Meanwhile, the maid whose hand is gently poised against her master’s neck is given dark skin, as though to hint at an act of colonial retribution.

In Rego’s retellings we see not only the psychoanalytic imperative to articulate again (bring into the present, revisibilise), but also a political will to articulate anew (disrupt, subvert, rearrange) – as in Time, Past and Present (1990), based on Antonello’s St Jerome in His Study (c.1475). The saint is reconceived as a pensive man amid several children. One of them attempts to draw him, yet her page remains blank; another, in the doorway behind him, seems to fade into sand. Antonello’s backdrop of verdant fields is replaced by the empty yellow of an infinite, sea-less beach. Hanging on the wall in the right foreground is a painted angel whose scorched tones evoke Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920): the painting that for Walter Benjamin captures the force we mistakenly refer to as ‘progress’. Rather than longing for the past, as in Jung, Rego uses it to estrange the present, in a procedure more closely allied with Benjamin’s image of messianic time. Her paintings make legible a reordered continuity between the disfigurement of the now and the mistakes of the what-has-been.

Absent from Rego’s art however are the utopias that Benjamin hoped this process would bring forth. In their place we have an unflinching treatment of desire which emphasises its ability to trap and ensnare its subjects. The policeman’s daughter gets off on servitude to the boot; the maids are enthralled by the murderous pleasures derived from their own humiliation. If Rego gives us surprising reconfigurations of the past, she makes no special effort to imagine the route beyond it. In this regard, the final room of Tate’s exhibition is perhaps the most starkly ill-conceived:

Rego is an artist who has consistently made work that responds to and fights injustice. In keeping with this lifelong concern, we end this retrospective exhibition with this group of powerful, harrowing works of art that serve as a provocation for action. Rego’s and our wish is that there might be an Escape, and more justice for all women.

If a woman finds her desire trained on her own, or other women’s subjection, how can this desire be retranslated into an impulse to ‘escape’? The evasive abstraction of the curatorial note – ‘works of art that serve as a provocation for action’ – is sufficient indication that Rego offers no clear answer. Yet, perhaps, by turning this desire into such visceral forms of disgust, she plants some seed of its eventual redirection.  

Read on: Herbert Marcuse, ‘Art as Form of Reality’, NLR I/74.


Rustling Leaves

The apocryphal story gets told again and again, perhaps because it cuts to the core of one kind of cinematic fascination: what purportedly captivated the first people who saw the Lumières’ Repas de bébé (1895) was not the ostensible focus of the action – the couple feeding an infant in the foreground – but the sight of the leaves rustling in the trees behind them. Whether or not the tale is true matters less than its tenacity. It speaks to an idea of cinema that has flickered in and out of view throughout the medium’s history, constituting a stubborn countertradition to the narrative contrivances that monopolize so many screens. It is a cinema not only of blowing leaves, but of dust particles, flower petals, and strands of hair; of clouds and eyelashes, cresting waves and stray insects. It is, in other words, a cinema animated by the world’s uncontrollable contingencies. Small, ephemeral details sting the spectator with their unruly indifference to all grand plans and occurrences, proclaiming the reign of transience, as if to say: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’

Typically, as in the ur-text of Repas de bébé, these microevents are relegated to the margins, where they may or may not catch the attentive spectator’s roaming eye; here, what is at stake is perhaps less an approach to filmmaking than a way of film viewing. There are, however, instances in which this aspect of the medium surges forth from the background to flood the frame, soaking the cinematic experience in the pathos of time’s passing. Such is the case with Haneda Sumiko’s extraordinary 43-minute film The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms (1977), screening this month as part of the Open City Documentary festival at ICA London and in October at the Courtisane festival in Ghent; it will appear in a double bill with the director’s first short, Women’s College in the Village (1958).

Born in 1926 in Dalian, China (at the time Japanese-occupied Manchuria), Haneda is likely unfamiliar to most audiences, even within Japan, despite her immense and accomplished body of work. From Women’s College in the Village to her most recent film And Then Akiko Is… A Portrait of a Dancer (2012) – which returns to Kanda Akiko, the subject of her 1985 feature Akiko: Portrait of a Dancer – she has dealt with an array of subjects including colonialism, elder care, women’s political activity, traditional arts, and the lives of performers. In his 2002 book The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, a rare discussion of her work in English, Eric Cazdyn describes Haneda as ‘a documentarist whose political commitments over the last four decades of filmmaking are matched only by her subtle sensitivity to the aesthetic’.

Like Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki, Haneda began her career at Iwanami Productions, a company making educational and promotional films, founded in 1950 as an offshoot of the illustrious publisher Iwanami Shoten, before striking out on her own. Yet she has never achieved the same recognition as these contemporaries, let alone that of celebrated male auteurs working in fiction. In Cazdyn’s words, ‘Haneda, who has directed more than forty-five films and assisted on scores more, deserves the same status as any other director in the canon of Japanese film history. At the same time, her struggles as one of only a handful of women in the industry raises her significance to near-heroic proportions.’ Subtitled copies of her films are hard to come by – none have been formally issued on DVD – making the upcoming screenings a special opportunity to encounter the work of this underacknowledged figure.

The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms was Haneda’s first independent venture, initiating a new phase of her practice. In 1969, while in the central Japanese prefecture of Gifu to attend a kyōgen theatre performance, she visited a cherry tree in the Neo valley said to be one of the oldest in the country, planted by Emperor Keitai in the early sixth century. As she would later recount, faced with its ancient, animistic majesty, a thought entered her mind: ‘With this tree, and this tree only, I could make a movie’. Haneda initially planned to use poetry written by her younger sister to ‘make a film similar to a small piece of music that sang praise of the cherry tree’, but only one year later, her sibling died of cancer. By autumn 1972, when Haneda returned to the project, the solitary tree, with blossoms that turn the colour of watery calligraphy ink as they fall to the ground, had become ‘something ominous’ to her. She shot intermittently over two-and-a-half years to capture its changing state across four seasons – in close-up and at a distance, in glorious bloom and dusted with snow – and then worked for a further 18 months to complete the film. The result is a poetic reckoning with mortality and memory at the crossroads of the human and nonhuman, anchored by a female voiceover, haunting appearances of an adolescent girl, and, of course, myriad images of the titular entity. It is a portrait of a village and its inhabitants; a cultural history of a celebrated tree; a film like no other.

‘For me, this film meant becoming true to myself when creating’, Haneda wrote, describing its making as ‘an act of searching for myself’. Whereas others of the director’s films engage directly with large political issues – such as Proof of Women (1996), which explores women’s participation in the labour movement – The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms refrains from social commentary. If it manifests the political commitment of which Cazdyn writes at all, it is in its claiming of documentary as a domain of philosophical and poetic expression and in the ecological humility that pervades Haneda’s approach to the tree and its environs. Although the endeavour feels deeply personal, the film contains no mention of her sister’s death, no traces of autobiography. Haneda does not position herself at the centre of The Cherry Tree; nor, for that matter, does she grant such a place to any human, even the ever-silent teenage girl. The film instead adopts an expansive, non-anthropocentric perspective that sees any one life as but a small part of a vast entanglement, inextricable from the surrounding environment. In its inaugural sequence, images of a flowing stream and a cemetery overgrown with grasses and wildflowers are accompanied by a hymn to impermanence, whispered in voiceover, in which the accumulation of time occurs in inverse proportion to the capacity for human memory: ‘A day passes, then a month, and so the years go by. Fifty years – people will remember. A hundred years – some will remember. Days will pass, months will come again, and so the years will go by. Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred years, none will remember anymore. Seven hundred, a thousand years, all memories fade into oblivion.’ Haneda then cuts to a series of shots of the girl, standing on a bridge, turning repeatedly to meet the camera’s gaze before walking away. The usuzumi sakura has not yet made its first appearance, but already the film has hinted at the nested temporalities it will unfold. From daily rituals to annual seasons, from the span of a villager’s life to that of the venerable tree, all things are bound by the bittersweetness of cycles that recur at their own pace. It is a far cry from the gales and gusts of post-war industrial development. 

Discussions of cinematic duration tend to centre on the long take, a unit of filmic vocabulary that has prospered in the era of digital cinematography, since cameras can now capture expanses of time far greater than the roughly eleven-minute maximum possible with photochemical film. One way of inspiring wonder at the ceaseless becoming of the world, of dwelling with the weight of time, is to let the camera roll and roll. The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms pursues the same ends through very different and less commonly employed means, assembling relatively brief glimpses of the same subject matter filmed over a prolonged period so as to foreground continuous transformation. (In this regard, Haneda finds a contemporary inheritor in another must-see film playing at both Open City and Courtisane, Anders Edström and C.W. Winter’s eight-hour-long The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) [2020], shot over fourteen months in a Kyoto Prefecture village.) The gesture echoes Claude Monet’s serial views but more directly stands as a cinematic iteration of the sensitivity to seasonal variation that has long marked Japanese art and culture. More than formal play, it bespeaks an attunement to the poignancy of transience, a philosophical orientation that is indebted to Buddhist and Shintoist principles.

Across these metamorphoses, the tree’s placid endurance stands against the brevity of human life, as Haneda frames the former as a steadfast witness to the births and deaths of those who live in the six houses surrounding it. After a villager tells her that, years before, bones were found under the tree and taken away to determine whether they were human, she explores the abandoned, crumbling home of the long-dead doctor who had been entrusted with the task. Weeds engulf the house; thick moss blankets the roof. The tree still stands while so many who once laid eyes on it have disappeared. As if to buttress this theme, throughout much of the film Haneda concentrates less on the tree’s leaves or flowers – icons of fleeting beauty that mark the coming of spring ­­­– and more on the hulking solidity of its mottled trunk, carefully documenting its many lichenous bulges and mossy crevices. Possessing little of the vertical elegance of a redwood, let alone the suppleness of the girl who stands in front of it and caresses its bark, the cherry tree wears the scars of its stubborn persistence on its misshapen core, watching over the village as the days, years, and centuries pass.

At the same time, the film emphasizes that the tree, too, is prey to the ravages of senescence. The survival of this elder body is never assured; because it lives, it may die. Unable to sustain its own weight, it is supported by a host of wooden crutches that guard against collapse. It owes its continued health not only to the daily ministrations of the villagers, but to the actions of a dentist from Gifu who in the 1940s grafted 238 young roots onto it, saving it from a termite infestation. The voiceover addresses the aged being with intimacy and directness: ‘You have lived too long; your life is already over. Yet you linger, still surviving…’ Like the inhabitants of the village – indeed, like all of us – the tree is vulnerable, existing within a web of interdependencies, beholden to the care of others if it is to persevere.

The horticultural technique of the graft, used to save the tree from rot, encapsulates ideas that inform The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms as a whole: it is a figure of mutual implication and non-autonomous growth that denies any strict separation between nature and culture. It also speaks to a powerful desire to make things last. As much as the film is imbued with an awestruck acceptance of impermanence, its reconciliation with the inevitability of disappearance remains incomplete. Humming within it is the urge to forestall loss by intervening in the cruel arc of another’s decline, as well as the saturnine resentment that takes hold when this proves futile – affects that complicate the cherry blossom’s famous associations with vernal optimism and the soft sadness of evanescence. There is something harder, sharper, in The Cherry Tree with Grey Blossoms, even as its delicacy astounds. There is the bittersweetness of mono no aware, yes, but also the sour tang of grief.

Read on: Erika Balsom, ‘Camera Lucida, NLR 129.


The Sorcerer

Roberto Calasso died this summer at the age of eighty. Among the unpindownable Italian erudites – Eco, Calvino, Pasolini – the author of the international bestseller The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), a hybrid meditation on the enduring relevance of Greek myth, is perhaps the hardest to figure out. The Marriage was the second chapter of a hazy, complex and confounding project – Calasso called it an ‘opera’ and would never explain much further – that might be described as a sustained effort to unlock the mystical potential of literature. Extending to eleven volumes with La tavoletta dei destini (2020), it ranges across world history and geography, freely connecting Kafka and Baudelaire, the Vedas and the Bible, Tiepolo and Talleyrand, Mesopotamian and Greek mythology. Of the first installment, The Ruin of Kasch (1983) – whose wandering, eclectically citational reflections on ancient ritual and the nature of the modern established his procedure – Calasso wrote that he wanted to steer clear of the essay form as it had become ‘sclerotized’. ‘From aphorism to brief poem, from cogent analysis of some specific issue to narrated scene’, the book he’d written was rather ‘a whole host of forms…’

Calasso’s hybrids gained worldwide traction in the cosmopolitan eighties and nineties, touted by stars of international letters like Brodsky and Rushdie – the latter praising the erudition and mix of novelistic and essayistic in his book on Vedic theology, Ka (1996). Not perceived as part of a cohort or scene (in contrast to Pasolini and Nuovi Argomenti, or Eco and the Gruppo 63), Calasso was never characterised as particularly Italian, and this always inhibited popular understanding of his work. Those who have frequented Italian bookstores in the last half century, however, have had a more intuitive path to Calasso. We have been able to read the books he worked on as a translator, curator, editor-in-chief, all the way to president and owner, for Adelphi Edizioni.

‘Bookstores were white back then’, long-time Adelphi editor Matteo Codignola told me about his teenage years. White was the colour of foremost left-wing Italian publisher Einaudi. They were ‘the canon of everything serious and beautiful. I loved Einaudi. And yet it’s not as if you saw their books and said “What’s that?” It might have been a study of Russian populism, on the enlightenment, interesting stuff – but you always knew what you were getting’. From 1962 however, bookstores also started carrying a collection of puzzling, colourful books: ‘It was hard to understand Adelphi at first. Going from Sartre’s Einaudi books to this stuff, it was a big leap… Adelphi’s books took us to unknown worlds.’

The house was founded by Bobi Bazlen, an intellectual with ties to Italo Svevo, Umberto Saba and Eugenio Montale, who died a few years later. Calasso, who joined in the midst of a doctorate on Thomas Browne, dedicated a short book to his mentor – oddly, wondrously, it came out in Italy the day after Calasso’s death. There he recalls Bazlen’s ‘ability to establish, as though it were obvious, the most acrobatic links: La via del pellegrino: you read that? If you like it, I think we should publish it along with Solitary Confinement by Christopher Burney, Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, and possibly a very different book as a fourth title, if god throws it our way’. The fourth volume might have been a history of Noh theatre. ‘The way they’d come one after the other had an exotic quality’, Codignola told me, that was ‘somewhat frowned upon’. In Bobi, Calasso writes that ‘For post-1945 Italy, the Irrational was everyone’s arch-enemy’, mostly in reaction to fascism’s bogus mythologies. ‘Bazlen, though, ignored those quarrels. He thought they were a waste of time’.

Adelphi’s books ‘felt dangerous’, Codignola said, ‘as everything literary was extremely targeted at the time: people wanted to know what you were reading and they judged you for it – you were right wing, you were less right wing, you were a comrade, a bourgeois…’ The relationship with the left-wing reader is crucial to defining Adelphi and Calasso’s impact on the Italian scene. Here’s how a major cultural player of the Italian left, Angelo Guglielmi, explained what the two meant to each other: Calasso is Adelphi’s ‘mirror image. Adelphi are very serious, find everything commonly known insufferable’, ‘they want nothing to do with any flatly pedagogical notion of publishing’, are committed to publishing ‘authors from cultures that are distant from the domestically humanistic tradition that rules Italy’. Calasso is just as ‘serious…he’s committed to what’s hard, and distrustful of what’s easy’, and deserves much credit for publishing those who have ‘made the Culture of the Modern’, showing Italian readers how Nietzsche let philosophy give in to the real pressure of the world, highlighting the ‘fragrance’ of Adorno’s prose in opposition to the ‘grimness of the new dialectics’, the value of the ‘enraged aesthete and euphoric moraliste’ Karl Kraus…

A big ‘but’ is coming from Guglielmi, but let’s hold it for a minute.

Let’s go back to those white books offering the canon from Marx to Beauvoir. Luciano Foà is said to have left Einaudi to join Bazlen because they refused to publish Nietzsche. To defend Adelphi from accusations of being right wing it was always necessary to explain that the orthodoxy in left-wing publishing was leaving out too much. Adelphi saw Einaudi’s approach as narrowly instrumental, committed to serving only practical needs. ‘The earth is crumbly… perspectives wobble’, Calasso writes in the The Unnamable Present (2017). The ‘unnameable present’, Elena Sbrojavacca, author of the only comprehensive study of his work, summarises, ‘is the progressive teleological skidding from religious to social, where every element of society is only invited to convey their efforts toward the interest of society itself and only that’. Calasso thought that literature was meant to serve a different god. What this god was is hard to tell, maybe the invisible itself, the hollowness we come from.

In his writing, Calasso strived to create a circulation between the visible and the invisible. That’s my favourite expression of his. Sbrojavacca writes that ‘on every page Calasso invites us to use reading as an instrument to investigate the unseen’. Literature, in this conception, is the polysemic, ambiguous vessel we can use to venture into the invisible. La Folie Baudelaire (2009) is perhaps most explicit on this. Calasso argues that the French poet is the master of analogy, and represents the moment where the sacred becomes the purview of literature as the rest of society abandoned it. Analogic thinking is presented as the only way to access the kind of knowledge ‘that shines a light on the natural obscurity of things’. This is why everything in Calasso is juxtaposed but never explained. The ‘opera’ was a gnostic project, shrouded, as most gnostic projects are, in a mist of poetry, eruditeness, and beauty.

As Baudelaire explained in a letter cited by Calasso, ‘the imagination is the most scientific of the faculties, because it is the only one to understand the universal analogy, or that which a mystical religion calls correspondence’. This aspect of Baudelaire is said to place him in a lineage of ‘pansophists’. ‘Universal analogy: it suffices to utter this formula to call up, like some vast submerged architecture, the esotericism of Europe starting from the early fifteenth century. The forms it assumed were numerous – from the mild Platonism of Ficino to Bruno’s harsh Egyptian version, from Fludd’s Mosaic-naturalistic theosophy to Böhme’s Teutonic-cosmic variety, down to Swedenborg and Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin’. This freewheeling argument ends with a quote from Goethe: ‘Every existent is an analogon of the entire existent; and so that which exists always appears to us isolated and interwoven at one and the same time. If one follows analogy too closely, everything coincides in the identical: if one avoids it, all is dispersed in the infinite.’

The words by Guglielmi quoted earlier come from a newspaper debate over Calasso’s The Forty-Nine Steps (1991), a collection of essays on his favourite European authors. Guglielmi argued that this canon – from Adorno to Heidegger, Kafka to Gottfried Benn – consisted of the ‘authors of end times’, for whom ‘modernity was not a step forward in history but its grinding to a halt’. ‘What Calasso lacks is the curiosity for the strivings of the present. Maybe the reason is he doesn’t believe there is a later to the earlier he is used to devoting his attention to, as he is convinced that that earlier is also the now’. Calasso though was busy doing something different, in the process rearranging the perception of writers in Einaudi’s backlist. Here’s his take on Walter Benjamin: he was ‘the utter opposite of a philosopher: a commentator. The boastful immodesty of the subject saying ‘I think this’ was fundamentally foreign to him. … his dream was to disappear, at the acme of his oeuvre, behind an insurmountable lava flow of quotes’ (this also works as a description of Calasso’s own books).

The harshness of Guglielmi’s judgement is testament to how strongly his side felt that this was all just unorthodox ricercatezza, something decadent and bourgeois by default: ‘The present times being missing from his work, you can only read him for erudition, or the pleasures of good prose’. Most Italian left-wing intellectuals today would be hard-pressed to choose a side, since we are the offspring of both. I think I know what Codignola meant when he told me about a time when everything seemed to make sense, but that Adelphi’s books made you feel that the others weren’t telling you the whole truth. I also feel that while the likes of Guglielmi saw themselves as different in kind to the generation spawned by the Miracolo Economico and portrayed in the Commedia all’Italiana, Calasso must have felt that this self-referential, booming society was too self-involved and lacking in transcendence; he must have had a unique view of the sleazy mix of Marxism and establishment, seaside villas and existentialism, of the characters played by Mastroianni in La Notte and La Dolce Vita.

Calasso didn’t really want to debate with his foes. In The Unnamable Present he wrote of the present time: ‘Thought would benefit more than ever from a period of concealment, of a covert and clandestine existence, from which to re-emerge in a situation that might resemble that of the Pre-Socratics. The powers have to be recognized before even naming them and venturing to theorize the world.’ Alfonso Berardinelli, one of Italy’s best critics, seemed to assent to Calasso’s argument even when highly critical: ‘Modern western literature begins its existence when Europe relinquishes traditional saperi and perennial philosophies. It’s not a given that renouncing all that was a good thing. The virtues of doubt and criticism have been exercised without limits for so long that now we don’t know what to think anymore, where to go, what to love’. Calasso, then, ‘is right on some level’ to devote himself to ‘the superior mind, ecstatic and enlightened’.

Berardinelli wrote this in 2007. The debates that faded with the end of the Italian Communist Party were by now a distant memory, and yet Calasso remained obsessed by his own ‘fight against the modern Western world, against the notions of History and Progress, against the Enlightenment and against “leftwing” politics…’ In Bobi, Calasso cherry-picks from his mentor’s writings, giving a sense of where his own focus was towards the end: ‘And when the revolution comes I’ll put my dinner jacket on and light a cigarette (Egyptian Prettiest Chinasi Bros.) read a Henry James and wait for the son of my portinaia to come take me to the guillotine; it’ll be great times I hope I’m not a coward…’ Sbrojavacca told me that Marx in fact was ‘one of the most important authors for Calasso. He says Marx is a demonologist as he can see the ghosts that haunt the modern world. His criticism of Marx, and of Freud, is that they are human types from the second half of the 19th century who tried to tame the wildness of the modern world, tried to find a way to act on the modern world… a way to cheat the machine and harness the ghosts and make them work the way they wanted to’.

And in Bobi, Calasso quotes this fantastic passage Bazlen wrote on Freud: ‘Hunched over his microscope, Freud discovers the soul’s bacilli. And so he discovers the soul. But he is a 19th-century scientist, and he believes that the soul’s riddle is only solved by looking at the bacilli. He’s a scientist, he refuses to be considered a philosopher, and yet, from his work, a work born in that environment, a philosophy implicitly is derived, a vision of life, a program, a human ideal: of the Man with the Pasteurized Soul, who, in a world that has lost all symbols, and in virtue of his finally normalized sexuality, has the libido liberated that is necessary to finally pursue a career.’

Both Einaudi and Adelphi’s partisans ultimately managed to do enough character assassination to give us a feeling that the fight amounted to nothing. And yet it is Calasso’s adversaries that shed the most light on the risks he took. In that same article, Berardinelli wrote: ‘Calasso (it seems to me) wants everything: to be a sorcerer and a dandy, a neo-ancient man of wisdom and a postmodern narrator (and antimodern). He wants it because he can have it: the neo-ancient is postmodern and today’s sorcerers, here, are just one specific kind of dandy. Since all mystical investigation has ended for the West a few centuries ago, it reappears as illustration, mise en scène, decoration, culturalist orgy, aestheticized depth’.

Codignola employed some Adelphian irony on the ‘decoration’ part. After the successes of Kundera and Calasso’s books, Adelphi ‘went from 10,000 to 50,0000 copies… In the meantime, the gnagnera started of how chic how refined how snob how elitist they are, which Roberto and I both disliked – well obviously you can spot some mannerisms here and there, but it wasn’t a plan… Then people start saying they loved our pastel-coloured covers, “so elegant!” Somebody wrote me once: “I need to furnish my house in Capalbio” – that’s where some of the more wealthy left traditionally goes in the summer holidays – “I need 30cm of pink 30cm of yellow, and 20cm of red if you can find them”… She meant the colour of spines and covers to arrange on the shelves, regardless of authors and titles… she sent me a blueprint of the house, and colour codes’.

If it became decoration for some, Adelphi was the darkroom of Gen X readers. When I was twenty, I told my mother I must kill her and my father in order to be free. I was brandishing my yellow, compact Nietzsche books, where I was supposedly learning about how thin the veneer of civility in my parents’ centre-left and Catholic world view was. A dear friend of mine appeared in a television show with Calasso a few years earlier, a lesson on Greek myth with an audience of high-school students. A handsome young erudite who listened to Blur and appeared destined for a centre-left Weltanschauung, he was tasked with asking Calasso a question: ‘What can we get from myth, today? Can it still show us the way to the spiritual life?’ Calasso replied that we can indeed try to use myth, to ‘try to enter that circulation and understand things we otherwise wouldn’t’. He says one crucial thing: that it’s up to the individual to choose it for themselves. By 1997, individual solutions to problems were now the norm for most of us.

My friend converted to Catholicism two years later and is now a vicar in the Netherlands. He pursued the circulation of visible and invisible.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘Lucio Magri’, NLR 72. 


Will it Be Enough?

It’s summer, Brussels pretends to be on vacation, but nobody believes it: clouds are gathering, no silver lining in sight, nerves wrecked all around. Forests are burning, rain is falling, rivers are flooding – the climate crisis has hit home, more undeniably than ever. Of the €750 billion Corona ‘recovery fund’, not a single euro has yet been spent and the fourth wave is beginning to unfurl. Time for a fiscal booster shot – but how to pay for it? The French war in Africa drags on, the failed states of Libya, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon continue to fail, German demands for a European asylum regime that protects Germany from having to live up to its moral rhetoric are as divisive as ever, regime change in Russia must wait since Putin won’t resign. And now Afghanistan: Good Uncle Joe has become Bad Uncle Joe, toute l’Europe being shocked: unilateralism! In Germany and the UK, governments are desperately trying to avoid explaining why, apart from following American orders, they have been fighting a senseless war for two decades in an ungovernable faraway country. And in the midst of disaster everywhere Angela Merkel, the European Union’s unappointed but all the more effective Super-President, who they say has somehow kept it all together, is to leave her office as German chancellor this coming autumn, forever.

Will ‘Europe’, or the ‘European project’ as embodied by the EU, survive Merkel? In the Realpolitik of Brussels, this translates into whether Germany will continue to fulfil its obligations as the EU’s hidden hegemon after her departure, meaning first of all whether it will continue to pay. This it can do in a variety of ways, many of which are designed to be maximally obscure: by letting its net contributions to the EU budget rise; by allowing the European Central Bank to engage sub rosa in state financing, in contravention of the Treaties; by agreeing to underwrite the Corona ‘recovery fund’, also outside the Treaties; by allowing that debt to be serviced by more debt in the future, letting the €750 billion, sold as a one-of-a-kind emergency measure, turn into a ‘historic breakthrough’ toward a ‘supranational fiscal capacity’ à la française – while, in order to keep interest rates low, intimating to the markets that if the worst came to the worst, Germany would be on-hand to offer ‘European solidarity’.

Can ‘Europe’ continue to count on Germany, with an election coming up whose outcome is more uncertain than ever in the history of the Federal Republic? In late August, it appeared that the next German government, the first after Merkel, would be a coalition of any three out of four parties: CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens, and FDP – the AfD excluded from the arco costituzionale, Die Linke struggling to get above the 5 percent limit, and both in any case deeply internally divided. Which of the three Kanzlerkandidaten might end up as Kanzler nobody can predict, lightweight Laschet and solid Scholz more likely than the pop-up candidate of the Greens, Baerbock. Whoever it will be will not have more than a quarter of the vote behind them, and whatever three-party government is cobbled together will invariably include at least two parties steeped in Federal Republic political orthodoxy. Can centrism be more deeply rooted in a political system?

Nations, organized in states, develop ideas of a national interest reflecting, among other things, their historical experience, geographic location and collective capacity. Enshrined in a country’s political common sense and held to be self-evident by its political class, national interests can change only gradually. This holds in today’s Germany, even though there the idea of a national interest is considered alien and must be dressed up as a general European, or even human, interest. At its centre is the preservation of the European Union and, in particular, the European Monetary Union – the latter, by lucky accident, being the wellspring of German national prosperity. Even a national interest as profoundly entrenched as German ‘pro-Europeanism’ may, however, come under pressure as circumstances change, so that continuous efforts seem advisable to keep the pro-EU consensus alive. For example, of the four parties that may in different combinations of three form the next German government, two, CDU/CSU and FDP, will have to beware of their new right-wing competitor, AfD, offering a different, ‘nationalist’ concept of what is good for the German people. While this will not be enough to make them ‘anti-European’, it might force them to be less obliging toward future calls from Brussels for more Europeanism of the pecuniary sort.

For some time now, the European Commission has abstained from publishing information on the net contributions of member states to the EU budget, so as to not wake up sleeping German dogs. But this has not kept the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from crunching the numbers itself, using publicly available data. It found that in 2020, Germany paid €15.5 billion more to Brussels than it got back, on a gross contribution of €26bn, amounting to 1.74 percent of federal expenditure. Germany was followed by Britain (a net contribution of €10.2bn), France (€8.0bn) and, of all countries, Italy (€4.8bn). There is no official information available as yet on 2021; but in June 2020, the Commission estimated that in that year, the German net contribution would rise by more than 40 percent, with gross payments to grow by a hefty €13bn. In part this seems to reflect a promise by the German finance minister, Scholz, to fill most if not all of the gaps inflicted on the EU budget by the British departure.

At first glance, what Germany pays to the EU is no more than a tiny share of its federal expenditure. Like other countries, however, the German state budget leaves little space for discretionary spending, perhaps as little as 5 percent, so any increase in EU contributions is bound to be painfully felt. This might make it a political problem that leading beneficiaries of EU finance are the two black sheep, Poland and Hungary, with net receipts in 2010 of €13.2 and €4.8bn respectively. (Ranking second, topping Hungary, was tiny Greece with €5.7bn, obviously a bonus for signing onto the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding and dutifully replacing Syriza with a properly ‘pro-European’, i.e., pro-capitalist government.) Since the German public tends to regard the EU as an educational rather than an economic or geostrategic undertaking, set up to teach East Europeans neo-German values of liberal democracy with a special emphasis on diversity, authoritarian conservatism in Eastern member states may delegitimate fiscal support for them, especially in times of fiscal pressure. It may even cast a shadow on the ‘ever closer union’ project as a whole.

In this context the infringement procedures that the Commission has started against Poland and Hungary, at the behest of their liberal opposition parties and their allies in the EU parliament, may be helpful as they involve a threat of EU subsidies being cut unless the countries in question cave in on matters such as the status of their judiciary and sex education in schools – fiscal cuts that save frugal Germans money being an especially appealing educational method for them. Note also the infringement procedure simultaneously started against Germany for not reining in its constitutional court as it insists on the duty of the German government to prevent European institutions like the European Central Bank from curtailing German sovereignty above and beyond what the Treaties allow – a procedure that was demanded by German Green members of the EU Parliament and might not have been activated without the secret connivance of the German federal government.

Is that much caution really needed? As Yanis Varoufakis famously let the world know, ‘Whatever it says or does, Germany in the end always pays’ (though not to everyone, as he had to learn). This, however, was in 2015, and while the spirit may still be willing, the flesh may in the meantime have become weak, will being one, capacity another. Owing to Corona, the German national debt increased in 2020 from 60 percent to 70 percent of GDP, and is likely to increase in 2021 at the same pace, to about 80 percent. There are no indications that Germany’s next government, regardless of its composition, would be able, or indeed willing, to abolish the so-called ‘debt brake’ written into the constitution in 2009, meaning that fiscal policy in coming years will still have to observe narrow limits on new borrowing. (There may, however, be more Corona waves, caused by variants of or successors to SARS-CoV-19, which would justify more emergency spending.) Moreover, already before the pandemic, German public infrastructure – roads, bridges, the railway system – had noticeably decayed over the past two decades, due not least to self-imposed austerity, intended to teach other EU member states that saving must precede spending. Now Corona has drawn attention to further deficiencies in healthcare, nursing homes, schools and universities, all of which will be expensive to re-dress.

And this is far from all. Merkel’s ‘energy turn’ will require, on current estimates, €44bn in compensation for coal regions and electricity suppliers between now and 2038, and even more if the next government, as demanded by the Greens, dispenses with coal sooner. Further, to repair the damage done by the floods of July 2021, a €30bn ‘reconstruction fund’ had to be set up, to be spent over the next few years. Add to this that the floods may have finally ended the happy days in which climate policy could consist of cheap-talk commitments to ever earlier and ever more unrealistic dates for ending CO2 emissions. Rather than low-cost gestures, what now seems necessary is expensive investment in dams and dykes, in forests less given to catching fire, in air conditioning for hospitals and nursing homes, in fresh-air corridors for cities, and so on. Alongside all this, the new German debt will need to be serviced, while the new EU debt (‘Next Generation EU’) may turn out to be merely a drop in the bucket.

The latter will likely cause demands in Brussels and Mediterranean member states for another Next Generation debt wave, to be underwritten by German promises, more or less tacit, to step in as debtor of last resort. And don’t forget that all responsibly-minded German political parties have promised that Germany will increase its ‘defence’ budget by no less than one half, to 2 percent of GDP, in euros from about €46bn a year now to roughly €69bn and more, depending on GDP growth – as demanded by both the United States, so Germany can scare Russia on America’s behalf, and by France, so it can be of help in its Sahel wars. On top or as part of this, France had to be promised a French-German fighter-jet system, the FCAS, which will according to realistic estimates cost roughly €300bn over the next ten years – the project being opposed by the German military who believes it is simply a revamping, with German money, of an existing but hard-to-export French system, the Rafale. With that much competition for the little discretionary money in the federal budget, will Mr and Ms German taxpayer continue to stand up for ‘Europe’?

Perhaps this question is misconceived, and the issue is no longer how to pay for what is needed, but what to do if what is needed has become too expensive to be paid for. As a starting hypothesis, consider the possibility that the collective costs of running capitalism may by now have once and for all exceeded what societies can extract from capitalism to cover them – to pay for social peace, the formation of patient workers and satisfied consumers, the preparation for and cleaning up after surplus-producing production, the extension and defence of markets and property rights in distant countries, etc. etc. The result would be, and indeed seems to be, a giant ‘fiscal crisis of the state’, as evidenced by the steady increase of public debt in recent decades, made possible by states under fiscal duress allowing the financial industry to create and package infinite amounts of fiat money into attractive ‘products’. By borrowing from it states can, as long as they have credit, buy capitalism a future, simultaneously creating generous income streams for those with enough money to lend, their entitlements passed down to their children and grandchildren. These are underwritten by equally generous obligations for the coming generations of those with less money, who will be forced to work harder and longer to pay off what has been denominated as their collective debt to capital.

As debt grows faster than capitalism, governing capitalist political economies is becoming a confidence game of a Ponzi variety. Its immortal motto is Mario Draghi’s ‘Believe me, it will be enough’, originally issued to an audience in which everybody had an interest not to notice, and certainly not to say out loud, that the Emperor’s clothes have long landed in a pawn shop – if only because they are the pawn shop. In the European Union in particular, securing the future of capitalism with fictitious capital takes the form of a two-level signalling game: governments at the centre send signals to governments on the periphery that they still have reserves, real or reputational, that they may share – signals that peripheral governments then pass on to their constituents, buoying hopes for more than symbolic ‘European solidarity’, hopes that will soon need to be refreshed by another injection of empty promises. Not everyone is equally good at this game, and among the reasons why Angela Merkel became so important for EU-Europe may well be her unmatched capacity to credibly promise the impossible, her cool contempt for consistency in policy, her astounding ability to enter into incompatible commitments and get people to believe that at some point down the road, she will somehow make them compatible.

Of course, Merkel was helped by a ‘pro-European’ political class which saw no alternative to trusting that the German magician would postpone any future day of reckoning until the end, if not of time itself, then at least of their time in office. Somewhere in the back of their minds might have resided a hope that the resources needed for Germany to deliver actually exist somewhere, in the basement of the Bundesbank perhaps, and that with skilful negotiating and more political-moral pressure they might eventually be extracted. But apart from this they seemed happy enough to behold Merkel’s virtuoso performance as a Ponzi artist of political desire, an issuer of fiat trust if not fiat money, mistress of postponed debt settlement and unmatched champion of the discipline, essential in times of fiscal overstretch, of political imposture – a discipline that they themselves, faced with their own crises of underfunded statehood under global capitalism, must master day by day.

Will Laschet, Scholz or Baerbock be able to keep the magic alive, to follow Merkel’s act when Germany’s European periphery need another deferral of payment, another extension of cheap credit – for example, when the interest on their national debt rises despite the best efforts of the European Central Bank? In the 2021 summer of discontent, this seems doubtful indeed.  

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘The Crises of Democratic Capitalism’, NLR 71.


Entrepreneurs in Uniform

It owns facilities that manufacture cement, steel, vehicles (passenger cars, subway cars, rail wagons and tractors), agrochemicals (especially fertilizers), and energy (petroleum retail). It has companies working in public construction (including desalination plants), mining, logistics, and retail. Its factories produce pharmaceuticals, processed foods, home appliances, kitchenware, computers and optical equipment. It reclaimed hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land and constructed bridges, hotels with lucrative special event venues, seaside resorts with luxury summerhouses, apartment complexes and lavish villas. It runs petrol stations, shipping firms, domestic-cleaning companies, and parking lots. It was allocated thousands of miles of land by the state to construct toll highways and collect usage fees.

To whom does this economic empire belong? The answer is the Egyptian army. This list of assets is taken from an interesting report published last year by the Carnegie Foundation. (The army’s ventures aren’t always prudent: in 2018, as the Financial Times reported, it opened a $1.18 billion cement factory that led to domestic overproduction, causing prices to collapse.)

Every country has an army, but in Egypt it is the army that has the country, as per Ayesha Siddiqa’s useful formula, elaborated in her pioneering study of Pakistan, Military Inc. (2007). By this, I’m not simply referring to a society controlled by its armed forces, which exists in various forms in countries from Nigeria to Brazil. Neither am I concerned at present with so-called ‘praetorian states’ – not to be confused with military regimes, for praetorianism can exist alongside an electoral system, its hallmark the number of ex-generals occupying public office as in Algeria and Israel, or in various African and Central American countries. Nor am I referring to the ‘military-industrial complex’ that exists in many Western states, from the USA and France to the UK, where the armed forces create substantial demand from buying weapons and technology, fulfilled by private industry, with connection between the two parties ensured by the ‘revolving door’, or in the more suggestive turn of phrase employed in France, through a pantouflage: the investiture of civilian ‘slippers’ to high-ranking officials who, once retired, enjoy the comforts of a boardroom seat.

Instead, I’m talking about those countries whose economy is dominated by the military, whose most powerful entrepreneurs are dressed in uniform. Where can these be found? The People’s Liberation Army played a significant role in the Chinese economy up until the 1990s, but after a series of anti-corruption trials, purges of high-ranking cadres and legal reforms the Chinese Communist Party regained control. In Russia, military influence is certainly expanding. According to a report by Transparency International, its army ‘is involved in many sectors of the economy, ranging from transportation to healthcare’ and has recently expanded into ‘the sale of surplus weapons, and insurance and marketing’. There however, the Soviet legacy of the Party’s supremacy over the armed forces – dating back to the Stalinist purges of Tukhachevsky’s Red Army in 1937 – remains significant.

With the notable exception of Thailand, the particular social arrangement where ‘Military, Inc.’ comes to dominate in fact tends to be found in Muslim countries: Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran (without considering Indonesia, which would require a historical digression). What is curious is that this military mercantilism has little to do with religious dispensation. In Egypt the army presents itself as a secular bulwark against Islamist militancy (recall Sisi’s massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members in 2013), whilst in Turkey it is indelibly marked by the laicist inheritance of Kemalism. In Iran the entrepreneurial army was a by-product of political Islam, whilst in Pakistan it was the military itself that oversaw an Islamist turn in the state under the dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (who ultimately executed the secularist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979).

The case of Pakistan is the best documented, thanks in large part to Siddiqa’s research. Its military possesses 12% of the country’s arable land, much of it in the most fertile and productive areas of Punjab and Sindh. Business operations are conducted through five ‘charitable’ foundations: the Fauji Foundation (run by the Ministry of Defence), Army Welfare Trust (Pakistan Army), Shaheen Foundation (Air Force), Bahria Foundation (Navy), and the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Foundation (also Ministry of Defence). Together Fauji, Shaheeh and Bahria control more than 100 separate commercial entities, from fertilizer factories to bakeries, petrol stations, banks, cement plants, hosiery factories, milk dairies, golf courses, and, in recent years, TV channels. A recent article by Eliot Wilson notes that

The Fauji foundation operates a security force (allowing serving army personnel to double in their spare time as private security agents), an oil terminal and a phosphate joint venture with the Moroccan government. Elsewhere, the Army Welfare Trust runs one of the country’s largest lenders, Askari Commercial Bank, along with an airline, a travel agency and even a stud farm. Then there is the National Logistic Cell, Pakistan’s largest shipper and freight transporter (and the country’s largest corporation), which builds roads, constructs bridges and stores vast quantities of the country’s wheat reserves … In short, the military’s presence is all-pervasive. Bread is supplied by military-owned bakeries, fronted by civilians. Army-controlled banks take deposits and disburse loans. Up to one third of all heavy manufacturing and 7 per cent of private assets are reckoned to be in army hands.

Foundations play an equally prominent role in Iran, where the Revolutionary Guards manage around a third of the economy, from energy to infrastructure, finance to the automotive industry. These include the Mostazafan Foundation of Islamic Revolution, jointly controlled with the government. Its largest subsidiary, the Agricultural and Food Industries Organization, owns more than 115 companies. The holding company Khatam al-Anbia (Seal of the Prophets), meanwhile, controls more than 812 registered companies, and has been responsible for a vast array of construction projects in the country, including, according to a recent RAND report, ‘dams; water diversion systems; highways; buildings; heavy-duty structures; offshore construction; water supply systems; and water, gas, and oil main pipelines.’ To this we should add university and military research centres, construction of a new line of Tehran’s metro system as well as a high-speed rail link between Tehran and Isfahan. Since 2009, Khatam al-Anbia has also controlled the leading shipbuilder in the country, the Marine Industrial Company (SADRA), and the shipyards at Bushehr, which specialise in the construction of freighters and oil tankers.

This is all without considering the black market. The Revolutionary Guards control a large part of the contraband that enters Iran, bypassing Western sanctions which, paradoxically, have actually increased their wealth, influence and popularity. The last presidential elections can be read as the revenge of the Guards against a wing of the clergy that had sought to reduce their influence. Not only were the charitable foundations asked to pay taxes during Rohani’s presidency, but the police conducted a series of high-profile arrests of prominent figures in the organisation, accused of corruption and unlawful enrichment. Woe betide any reformist clerics.

Perhaps the most interesting case of all is Turkey, where for two decades Erdoğan has sought to rein in the army. The positive consensus during the first years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) time in government was in part due to the relief many felt at the thought of finally being rid of the yoke of the generals, who have been the principal tyrannical political actors since the foundation of the Republic in 1923. The violent repression that followed the opaque coup of 2016 provoked less hostility than was predicted precisely because those disproportionately targeted were army officials.

And yet the Turkish military’s economic empire remains intact. How so? The pillar of this empire is the army’s pension fund, OYAK, which, as Metin Gurcan writes in Al-Monitor:

all officers and non-commissioned officers of the Turkish military are obliged to join. About 10% of the monthly salaries of 250,000 OYAK members are automatically deducted as contributions to the fund, generating a monthly cash flow of around $35 million…OYAK is a major player with multibillion-dollar investments in sectors such as iron, steel and cement manufacturing, car making, construction, mining, energy, finance, chemicals, logistics services and seaport management. In some fields it has even grown into a dominant force. OYAK enterprises contribute 25% of Turkey’s industrial steel production and control 20% of the car-making industry in the country. Standing out among them are the iron and steel factories in Eregli and Iskenderun and the Renault OYAK plants in Bursa. The fund’s cement plants also make a significant contribution to the national economy. More than 32,000 people are employed in OYAK’s 60 companies, which operate in 21 countries.

A question arises: why hasn’t Erdoğan succeeded in dismantling this bastion of military hegemony in Turkey? Because being the able politician that he is, Erdoğan has proceeded obliquely, by encircling and infiltrating. He has bolstered the assets of the police, often at the expense of the army, and through various measures greatly weakened a pillar of the army’s economic power – its land holdings. The armed forces historically possessed large swathes of territory, often in areas primed for property speculation, such as military bases on the outskirts of the big cities. Construction and property speculation have been the two (now very much sputtering) motors of the ‘Turkish economic miracle’; it can’t have displeased the AKP that this growth occurred at the expense of the military estate. Following the attempted coup, Erdoğan then appointed himself a member and president of the board of TSKGV (Foundation for the Strengthening of the Turkish Armed Forces), which controls the production of armaments and military research.

But the truth is that given Erdoğan’s military adventures in Kurdistan, Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan, he needs the army more than ever, and so can’t risk undermining its loyalty. This is so even before acknowledging that in the current economic climate he cannot possibly afford to go after OYAK, which would be akin to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

This brief survey of ‘Military, Inc.’ however leaves a basic issue unresolved in three of the four countries in question (Iran is a case apart). How does the entrepreneurial army coexist not only within the religious climate that characterises these states, but also with neoliberal orthodoxy? It was easier for the army to present itself as an engine of development when privatisation wasn’t in vogue. But now? Curiously, the three armies in question have in fact benefitted from the neoliberal wave, as they and their foundations have bought up industries abandoned by the state in the name of liberalisation. OYAK, for instance, acquired the steel-producing giant Erdemir for $2.77 billion in 2005.

What this demonstrates is that for neoliberalism, privatisation serves a purely rhetorical function, ready to be disavowed if no longer convenient. Neoliberalism and the military have a long and intimate history (think only of its origins on a national scale with Pinochet’s military coup and the regime he established as per instruction from Friedman and Hayek). The hand of the market is invisible but what Adam Smith failed to tell us – and the Chicago School revealed – is that it also comes armed with an assault rifle.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads’, NLR 127.


Private Transportations

Ghédalia Tazartès, collector of glass figurines, surrealist of sound and lifelong Parisian, sang in a private language and recorded his albums in a small atelier in the 11th Arrondissement, many in the company of domesticated pigeons. He often said that his life as a musician began at the age of twelve, when his grandmother died. The story goes that Tazartès went into the woods, dug a hole, and then sang so loudly that the ducks on the lake began to shake. He and his music continued in this vein until his death in February at the age of 73, after years of fighting both lung and liver cancer.

Depending on when you asked him, Tazartès said that his instrument was his voice, the tape deck, or a microphone. His first album, Diasporas, was released in 1979 on the Cobalt label founded by Philippe Conrath, a journalist with Libération. ‘My wife worked with him at Phydor, a biscuit factory’, Conrath told me. ‘He would sing while he was loading the cookies onto a truck. I knew he was singing something very, very, very, very strange’. As with everything he did for Cobalt, Tazartès recorded the music at home on a Revox reel-to-reel and delivered a complete album to Conrath. It begins in media res, Tazartès ululating in benevolent code, the tape collage making a dirty trampoline for his voice. The eleven tracks sound as if Tazartès had spent years watching cities from a train, landed in prison, and then decided to create a guidebook from memory, screaming about each city, one after the other, from his cell.

His second album, Tazartès Transports (1980), took this sound further. He collaborated with Jean-Pierre Lentin, editor of the counter-cultural magazine Actuel, who wrote a series of fake ethnographic texts describing the music of invented regions. ‘Each track had a particular function, to chase away birds for hunters, or something’, Tazartès explained. This gives the impression that the record might resemble something like CAN’s ‘Ethnological Forgery Series’, a collection of songs that does live up to that name. But, despite the origin story, Tazartès Transports does not sound like the music of another country. The album comes across as exactly what it is: a sui generis performer with no musical training, improvising on a Moog synthesizer and pushing the world in his head out through his mouth.

When Tazartès uses a language we recognise, it feels like a clue. On the first Tazartès Transports track (numbered but not named), he sings in French with his throat constricted. It is squeaky, as if the tape has been sped up slightly, his voice put over a timid synthetic rhythm. Translated into English, his plea ends like this: ‘It’s no small matter to give birth to lots of little cockroaches / Who will go about their business and won’t be cited in history / At least they won’t have fought any wars, it would be cruel to resent them for it’. This music seems like it might have fallen, after some half-hearted redacting, out of a bureaucratic satchel, a samizdat manifesto with an audience of zero.

Tazartès’s labels sometimes felt like this about his commercial potential. My favourite of his albums, une éclipse totale de soleil, came out in 1983 on Cobalt. It has not softened over time. Singing and tape edits create an immersive bad trip over the course of two very long tracks, birdsong and rhythmic pips jump cutting to fried pulses and vorpal growls. The topic and mood are so impossible to determine that one can only listen, obediently, hoping to answer the only real Tazartès question: What is this? Cobalt’s American distributor, Celluloid, did not care what it was, and refused to put out the record unless Tazartès waived his fee.

When I found une éclipse in 1987, I was entranced. I assumed ‘Ghédalia Tazartès’ must be the name of a collective. The only image on the sleeve was of a smiling toddler sitting next to a boat. (It’s a photo of Raphaël Glucksmann, now a member of the European Parliament.) My first thought was that the Tazartès Collective had kidnapped the baby as some kind of anti-imperialist gesture. That this is as far from Tazartès’s character as possible does not negate the fact that the music was intense enough to suggest a kidnapping was not out of the question.

On the basis of these first three albums alone, Tazartès deserves a comfortably elevated place among the sound artists of the 20th century. Like Meredith Monk and David Hammons, Tazartès was a hybrid artist living at the world. In the same way that Monk is a dancer equally skilled as a composer, and Hammons makes beautiful objects while questioning the need for objects, Tazartès was a spontaneous musician with a fine compositional sense, who made furious and compact recordings that give lie to the assumption that improvisers are experimenting rather than stating.

He was born in Paris in May of 1947 and got his first name from his grandfather, ‘born in the Ottoman Empire’, in Tazartès’s words. More specifically, he was from Salonika in Greece, a city which Tazartès said ‘was almost entirely Jewish, 80%, like Warsaw at one time’. After moving to Istanbul and having children, Tazartès’s grandfather relocated to Paris in the early Thirties, apparently for medical treatment. In 1933, at the age of fourteen, Tazartès’s father started working to help support the family. He was imprisoned at Auschwitz during the war but survived and returned to Paris where he worked in various shops. Using the stage name Betty Riche, Tazartès’s mother sang in clubs briefly, before leaving the stage to work with her husband in a clothing shop.

His family’s path has led to Tazartès being described as an inherently diasporic figure, a characterization that the music supports. But it isn’t quite accurate. ‘I am really French, despite my name as a Salonician Jew’, Tazartès said. ‘It bothers me a little when they say that I am something other than French because it is not true. I do not like lying very much, it is useless – it is not my style’.

Tazartès was not only a Parisian but someone whose life revolved mostly around three places: a bar called the Baron Rouge, a flea market called Marché d’Aligre where he found most of his clothes and glass gewgaws, and his beloved atelier, the loft on the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine that he found in 1968.When the building started selling off apartments in the early Seventies, Tazartès was strapped, so his friend, André Glucksmann – philosopher and father of Raphaël – bought the atelier for him. He lived there, at least part of the time, for the last fifty years. ‘I have some kind of superstition about this place’, he told The Wire in 2008. ‘Without it, I don’t know if I am a musician’.

Tazartès fell in love with Beethoven and jazz as a teen but was unable to stick with either piano or saxophone. Though he never travelled in any specific musical cohort, his ex-wife, Nathalie Richard, recalled that he was a devoted fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. Around the events of May 1968, Tazartès decided that he was a revolutionary and, in his words, ‘a bigmouth’. After working in the Phydor and General Motors plants, Tazartès started attending lectures at the Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis. As his daughter, Elie, described him, Tazartès was very much ‘in the present’ and participated in May ‘68 largely because that was the most intense present available. In the early Seventies, he became, briefly, the singer of a rock band but the arrangement ended when he was asked to sing in English. Tazartès refused and walked away, permanently, from normative music, deciding to observe his own militancy of sound.

In l’atelier, as everyone called it, Tazartès began experimenting with a tape deck and a microphone, creating collages he called ‘impromuz’, sharing the results with a few close friends. One of these tapes reached Michel Chion, a composer of musique concrete – a style of composition that builds from recorded sounds rather than performances – with whom friends thought Tazartès shared some commonalities.

In 1976, Chion invited Tazartès to play a concert at the INA-GRM institute, musique concrete’s high church. The event, though, earned him an instant enemy in GRM chief François Bayle, who allegedly asked his colleagues during the show, ‘How can you all listen to this shit?’ This resentment aside, his entry into the public went well enough that Tazartès found the confidence to make a go of it with Conrath and Cobalt. Chion is actually part of Diasporas, heard on a fairly traditional track that isn’t representative of either artist’s general style. On ‘Casimodo Tango’, Chion plays both piano and toy piano while Tazartès croons the part of Quasimodo, singing in French about a leap from the top of Notre Dame and his love for Paris. According to Tazartès, he improvised the lyrics while riding his motorcycle around Notre Dame. According to Chion, it was played on the FIP radio station in Paris.

This was the closest Tazartès ever came to a hit. What little income he earned came not from records or live shows, but from the work he did with dancers and theatre directors. François Verret was one of the first dance artists Tazartès worked with, and their first collaboration in 1978 was an accompaniment for a routine which Verret performed with his ‘face plastered in clay, in a dress made of rags’. (Though they never discussed it, Verret said he made the piece while thinking of refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge by sea.) For the rest of his career, dance and theatre kept Tazartès afloat, including some fairly mainstream work with Philippe Adrien at the Comédie Française.

Richard gave birth to their daughter, Elie, in 1985, and Tazartès began splitting his time between the atelier and their nearby apartment. He slowed his recorded output and didn’t release anything for seven years after his 1990 album, Check Point Charlie. At home, with Elie, he created a language called ‘jhama’, a variation of the dialect he used for singing. ‘It’s a kind of emotional conversation’, Elie told me. ‘It relates to his family’, Richard said, ‘because the grandmother, she was talking Greek, and the parents were Ladino, and then they never talked in Ladino with Ghédalia, so he invented his own language.’

Tazartès had moved away from dance and was working more in theatre. ‘After 12 years working with modern dance, I felt there was nothing more to say with it’, he said. ‘I was interested in theatre, because there, you have text and you can discuss the subject with the director’. He came back to recordings in 1997 when a musician named David Fenech asked him to make an album for his new label, Demosaurus, created for the occasion. ‘He gave me three C90 tapes from which I picked a coherent set of tracks’, Fenech told me. These selections became the album Voyage à l’Ombre (1997).

As Fenech pointed out, the cassettes Tazartès gave him also contained tracks that showed up on later albums like Granny Awards (get it?) and Repas Froid (another joke). This cassette was drawn from the recordings Tazartès made over the years in his atelier, a collection only now being sifted through. In the last two decades of recordings, Tazartès was moving closer to a kind of universal melody, though without attempting to be more accessible. The jump cuts and dirty sounds had been abandoned and a new kind of approach was taking hold. Tazartès began sticking to a single mode for the length of the track without interruption, even if it was just an unidentified opera singer and Tazartès gargling above a rumbly synth pattern. Tazartès started playing bandoneon more and working with Tibetan bowls to create his drones. He began, essentially, trusting his own sound and interfering with it less.

In the 21st century, Tazartès returned to live performing, reaching New York once to play FUUB in 2016, Cafe Oto in London that same year. Though he never quite cottoned on to computers and went to an iPad only to return emails, Tazartès upgraded his equipment, moving to a sampler which he loaded with pre-recorded sound libraries. From here, he would burn CDRs of his creations. On the 2010 album, Ante-Mortem, Tazartès has become the ghost of his own machine, singing over stock string sounds, much clearer but also more uncanny than in his 1970s recordings. On ‘Seize’, he sounds as he often did, like a court jester larking about over some kind of cheap organ sound. On ‘Dix-Sept’, he seems to be chanting over a destroyed guitar drone, his two voices sounding like lost plainchant. How firmly he avoids anything identifiable begins to support his claim that he was a sound painter, and maybe not even a musician, a term he found pretentious.

Over his life, Tazartès created a small network that understood his thinking. At the Baron Rouge, he met an employee named Quentin Rollet who became a collaborator and ended up releasing some of his records. Together with Jerome Lorichon, Rollet and Tazartès played an improvised set at Église Saint-Merry in 2019, the recording of which has just now been released as La Chute de L’Ange. Tazartès played Tibetan bowl and small bells, Lorichon a Buchla synthesizer, electronic effects and a trumpet, Rollet alto and sopranino saxes. The concert proves that Tazartès was something he rarely described himself as – an improviser, though he often called his music ‘spontaneous’. The three musicians build a mesmerizing and dead serious meditation. For someone who always seemed to be playing a cosmic prank on the world, this recording demonstrates his sensitivity and how fully he could blend his work into that of others.

As his catalogue of unreleased recordings reaches the public in the coming years, comic and spiritual sides will hopefully receive equal attention. His tendencies towards the vulgar ensured that the musique concrète hardliners would never accept him. (For the 2015 album, La Bar Mitzvah du Chien, Tazartès demanded that Rollet appear naked, on all fours, for the album cover.) What remains is a lifeforce that shreds any container.

He was accompanied in his final days by his partner, Dominique Abensour, and his friend Goury Deco, a set designer. ‘The last music he made me listen to, a few days before he died, was a montage around a text by Artaud, pure Ghédalia, sensitive and angry’, Deco wrote to me. ‘Ten minutes non-stop of an acidic and guttural text, almost without taking a breath. I asked, “How did you do that, in multiple takes? We can’t hear you breathing!”’

‘“No,” he replied. “Just like that all at once, here, in one evening. Afterwards, I thought I had to do it again a few times, to get a handle on it, but no! The first take was the best.”’

Special thanks to Meerabelle Jesuthasan for the translations.

Read on: Eric Hazan, ‘Faces of Paris’, NLR 62.


Continuity UK

As Britain attempts to normalise from the pandemic, the country’s politics is settling into familiar grooves. The hardline Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced measures to offshore the asylum system, while Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a former Scots Guard and aerospace contractor, celebrated the first British and American sorties to launch from the decks of the nation’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, against scattered ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria – a return to maritime strike operations for the Royal Navy after a ten-year hiatus, Gaddafi’s Libya its last target.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer, who voted against RAF airstrikes in Syria in 2015 because he wanted a ground invasion to accompany them (‘I am not against airstrikes per se’), has been bolstered by a narrow byelection hold in Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire. ‘Labour is coming home’, he declared. The party appears to have benefited from a late shift in opinion in Conservative-leaning mill villages after news of a ministerial tryst at the Department of Health brought charges of Tory hypocrisy over social-distancing regulations.

Whether society is as pacified as the current Westminster scene would suggest, beyond party-political disagreements over the schedule for final lockdown easing, is another question. The Conservatives lost the safe Home Counties seat of Chesham and Amersham on 17 June on a huge swing to the Liberal Democrats, having earlier taken Hartlepool from Labour by a similar magnitude. But see-saw byelection results aren’t necessarily destabilising in the aggregate.

‘Are provincial gains for the long-term? Probably. Can the party hold on to at least most of the affluent South? Definitely’, argues James Frayne, an associate of the Prime Minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings, writing in the Telegraph. He urges Johnson to hold his nerve and persist with the Vote Leave-derived electoral pivot to working-class voters in the Midlands and the North, although they should dial down the rhetoric – ‘provincial voters doubt “levelling up” could ever happen; affluent Southern voters think they will be fleeced to pay for revolution’.

In The Times, columnist Rachel Sylvester describes a Cabinet tussle between levellers-up and libertarians, the latter identified by their co-sponsorship of a Cameron-era neo-Thatcherite screed, Britannia Unchained (2012), which among other things had urged the Party to ‘stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the North and the South, women and men’. Backbench MPs at the time, they have since risen through the ranks: Patel at the Home Office, Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss at the Board of Trade, Kwasi Kwarteng at the Department for Business.

To complicate matters, Truss is singled out for criticism by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times as one of the ministers seeking to wrest control of competition decisions and trade disputes from the arms-length regulators to which they were hitherto entrusted. Shrimsley decries ‘a new creed of unchained Tory interventionism’ spreading out from Number 10 and he urges more orthodox ministers – presumably, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid, both former investment bankers – to reassert the importance of parameters and self-discipline.

How much Conservative dirigisme will outlast the pandemic emergency? It’s true that Brexit has given ministers a sense of greater latitude on regulation and policy. They have ‘lost the excuse that EU rules prevent action’, Shrimsley despairs. (Two of Thatcher’s chancellors, Nigel Lawson and John Major, had supported the idea of shadowing the deutschmark through the European Exchange Rate Mechanism precisely in search of what the Italians used to call a vincolo esterno). At the same time, however, with Cummings departed from Downing Street, Johnson is the only ‘leveller-up’ that Sylvester can locate on the premises, and it’s often overlooked how much ordinary Thatcherism there is in the Prime Minister’s belief system.

While trailing in the polls last autumn, Johnson generated headlines with a conference speech over Zoom conjuring a New Jerusalem on England’s Covid-splattered shores, invoking the spirit of Second World War state-welfare reformism. But as he made clear to the Party faithful, this time around it would be powered by free enterprise. A subsequent ‘Plan for Growth’ published with the March Budget was a damp squib, retailing discretionary competitive funding pots for infrastructure and skills projects to turn local areas into ‘hives of entrepreneurialism’. A £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund, already in operation, has been converted into a useful pork barrel to divert funds into Tory constituencies. Local authorities are left asking Whitehall for favours, a former official within the Northern Powerhouse unit complains to the FT.

Over at Business, Kwarteng, a former JP Morgan analyst, has scrapped Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy Council and published a Subsidy Control Bill expressly prohibiting subventions that require enterprises to relocate their activities from one part of the UK to another, as post-war regional policy used to do. The Economist observes that measures to boost advanced sectors such as life sciences are likelier to increase regional disparities than to ease them, since ‘turning Britain into a scientific superpower, for example, would be best done by focusing development on the already crowded and wealthy golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge’.

In the real economy, meanwhile – that is, the part of the economy that really matters – Sunak has published the outlines of a new rulebook for financial services, easing the Mifid II regulations inherited from Brussels in order to attract share trading and listings, and to retool the City’s competitive advantage after the loss of EU passporting rights. At the Bank of England, Governor Andrew Bailey tells a parliamentary committee that there are no ‘natural limits’ to a programme of quantitative easing now in its twelfth year and running close to £1 trillion. Indeed he is ‘not in a position at all to promise’ that it can be unwound to any degree.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey two-thirds of people in both England and Scotland say that the current income distribution – further skewed by the QE stimulus to asset prices – is unfair, and that society needs to change. How to ease neoliberalism’s continued passage against this amount of passive resistance?

Well in advance of the pandemic, the National Health Service had become ideologically amplified in the national culture as a social-democratic companion to a revived monarchy and Army – fixtures of public life untainted by popular animus towards Westminster. Charities supporting veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq were doing a roaring trade until the pandemic disrupted the flow of street donations. Last week, the Palace awarded the NHS the George Cross, home-front counterpart to the Victoria Cross historically awarded to the gallants of colonial conquest. The NHS is the first collective subject to be so garlanded since the viciously sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary for its service in the Troubles.

Clap for Carers, Help for Heroes, QE for asset holders. It didn’t need a football tournament to keep this long-running show on the road for a while yet.  

Read on: Anthony Barnett, ‘Iron Britannia’, NLR I/134.


The War They Call Peace

As of 9 July 2021, ten years after independence, South Sudan lies in ruins. A civil war that began in 2013 has razed many of the country’s cities, displaced millions, and left entire regions at the edge of starvation. A peace deal, signed in September 2018, only succeeded in returning the main belligerent parties to Juba, the country’s capital. From their perches in a transitional government, the commanders who waged the last civil war continue to clash across the country. What a difference a name makes. Hostilities are now depoliticized as disarmament campaigns or else dismissed as ethnic violence by the billion-dollar UN mission. The UN is keen to cling onto a narrative that sees the peace agreement as a success, despite the fact that its own agencies have found that the level of violence in the country has increased since 2018. It insists that there has been a reduction in ‘political violence’, points to regrettable inter-ethnic conflicts, and suggests that it is the government’s responsibility to police them. Whenever researchers point out the involvement of national politicians in the supposedly local violence scarring South Sudan, the UN plays a credible Captain Renault at Rick’s, announces its shock, and redoubles its support for the government.

This was not the plan. A decade earlier, on 9 July 2011, dignitaries visited Juba to congratulate themselves on the creation of the world’s newest state. This despite the fact that South Sudan’s new ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), had fought a twenty-two-year-long civil war against the Sudanese government in Khartoum, and that it was the southern Sudanese who had voted to secede from their northern neighbour. For the Americans, British, and Norwegians involved in the peace agreement that ended the civil war, South Sudan was their baby. A World Bank report written shortly before independence brought these neonatal fantasies to their colonial apotheosis, hailing South Sudan as a tabula rasa. There are no roads, no markets, and no institutions, the report stated, and, as the consultants’ eyes gleamed, added: they will need to be created. For the internationals who thronged through Juba’s airport, eager to build a new nation, that South Sudan was terra nullius obviated any need to learn something about the country. Cookie-cutter approaches to statehood and simplistic tales about a victimized Christian south, now free of the yoke of the northern Islamic oppressor, were more functional than a real understanding of the region’s history. A state needed to be built, consequences be damned.

The SPLM’s leadership profited from international ignorance. An enduring aspect of the SPLM’s story is its ability to turn the – often simplistic, if not simply racist – tales outsiders tell about southern Sudan to its own ends. It is equally adept at manufacturing stories destined for external consumption. The SPLM’s first leader, John Garang, was a master in this regard. A charismatic politician with a PhD from Iowa State, Garang started the SPLM in 1983 with a plea for revolution in Khartoum. (Southern independence, diplomatically a lower-hanging fruit, emerged as a goal in part thanks to American pressure.) The incoherence of Garang’s later statements was not the result of insufficient hours in the library, but an appreciation of discordance as a diplomatic tool of the trade. Rebel movements in Sudan have always been reliant on manipulating external supporters. Garang could appear Marxist to the SPLM’s Ethiopian backers and then, following tectonic regional shifts and the collapse of the Derg regime in Addis Ababa, miraculously become the paragon of national self-determination that his American cheerleaders wished him to be. He died in a helicopter crash just after America forced Khartoum to sign a peace agreement in 2005. Amid the disasters of the Middle East, this was to be an easy American foreign policy win. The agreement guaranteed southern Sudan six years of self-rule and a referendum on secession in 2011. Salva Kiir, Garang’s successor, inherited none of his charisma, but all of his ability to manipulate self-regarding foreigners. From 2005–11, as oil revenues and donor funds flowed into the south, Kiir cultivated adoring foreign state-builders, eager to see their dreams of a new nation-state play out. He got into the act himself shortly after independence. South Sudan, he claimed: it’s a tabula rasa!

It wasn’t, of course. Britain took thirty years to pacify southern Sudan, principally via indirect rule, as it classified the region’s many groups according to ethnicity, while setting them against each other. At independence in 1956, northern Sudan, more urbanized, and putatively Arab, was ready to continue British policies, and use the south as a backyard from which resources and labour could be extracted. Sudan’s first civil war (1955–72) had begun the year before independence, pitting the northern elite against the marginalized peripheries of the country. The war ended with socialist dreams of development in the south, aspirations that died when the financial crises of the 1970s hit Sudan, and Khartoum collapsed under its debt burden. The second civil war (1983–2005) began soon after. According to the just-so stories pedalled at South Sudanese independence, the war pitted the northern Sudanese state against rebel groups in the south. In reality, the north borrowed a trick from the British, and set southern populations against each other in violent ethnicized conflicts. For Khartoum, this was war on the cheap. Oil had been discovered in southern Sudan in the late 70s, and the north sponsored militia forces under the command of Paulino Matip to fight the SPLM and clear populations from around the oil wells. Elsewhere, multiple militia groups emerged, frequently changing sides, as they manipulated the winds of regional favour. From the outside, this looked like an intense case of divide-and-rule, the north setting southern groups against each other. Inside southern Sudan, if it’s true that Khartoum manipulated southern commanders, those same commanders also used regional support to build up their own personal empires, transforming the social structure of the region.

Whether commanders were cadres from South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, loyal to the SPLA (the militarized wing of the SPLM), or members of Matip’s militias, largely drawn from the Nuer, the second largest ethnic group in the country, they used weapons from external backers to manipulate humanitarian aid, control cattle and grain markets, and position themselves atop a war economy. Endowed with weapons, they predated on local populations, enriching themselves at the cost of South Sudan’s farmers and pastoralists. Geopolitically dependent on external forces, fighting against each other, these commanders were nonetheless engaged in a process of class formation. It was this militarized class that took over the southern Sudanese state in 2005.

Once the second civil war came to an end, humanitarian supplies were supplemented by more lucrative sources of income. Oil revenues and donor funds went into the pockets of commanders who built a rentier economy predicated on the redistribution of external income to armed supporters. Superficially, a modern, liberal state was being created under the watchful eye of the Adam Smith Institute. Sub mensa, the project of class formation that had begun during the war continued apace. Commanders displaced hostile populations, rewarded loyal constituencies with NGO development projects, and attacked opponents under the guise of disarmament and demobilization campaigns. If in Juba the international community dined out on imported wine and mozzarella in restaurants next to the Nile, in the rest of the country, the civil war continued.

It wasn’t just that the UN and the diplomatic corps were wilfully blind to the travails of the country outside the capital; the very form of the peace deal signed in 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), encouraged this process of class formation. The CPA was a bilateral framework between two belligerent parties: the SPLM and the Sudanese government, and excluded all the militias who had fought against the southern rebel movement. It ignored the fact that for much of southern Sudan, the SPLM was an occupying army. The agreement left no space for political discussion and was designed to move along in a strictly technocratic fashion. This left the problem of all the militia groups around the country. Kiir took a leaf from Khartoum’s playbook and decided to buy them off.

In 2006, the Juba Declaration brought Matip’s militias – amongst many others – into the SPLA, rewarding ephemeral loyalty with petrodollars, and setting in motion a system in which commanders leveraged potential violence into lucrative payoffs. Commanders began to stage rebellions and demand better positions as the price for their reabsorption into the army. The SPLA’s ranks swelled with ghost soldiers, invented so commanders could augment their salaries. Soon, almost the entire state budget was directed to feeding the war machine. None of this was acknowledged by the intentional community. Formally, the South Sudanese state was being built and the army reformed. Millions were spent on fantastical security-sector reforms, dutifully superintended by international consultants, but meaningless outside the air-conditioned offices of the capital. If military reform was a charade, it was dreamt up in London and D.C., and made money for commanders and consultants alike.

Across the country, an increasingly zero-sum politics took hold. Commanders and politicians made ethnicized appeals to their constituencies, setting communities against each other. The state existed on paper, a thin veneer of legitimacy given by the international community to a predatory elite. Most commentators place the end of this bonanza in 2012, when in a stand-off over oil transit fees with Sudan (the only pipeline in the south runs north), the SPLM turned off the oil, activating what Alex de Waal called a ‘doomsday machine’. Without the money to grease the wheels of the commanders’ impressive 4x4s, de Waal held, civil war was imminent. The system would have imploded regardless. Kiir and his clique of largely Dinka politicians could not have indefinitely afforded to stave off war by continuously increasing rentier payments to commanders, especially given the collapse in global oil prices that would follow in 2014. Alarmed by the numerical dominance of Matip’s Nuer forces in the SPLA, Kiir’s clique had begun building up mono-ethnic militias from amongst their home constituencies, recruited outside the ambit of the army. The development of these private militias was simply a reflection of what the army had become: a collection of commanders bound together only by the common project of enrichment.

By June 2013, facing an increasingly austere financial situation, Kiir had dismissed both Riek Machar, his Nuer vice-president, and his cabinet, and it was clear to everyone except the diplomatic corps that war was on the horizon. Fighting within the presidential guard in December 2013 was the spark that set the country aflame. On one side: Kiir, his militias, and what remained of the oil revenue. On the other: Machar and virtually all of the Nuer commanders brought into the SPLA in 2006. It could have been the second civil war, redux, except a regional realignment had occurred. Museveni’s Uganda backed Kiir’s ruling clique and sent troops to stop the nascent rebel force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO), reaching Juba. Khartoum shifted sides. Kiir had pushed out most of the so-called ‘Garang boys’, loyal to the dream of a revolution in Khartoum, and replaced them with southern politicians who had served the northern enemy and more amenable to a settlement with Sudan based on shared economic interests in oil and mining. Without an external backer, the SPLA-IO was soon outgunned. One leading rebel general, Gathoth Gatkuoth, now comfortably ensconced in the government, told a UN investigator that he would happily convert to Islam, if only Khartoum would offer him resupply.

The SPLM was always going to win the war. For Kiir’s clique, the conflict was an opportunity to consolidate control of the country. The war continued the process of class formation, rather than interrupting it. Two modes, one substance. From 2005-13, the government had used county-border redistricting to force opponents from their land. When the war began, the government completed the process, carrying out the wholesale ethnic cleansing of opposition populations. The de facto displacements of the war would then be made the object of de jure legal judgments, following the latest peace agreement, sanctifying the land grabs. In some of the country, displaced populations would then be sent back to work the land they had once possessed, this time as wage labourers. To add insult to injury, the food so produced is sometimes purchased from the elite by donor governments, to be distributed to the displaced as food aid. The great untold story of the South Sudanese civil war is that it has been a massive wealth transfer from an immiserated population to a militarized elite, enabled by the international community.

The only people to not see these continuities are the UN and the diplomatic corps, for whom the civil war came as a shock. Seen dimly from behind the international veil of spreadsheets and guarded compounds, the war was not part of their implementation matrix. There was a timetable for state-building, and war rent it asunder. To repair this hole in the web of time, an army was dispatched from what Séverine Autesserre calls ‘Peaceland’. The courtiers of Peaceland are diplomatic corps, international experts in security-sector reform, and the UN. Soon there were innumerable meetings in expensive hotels in Addis Ababa, many a failed ceasefire, and two peace agreements. The formalized technocratic process of these agreements was as wilfully blind to the real political economy of South Sudan as the state-building process, and was instrumentalized just as easily.

By 2018, the SPLA had won a consummate military victory. The second peace agreement – the one apparently now holding – was effectively a negotiated surrender. Machar slunk back to the capital, dependent on crumbs from Kiir’s table. The security-sector reform process currently underway as part of the agreement is a giant pyramid scheme, in which commanders recruit troops with the promise of wages and ranks, just like it was in the good old days after 2005. No such bonanza is forthcoming. The government is keen not to repeat the Juba Declaration and bring Nuer troops back into the army. In any event, the major military power in the country is now a series of mono-ethnic security services directly controlled by Kiir’s clique. The largest of them, the National Security Service, modelled on Khartoum’s secret police, just had its salary paid via a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

In Juba, the elite has formed a transitional government. The class war continues, this time under conditions of austerity. South Sudan’s greatly reduced oil production has already been pre-sold to Emirati and Qatari banks, and in the place of petrodollars, Kiir’s regime dispenses licenses to commanders and politicians jockeying for position. Their income is derived from land, minerals, taxes, and manipulating humanitarian NGOs. One commander I know makes a good income creating prêt-a-porter compounds on land he has occupied and renting them out to NGOs who are supposed to assist the people the commander has displaced. The elite may be a fractious class, but it is very conscious of the fact that its position depends on the veneer of legitimacy given to it by the peace agreement. It’s a farce that suits everyone in Juba. In countless meetings this year, I have had to field questions from eager diplomats, wondering if the time is ripe to start reforming the army again.

The World Bank formally considers the war a disaster, but in many respects, the conflict has accomplished the goals of the organization. Vast tracts of the country are now uninhabited, as populations withdraw to relatively safer urban areas. South Sudan’s population of 12 million is now 20% urban. The empty land that results can be sold off to foreign companies and local barons. The South Sudanese population, displaced into cities, is increasingly reliant on markets for food and wages for income. Over the last few months, protests and riots have spread throughout the country. Youth groups have demanded that international NGOs employ local people or else leave. Warehouses have been burned. In Juba, internationals dismiss these demands as identarian ethnic claims, created by the manipulations of unscrupulous politicians. There is some truth to these statements, but it is none the less notable that even if youth demands are ethnically articulated, they are nationally identical, and a socio-economic mobilization that the international community would like to downplay. There is, after all, a state to support.

Read on: Alex de Waal, ‘Exploiting Slavery’, NLR I/227.


Seismographs of Struggle

It was not easy finding the exhibition Sismographie des luttes at the Centre Pompidou. There were no posters to announce its presence outside or in the main hall. When I visited one Saturday morning recently, I even wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake, and the show was already over. Asking one attendant I was directed to the fifth floor but the staff up there at the turnstiles looked at me blankly when I mentioned it. So I wandered through the permanent collection and out into a long corridor where, at the end there was a window looking out across Paris and to the left, with no signage at all, a single room held the exhibition.

It was all a far cry from the previous outings this exhibition has had around the world: in Beirut, Cali, Dakar, Rabat, New York. What the Pompidou effort suggests is a discomfort, embarrassment even, at dealing with the subject of colonialism head-on. This is not something that Beaubourg has been known for engaging with since it opened in 1977.

Taken alone the exhibition reflects only a fraction of the extraordinary project it draws from. This began in 2015 under the direction of Zahia Rahmani, a writer and historian based at the Institut national d’histoire d’art in Paris. For several years she has led a small team of researchers dotted around the world who have been working to track down a thousand journals dating from the 19th Century up to 1989. The oldest on the list dates back to 1817 – the Haitian literary and political journal L’Abeille haytienne – and the subjects they cover range from politics and race to culture of all kinds. Every region is represented. The connecting thread between them is their existence within and in some way in opposition to a system of colonialism or oppression.

‘People are not passive, that’s what interested me’, Rahmani said when we met recently, describing her motivation for seeking out these journals. ‘We should give history another path than that which consists in thinking that everything emanates from the declaration of human rights.’

There are so many striking journals in the collection, and to see them revived in this way is moving and inspiring. Some existed for only a few issues, such as Zimbabwe’s Black and White that dealt with racial politics in 1966-67, while others such as the literary journal Sur from Buenos Aires – which treated social problems and was briefly banned under Peron – operated from 1931 until 1992. Others remain in circulation today. The geographical and topical range is remarkable. Indigenous populations from Australia to North America have their place, so too do an impressive selection of feminist publications from the Middle East and Asia, such as the striking Seito founded in Japan in 1911 which tackled homosexuality, drugs and abortion. To go through the list is to have so many new doors opened: one wants to walk through them all. There is the Turkish Šehbāl for example, active from 1909 to 1914, that covered music, philosophy and women’s rights and contained many stunning photographs and illustrations, or the satirical Phong Hóa whose pages were full of sharp-witted cartoons, appearing weekly out of Hanoi from 1932 until it was banned by the French authorities three years later.

To better grasp the scope of the project, and delve further into it, one must turn to the two catalogues published by Nouvelles Editions Place, and above all the online portal SISMO, an invaluable resource that continues to expand as the team’s research goes on. Free to access, anyone can explore the entire list, which leads to full digitalised contents for some, and at the very least a dedicated page containing information on origin, lifespan, language and cover image – so often a gem of graphic design, such as the art nouveau illustrations of Althaqafat alisuria, a journal of Syrian culture from 1934, or the bold covers of Mozambique Revolution that ran from 1963 to 1975, throughout the war of independence from Portugal. 

But the exhibition allows us to see the journals as material objects, complete with yellowing pages and dog-ears that evoke the many hands they once passed through. In the Pompidou’s room a few glass cases display editions of selected journals, highlighting the myriad formats used, from the broadsheet The Black Panther that the party put out, to a review such as Proa set up by Borges in 1922 that mixed sizes, with one issue on display around A5, another just under A2. Seeing all this gives a real and palpable quality to the radical contents of these journals: aesthetic objects that were also instruments of struggle. As Rahmani put it, all those involved in these journals over two centuries

participated in an aesthetic that is not violent. Of course there is violence in the sense that people are fighting, but they are struggling to be able to preserve a culture, or even their language, the possibility of living together, and of not living under coercion. They find release through the journal because it is not a weapon, it is a negotiation . . . and that’s what the installation showed me, that over two centuries there is a temptation to still nevertheless seduce the one who oppresses you, by reminding him who you are.

The contents of the exhibition has varied according to the location, with each space tending to showcase journals that relate to the local context and hold events to encourage people to delve into the issues they raised. None of this at Beaubourg. The selection here is both minimal and flat – the journals are presented as artefacts rather than alive and still the source of relevant debate. Also missing is a table with computers allowing visitors to explore the journals beyond those displayed in the room, something that was a feature at the other locations.

The centrepiece of the exhibition at the Pompidou and elsewhere is a film installation, which is made up of two sets of three still images projected against two walls showing around 450 journals and 900 documents. This runs on a loop to a soundtrack composed by Jean-Jacques Palix, a mixture of instrumental music with archive extracts from speeches made in defence of causes related to the journals. We see covers, inside pages, photographs of founding editors or other key figures. There is also a seventh image projected between the two sets of three with short paragraphs of text telling us about a particular journal, or related quotes. The semi-darkness of the Pompidou setting is another underwhelming choice on the part of the museum. Other venues provided the film installation with the cinematic setting it demands. At the Beirut Art Centre for example, the exhibition was held in such a dark space that it encouraged visitors to sit and watch the film all the way through. And indeed it is worth taking the time to experience the powerful, cumulative effect of viewing these hundreds of examples of printed resistance over more than a century, from all across the world.

The thousand journals are in around 70 different languages, including Creole variations, Mohawk, Tibetan, Zulu, Uyghur and Laotian, to cite only a few. But 222 of the journals are in French, 217 in English, and 199 in Spanish. This forces the question of intended audience ­– employing the language of the ruling power meant that many groups had no chance of reading the articles defending their cause. And it is here that the double function of the journals is evident: their memorial function for history, and their active function, ‘aimed at trying to develop within the colonial system a sensitivity towards them’, as Rahmani put it. ‘What is incredible is how these intellectuals manage this transition, they speak the language of empire, they master it, but they address empire in a critical fashion. It is very courageous’. Courageous is, indeed, the overriding impression one has when looking and exploring all these publications, now given a second life.

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘Planet Malaquais’, NLR 84.


Back to the Present

In his 2011 essay ‘From Progress to Catastrophe’, Perry Anderson writes that ‘in one of the most astonishing transformations in literary history’, the historical novel ‘has become, at the upper ranges of fiction, more widespread than even at the height of its classical period during the early nineteenth century’. This, he observed, was somewhat paradoxical, for this renewed popularity coincided with postmodernism, the aesthetic regime, as Fredric Jameson put it, ‘of an age that has forgotten how to think historically’. Riding roughshod over the ‘classical form’, taxonomized by Georg Lukács in his canonical study of Walter Scott’s Waverly, postmodern- or meta-historical fiction had succeeded in reinvigorating a genre that, for thirty years after the Second World War, had contributed little more than a ‘few antique jewels on a huge mound of trash’. Linear historical necessity was jettisoned for ludic counterfactuals and chronological violations; romantic-nationalist aetiologies for imperial eschatologies; liberal faith that the clash of social forces would lead to progress with the suspicion that this was nothing more than a conspiracy of permanent catastrophe. Yet here was a case of a rising tide that lifted all boats: alongside these innovations in the genre, ‘more traditional forms have proliferated too’.

A decade later, the historical novel has cemented its status as a literary form. It is a matter of debate whether we have remembered how to think historically again, but owing to the contemporary political landscape, we have at least remembered that we ought to. That the genre, in both traditional and postmodern variants, continues to grow in popularity and respectability ­among Anglophone readers, writers, and awards-committees remains paradoxical, but perhaps no longer quite for the reason Anderson gives. Two defining features of today’s Anglophone literary culture are a moral imperative to enable historically marginalized voices to speak of, for, and by themselves, and an extreme scepticism about the ability of language to represent other minds, especially across the differences occasioned by marginalization. Whatever impact this moral-epistemic antinomy may have on narratives set in the present – where, perhaps not unrelatedly, memoir and autofiction increasingly hold sway – it is in principle fatal to the historical novel, a genre in which the possibility of representing ‘lived experience’ is by definition foreclosed. In her collection American Innovations (2014), the Canadian-American writer Rivka Galchen rewrote canonical short fictions as though they were narrated by women; the resulting pastiches provide a sharp commentary on the gendered assumptions baked in to putatively ‘universal’ works of literature written by men. But in her new novel Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, Galchen attempts to transfer this approach to a real historical figure, only to get caught on the horns of this contemporary paradox.

Set largely in Leonberg, a small village in the Duchy of Württemberg, Everyone Knows tells the story of Katharina Kepler, mother of the mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who, in 1615, was accused of poisoning the wife of a local glazer, Ursula Reinbold, and charged with sorcery. She was tried, arrested, had her property expropriated, and spent fourteen months in prison under the threat of torture before being acquitted in 1621. She died the following April, effectively ostracized from the community. Meanwhile, Johannes (defamiliarized as ‘Hans’ in the novel), who took an active role in his mother’s defence, completed his work on the laws of planetary motion, and three Catholic officials were thrown from the top window of Prague Castle, sparking what would become the Thirty Years War, by far the most destructive conflict, measured in terms of percentage of population loss, in European history.

We are reading about Katharina of course, rather than one of the tens of thousands of other women subject to witch trials in Early Modern Germany, because of her proximity to the world-historical figure of Johannes. In Galchen’s rendering, Katherina is a recognizable figure from small town life: a busybody and a know-it-all with a sharp tongue, a speciality in herbal remedies, and a worldview grounded in stolid, peasant wisdom. In another time and place, her combination of ordinary vices and virtues might have made her merely an endearing or irritating neighbour, but as an old woman in the Holy Roman Empire in the first quarter of the 17th century, it left her vulnerable to the kinds of opportunism, resentment, misunderstanding, and prejudice that led to the ordeal that marred her sunset years, and perhaps hastened her death. What makes her an ‘average hero’, in the sense Lukács extrapolated from Scott, is that by refusing to confess to the sorcery charge, she manages to retain her individual dignity in the face of enormous social pressure. What makes her a good candidate for a protagonist in our contemporary moment is that she is not just marginalized from history, but multiply marginalized: she is female, elderly, a widow, a peasant, and also – perhaps most importantly – illiterate.

Given this last fact, the most straightforward novelistic approach would be to employ third person point of view, which would allow Galchen the greatest purchase on her protagonist’s state of mind, as well as a stable chronological point beyond the action from which to telescope her story; in other words, to dispense with a realism of presentation for a realism of effects. This has been the procedure of a number of other recent historical fictions set in the period between the publication of the 95 Theses and the signing of the Peace of Westphalia – Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy (2009-2020), Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (2019), Éric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor (2020), as well as John Banville’s earlier Kepler (1981), which treats some of the same events. But as this narrative mode would give peasant Katharina a proto-bourgeois (one is tempted to say proto-novelistic) consciousness, and as it would preclude her from ‘speaking in her own voice’, Galchen chooses, in a somewhat postmodern vein, to foreground the ways in which our access to history is always already mediated, and in doing so paints herself into a narrative corner.

Dramatizing a detail from the historical record, Galchen stages the main part of the novel as Katharina’s first person ‘truest testimony’ to her neighbour, Simon Satler, a reclusive widower who is pressed into service as Katharina’s legal guardian and stenographer. The testimony’s plausibility as legal document is blunted by Katharina’s persistent impolitic comments, but worse than that, in order to convey information to the reader, she must tell Simon many things he already knows. (The text is littered with variations on the qualifying phrase ‘as I don’t need to tell you, Simon.’) Then, in order to account for his presence in the text, Galchen introduces a section from his point of view (‘I thought it would be clarifying if I, Simon, explained myself here’, he says, inaccurately), which further exacerbates the narrative’s ungainliness. When, in another awkward concession to the historical record, Simon bows out from participating in Katharina’s legal defence three-quarters of the way through the book, the narrative falls into the lap of her daughter Greta. Interspersed between these sections is a cache of other fictionalized documents, including duelling petitions from Johannes and the Reinbolds, the prosecutor’s summation, and dozens of transcripts of witness testimony from the villagers of Leonberg.

If Galchen’s intention was to centre Katherina, this cacophony of textual mediation produces the opposite effect. Once the trial concludes, Katharina’s rationale for telling her story disappears, and she more-or-less disappears with it. In an epilogue, which takes place ‘twelve or so years’ after the conclusion of the trial, Katharina’s acquittal – which should be the novel’s climax – is treated as an afterthought. ‘What a fool I am’, Simon writes, ‘to forget that a reader might not know the fate of Katharina’. Being a matter of historical record, Katharina’s fate is never in doubt, nor are we likely to take the charge of witchcraft seriously, which means our sympathies are never in doubt either. Whether our preferred explanation is that the witch craze was a remnant of pagan folk rituals interpreted through the lens of Christian demonology (Ginzburg), a displacement of the scapegoat mechanism from other victims – Jews, heretics – onto older women (Cohn), a femicide motivated by primitive accumulation during the transition from feudalism to capitalism (Federici), or something else entirely, it is likely that nearly all readers will hold the view that there are no such thing as witches, that anyone accused of witchcraft is ipso facto innocent, and that, as a corollary, anyone who accuses someone of witchcraft is motivated by some combination of superstition, misogyny, or malice.

This view is shared by some of the characters in the novel – by Simon, for example – but not, for what it’s worth, by Katharina herself. (For Katharina, witches are indeed real – the titular accusation is first uttered not about her, as one might expect, but by her – only she is not one of them.) In an interview, Galchen also expressed ambivalence about it. In the early stages of writing she thought, ‘The only way for this to be interesting is for [Katharina] to be a witch’. In the end, however, she opted for a more contemporary understanding of the figure, according to which, in the words of the interviewer, those who were accused of witchcraft ‘were often just successful or unpredictable women’. This metonymic substitution of personal qualities for supernatural abilities betrays a longing to preserve something of the witch’s power at a symbolic level while retaining our sympathies for her as a real victim of persecution. But as gruesome as they were, the witch trials were ordinary atrocities during a period that saw war, starvation, cannibalism, the plague, pogroms, mass rape, and the wholesale destruction of cities, most famously, of Magdeburg, where, over four days in 1631, some twenty thousand people were put to the sword. Just as being unsuccessful and predictable was no guarantee of safety, being successful and unpredictable was a liability that was not just limited to women, as the cases of Bruno, Galileo, and Johannes himself would illustrate. The witch trial is what creates the witch; much as we might desire otherwise, we cannot have the latter, even symbolically, without the former.

A further consequence of Galchen’s narrative strategy is that the trial produces not only the pretext, but also the conditions of possibility for Katharina to tell her story at all. With one exception, the speech of all the characters is mediated, directly or indirectly, by the juridical apparatus of the nascent European state system. That exception is Simon, whose narrative, having displaced Katharina’s, is mediated instead by the market. The epilogue takes place at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Simon has come to hawk the ‘important manuscript’ we have been reading, or at least the bits of it he has access to. (In any event, this narrative device cannot account for even the existence of his sections, since Simon is ultimately unsuccessful in selling the manuscript, in part, because he has ‘not figured out how to describe it’ to potential publishers – a startling admission, coming so close to the end of Everyone Knows.) What the Frankfurt setting provides, however, is a direct, institutional connection from the early stages of capitalism to today’s literary marketplace. This, in turn, provides a glimpse of the moment at which enchanted ontology of the Middle Ages is swallowed whole by the commodity form, where it has been imprisoned ever since. Then as now, the battering ram of the new theological-economic order has been one commodity in particular: the printed book.

At the Fair, Simon runs into Johannes’ widow, Susanna, who has come to find a publisher for an unpublished manuscript from his Nachlaß. When Simon first sees her, she is standing between two stalls selling Luther’s pamphlets and Johannes von Tepl’s poem Death and the Ploughman. ‘So the stalls…sold books from a century ago’, he muses. ‘Why no interest in the awful and dramatic present?’ In the mind of one of the characters this thought is an anachronism, but the question of course is Galchen’s. Galchen has dusted Everyone Knows with allusions to our own ‘awful and dramatic present’ (largely to the pandemic) but these do not map neatly enough onto it to function as prefigurative allegory (the most obvious similarities – to #MeToo and to Donald Trump’s frequent references to investigations into his activities as a businessman, candidate and president as ‘witch hunts’ have the inverse moral valences). The part of the present that comes through instead is a comfortable nostalgia, a longing for what we have lost to progress, whose compensations are inevitably taken for granted and are thus – given the persistence in milder form of some of the real defects of the past (plagues, moral panics, gendered violence) – experienced as insufficient and disappointing.

The novel’s thematic contradictions are symptoms of this nostalgia, which emerges most powerfully in Simon’s final meeting with Susanna. The book she is selling is Somnium, an early work by Johannes which folds a treatise on lunar astronomy into a dream narrative. In the dream, a young astronomer, a student of Tycho Brahe, takes a voyage to the moon, with the help of his mother, a herbalist and healer with magical powers, that is, a witch. It is unclear when the details about Brahe and the mother-character were added to the original text, but in Everyone Knows, Susanna claims that they are ‘prophecy’ of the future rather than biographical details added after Johannes’ own work with Brahe and his involvement with Katharina’s trial. What is important here is the future orientation implied by the word ‘prophecy’, as well as the lunar voyage, which has led Somnium to be categorised as an early instance of science fiction. The presence of a real science fiction text in a contemporary historical novel should come as no surprise: Jameson has argued that historical fiction is really a species of science fiction, since the former is nothing more than the ‘time travel of historical tourism’. Of her rationale for writing Everyone Knows, Galchen has said: ‘I was desperate to escape…Even before the pandemic I was just like, I’ve got to get out of this moment. I’m leaving this year. I’m leaving the century. I’m leaving the US’. But as with spatial tourism, in temporal tourism, we always pack ourselves in our suitcase. Our contemporary science fictions are dominated by visions of apocalyptic catastrophe, whereas in choosing to time travel instead to early 17th century Germany, Galchen has allowed readers to escape to a world in which, despite all of its drawbacks, people could be said to hold out belief in and hope for the future. The catch, of course, is that what their future produces is us.

Read on: Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Witches and Shamans’, NLR I/200.