Monthly Archives: May 2014

Angela Carter/The Bloody Chamber

In case you were curious, the original fairy tales from the 1500s onwards are some of the most horrifying stories ever told to children. Werewolves eating babies, blood splattered everywhere, weird quasi-sexual undertones, a general aura of menace that is intended to teach children cautionary messages – the Brothers Grimm certainly lived up to their surname. English literature experts have been pouring over early fairy tales for decades; the stories are rich in metaphor and context, with more than a few pagan references.

This tradition was carried on by Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, writing some of the most subversive, outspoken feminist take on the stories of old, mashing new insight from old yarns such as Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard. The stories were then retold in the Neil Jordan film The Company of Wolves, a hallucinatory trip into the symbolism of gender identity and a good old-fashioned sense of the surreal. It’s one of the few films that stay true to the source, which may have something to do with the fact that Carter herself co-wrote the script.

Carter is a product of her environment, specifically the second wave of feminism that burst out during the sixties and seventies. Separatist feminism can be woefully obvious – the language games that produce asinine terms like “herstory” and “womyn”, as well as the mentality that all men are abusive rapists are a little hard to take. Angela Carter is sometimes guilty of this – Nights at the Circus is painful to read, and the metaphors are so obvious that Carter may as well have included the S.C.U.M. manifesto.

This is thankfully not the case with The Bloody Chamber. It’s a ride on the gothic merry-go-round, gleefully deconstructing and rebuilding the moralistic tone that dominates the whole canon of so-called children’s literature. I’m reminded of the countless children’s books that are actually pointed satires –Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, as does Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Satire is one of the most potent weapons available to writers, and Carter has a great time injecting social commentary into these stories.

There’s also a very large element of the Gothic in these stories (gothic as in “sumptuous aura of decay”, not Beetlejuice). This is clearly the case with the highlight of the collection, a revision of the vampire legend called “The Lady of the House of Love”. Some writer said that gothic stories (at least the ones produced in the anglo world) are an expression of the Protestant fascination with Catholic (continental) aristocratic decline; this may not be a universal aspect of the Gothic genre, but it’s certainly the case with this story.

A young Englishmen at the turn of the century travels throughout Eastern Europe on his bicycle, which is the very embodiment of the progressive modern era;  an era which has supposedly abandoned the ghosts and goblins of the past. What follows is a wonderful reversal of gender norms prevalent in pretty much every vampire story ever told (and yes, I’m including the Twilight saga). There is also a “sympathy for the devil” aspect of this story, as the Englishman is more interested in helping the vampiress rather than either falling in love or running away in terror. The juxtaposition of this proper, rational, Imperial Age Englishman running up against the ultimate irrational  phantom is perfect – there is a good reason why this story was included in the  Oxford Book of Gothic Literature (which I also heartily recommend).

An excellent exploration of feminist subversion and literature which is as rich as red wine, ­The Bloody Chamber has enough to satisfy radicals and bibliophiles alike. Just don’t read this one before you go to bed – apparently it makes you have strange dreams. Definitely not for children either; your children may evolve into post-modern English majors when they go off to college.

NB: This will be the last fiction review for a while; “Plamet of Slums” will be reviewed next week.

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Mao Mix

Let’s get the party started by stating that I don’t like Mao. I think his policies were woefully without foresight; his unassailable position gave him an ego without compare; and he was an icon, not an iconoclast – he ranked with other mystical individuals from Scripture (Moses, Abraham, Jesus Christ), and I don’t believe in deifying mortal humans.

However, I do like the way that radicals outside the country took elements from Red China (especially the Cultural Revolution – more on that below) and ran with them. Like rock n roll, punk and hip hop, the quintessential features of Maoism were mutated and made to fit the sociopolitical contexts of various movements, particularly during the high water mark of the late sixties. The Black Panther movement adopted the principles of Maoism and applied them to their largely anti-colonial outlook. And the wave of protests that shook France during ’68 was indebted to the Cultural Revolution which was occurring during the same time frame – Maoism was the hallmark of the new French left, and it informed the gradual break away from Mother Russia and the worldwide bureaucracy  which followed the lead of the Soviet Union.

It was the model of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that created these hybrids. As Red Guards were formed to confront the very organization and state which made their existence popular, the key differences between the party state and the masses were made clear. We can start with the rejection of privileged party bosses who represented the party and who theoretically represented the masses that they lived off of. And the questioning continued, for good and ill.

Cleaning out the ossified party machine was the beginning of the new consciousness of radicals, and it was repeated concurrently in France. The mass strike of ’68 in France was actually opposed by the Parti Communiste de France, as the new left stopped paying attention to their double talk and criticized the sluggish inertia of the PCF. The PCF rode on the laurels of their contribution to the French Resistance of WWII, and hadn’t done much to impress anyone by the sixties. I’m reminded of the film Tout Va Bien,  a classic revolutionary tribute to the rebels of 1968. In the movie, the PCF members are portrayed as a group of exclusively older male workers, reciting statistics that were meaningless, completely without context, and largely ignored by the young militants.

The Cultural Revolution was the embodiment of criticism, a total understanding that the party wasn’t always right, that the party members were not sacrosanct, and a new revolution had to take place amongst the masses – a new revolution that was indebted to the Paris Commune more than the Bolshevik revolution. It was a period of upheaval (bordering on civil war at points), messy, and it entailed not only the break between party state and mass movement, but the introduction of a new way of viewing the world. “Smash the old, build the new” was a catchphrase from this period, and it was taken up by the French left, a mass movement which did not take anything for granted. In a sense, it represented the old Trotskyite notion of “permanent revolution”, but this was a reality, not just a concept that could never find root in Stalinist Russia.

It was the formation of an alternative space for politics, above and beyond the bickering for power which is usually found within party states. in the wonderful analysis, Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive, Istvan Meszaros argues that genuine revolutionary movements must take place outside of formal parliamentary power, and that a new environment is possible, a new environment that is not bound down by the formal trappings and narrow confines of “legal” political activity  He may well have been talking of the New Left of the late sixties.

The Cultural Revolution was interrupted in China – that’s what happens when any movement starts to attack the army, which is the very backbone of the state. But the importance of the new views began to set in, in China and the rest of the world. The party state is not infallible; leftists everywhere must ask the question, Whom do I serve? If the answer is either yourself or your shortlist of fellow bureaucrats, you’re wrong. Masses must come first -otherwise the party is a false representative of the people. The French knew it, the rest of the left throughout Europe knew it (which set the ground base of Eurocommunism and the gradual move away from Soviet domination), and we know it too.

Steven Brust, Emma Bull/Freedom and Necessity

This little bombshell has been variously described as the “the first Marxist steampunk”, and “an adventure for young Hegelians” (although the thought of meeting a 12 year old Hegelian is a tad frightening). More importantly, it brings up the question: Is romantic love selfish? Is it counter-revolutionary? There have been interviews with former Chinese Red Brigade members who would roam the countryside, beating the tar out of young couples who displayed public affection; the logic being that the lovers in question were drawing energy from the revolution and concentrating solely on themselves.

Obviously I beg to differ, and Freedom and Necessity backs this up. Most relationships aren’t so self-absorbed as to ignore the world around them, and the ultimate goal of a revolution is freedom – the freedom to work, the freedom to rest, the freedom to love. Love isn’t about being a brood mare for the state – it’s about an equally fulfilling state of harmony between two individuals.

Freedom and Necessity takes place in 1849, the year after the failed European revolutions and the subsequent conservative backlash. The English Chartists (namely the ladies and gentlemen who wanted Universal Suffrage, fair pay, and equitable working conditions) were in disarray. One such Chartist wakes up in the middle of the English countryside, with absolutely no memory of the previous two months. He begins correspondence with a family member, starts reading Hegel in his free time, and begins to piece his life together. In the process he begins correspondence with his female cousin, who devotes herself to figuring out just what the hell happened during those months. A natural trajectory occurs, and romance blossoms.

As mentioned, this is not an easy read – it’s epistolary, which means the text consists of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, etc. Of course, there’s a rhythm to the narrative, and once you wrap your mind around the unnecessarily opaque writing style, it’s easy to fall into the storyline.

The authors Steven Brust and Emma Bull are both known for their fantasy, rather than pseudo realistic portrayals of revolutionary upheaval. But as mentioned in an earlier column, the two genres seems to go hand in hand, as both of them deal with the rupturing of accepted reality, and a cautious optimism about times to come. It is not a coincidence that Steven Brust is a self-avowed Trotskyite and Emma Bull is left liberal. They share hope, and the romance they’ve created is heartening and enchanting.

Tom Wolfe/Bonfire of the Vanities

New York, specifically Manhattan, is class warfare personified. Every square inch of that city has been accounted for and has had a price attached. It wasn’t so bad in the seventies, despite the fact that the city was literally out of money. One could survive in it, provided one didn’t stroll through Avenue D, Brooklyn or the South Bronx. Times have changed with the population transfers of gentrification (Williamsburg, Brooklyn now costs almost as much as Manhattan did); but the total class system of Manhattan (based solely on wealth) is as relevant today as it was during the 80s when Bonfire of the Vanities was written.

Bonfire of the Vanities highlights social friction; in New York, there are exactly two classes – those with money and those without. You could judge a person solely by what street they lived on. Crack and AIDs hit the city like a pair of atomic bombs in the eighties, marking the backdrop of the novel. In this milieu, the characters of this book struggle to survive.

The story reminds me of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev, in which a single event creates a whirlpool that draws innumerable people into its vortex. In this case, a very wealthy (but essentially good – the book isn’t dogmatic about its’ heroes and villains) makes the mistake of picking up his mistress at the airport, getting lost while driving (a wrong turn), ends up in the South Bronx, and while conversing with some black people, his racist Southerner girlfriend runs one of the black men over.

The wealthy man (Sherman McCoy) is a) beset with guilt and b) very, very worried about getting caught, even though it was his girlfriend from South Carolina who did the actual hit and run. But the merry –go- round has been put into play, and Tom Wolfe maintains a masterful use of the ensemble narrative to paint a picture of a city seething with racial tensions and an economic tightrope around the necks of everyone, including the wealthy. And let’s face it, a wealthy white man running over some black kid from the Bronx doesn’t look good.

As mentioned, there are heroes and villains, all of whom are struggling to survive in a hostile environment. Wolfe is quick to point out that civil servants, the apparent glue that’s holding the city together (this includes cops, assistant D.A.s, judges) are half a step removed from the people that they try and convict, while others make obscene amounts of money selling junk bonds; and even these people, like Sherman McCoy, are hemorrhaging money like it’s going out of style.

Wolfe likes the Irish Americans, but ethnicity is only a facile identifier in this rotten apple. Yes, you can make judgments based on a given person’s ethnic/social background, but that is not the ultimate arbiter of worth as a human being. The assistant DA in charge of the McCoy case is a Jewish man named Karp, and more than anything he wishes he was Irish, as he feels that’s the ultimate level of masculinity and virility – far better than being a “mere Jew”. To overcompensate, he nails McCoy to the wall and acts like Robespierre.

There are some excellent assessments of what the law actually means, power and authority, the vast ocean of difference between those that merely wield official power and the power that stems strictly from class. It’s also wickedly funny; Tom Wolfe wrote the Electric Kool Aid Test and The Right Stuff, and each of these books maintain a level of irony that’s embodied in Wolfe’s writing. You’ll be quoting this book; I know that I do.

Rosa Luxembourg/The Mass Strike

Remember coal dust? Black Lung? Horrific industrial accidents which the victim was expected to pay for? 12-15 hour work days? Anti-trust laws which did absolutely nothing to prevent the growing conglomeration of industry into fewer and fewer hands? How about police beating the living hell out of protestors? How about the police hiring street thugs to bust up demonstrations? Let’s not forget Margaret Thatcher describing strikers as the “scum of the earth”. Boy, aren’t you glad that’s all behind us now?

Just kidding! The current, violent rejection of harsh austerity measures in Europe (as laid out by Merkel and the few EU countries unharmed by the economic collapse of neo-liberalism) are part and parcel of what Rosa Luxemburg termed “the mass strike”, a movement of enormous proportions which begins with a specific set of economic demands, and quickly develops into a general rejection of the present status quo.

I honestly can’t think of a better example than Quebec’s mass strike of a few years ago, which began with student protests against tuition hikes, and blazed like wildfire into running street battles with the police, complete with petrol bombs, burning cars, police brutality, student sit-ins at universities, and a growing public sentiment which favored the strikers rather than the provincial administration. Even the Montreal band Arcade Fire and Mick Jagger wore red on Saturday Night Live to demonstrate solidarity with the Quebec strikers. Naturally the police’s overreaction simply made the situation worse; beating passersby who just happened to step out of the pub at the wrong time doesn’t exactly endear the forces of law and order to the populace. It also doesn’t help that the provincial government made the wearing of masks a criminal offence. Furthermore, when the Liberal government seriously considered banning Twitter, it just dented their credibility. The state revealed its true, reactionary face.

Luxemburg theorized and predicted this phenomenon over a century ago. The Montreal strike wave went far beyond mere tuition fees. The popularity of the strikers amongst rank and file Montrealers demonstrate that this outburst outgrew the needs and desires of a motley crew of 20-year-old students. It should also be noted that this strike was spontaneous, without the aid of any major trade union (who, it should be noted, are notoriously corrupt in Quebec).

This is the crux of The Mass Strike. Luxemburg likens it to an unplanned wave of popular discontent with present socioeconomic conditions, and while the sediment of this tidal wave of rage may still be economic or materialist, the strength of sheer numbers has and will further embolden the strikers.

It is the cumulative effect of basic contradictions, and a breakdown of the traditional rule of law which typically curtails mass resistance. The strike usually begins with humble origins (usually with specific, limited demands), and then snowballs into much larger questioning of the ability of the state to meet people’s needs. An entire nation can be shut down as the status quo is critiqued, and it is the critical point in which spontaneous growth evolves into genuine rebellion and the overturning of a superfluous state.

This is far beyond the cutesy and sentimental Occupy movement, which was ignited by a magazine, lacked direction, did not endear themselves to the populace, and basically sat around public parks waiting for the world to end. Luxemburg portrays this type of movement as basically anarchistic, an unclear method of attaining utopian goals. In order to qualify as a mass strike, and to have the power to actually challenge the superstructure of the state, this has to be a mass, popular movement, with public sentiment on the side of the active players. Hanging out in a public park does not challenge a damn thing.

The Mass Strike isn’t perfect. It limits itself to an analysis of the strike waves that hit Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, rightfully predicting that this was the dress rehearsal for the real revolution. The prose can be a tad purple at times as well, as Luxembourg’s train of metaphors gets derailed from time to time. And of course, hearing about the chronology of the events in Russia in 1905 can get a little tedious (“Then there was this strike; and another strike; did I mention this strike? How about this one?”).

Nevertheless, it remains the basic blueprint of civic upheaval, a clear-sighted, far reaching analysis of the mechanics of the mass strike, what dangers it faces, who it can rely on, and the ultimate result of these seemingly undirected societal upheavals. Read it when you’re watching the BBC.

Edith Thomas/The Women Incendiaries

“The term petroleuses was coined in 1871 to designate women who were accused of setting fire to Paris. I use the term in a much wider sense: it applies to all the women who were involved in the revolutionary movement of 1871. In no way is its use pejorative”. – Edith Thomas, from the Introduction.

There is always an Other, an all-encompassing term that includes anyone or thing that falls outside the norms of a given society. Frequently the feminine is considered the Other, and this is highlighted during civil wars and ethnic conflicts. Oppositional women are portrayed as ghouls and harpies, or they are made into the Other via mass sexual assault – the Balkan conflict is one example, the Rape of Nanking is another. “Othering” (for lack of a better term) is an active process, and like any other process, it is prone to change and challenges.

In many cases, the feminine Other is completely written out of historical narratives, and even the left wing discourse that surrounds the Paris Commune typically leaves the “second sex” out of the picture. Proudhon, a quote unquote radical anarchist and Communard, was just as much a male chauvinist as the conservatives he decried. That “radical” misogyny would continue in France alone until the advent of WWI.

The Women Incendiaries is an attempt to add nuance and balance to the narrative of the Commune. Written in the early sixties, as second wave feminism began to make its presence known and was inextricably linked to Marxism, Edith Thomas presents an alternative view of women’s mass contributions to the revolution.

As was the case in so many pivotal moments in revolutionary history, women led the charge. Women were the most exploited members of Parisian society – relegated to household drudgery and low income work, and with rampant alcoholism and neglect (if not outright violence) dominating the male working class, women had nothing to lose and so much to gain in a liberation movement.

With the onset of revolutionary activity, proletariat women were pivotal in the creation and defense of the Commune. They were the driving force behind the conversion of rank and file soldiers and the subsequent evolution of the National Guard, an organization which followed the exhortations of the militant sex and included the latter in its ranks.

As the nascent Commune took shape, women held their ground in political and parliamentary activity, forming the basis of a radical left wing of the new society. Traitors were denounced, inactivity of the guards was condemned, and the genuine inclusion of half of the proletarian community in Paris in political life took place during the brief moment of freedom and equality.

Naturally they were demonized by the reactionary bourgeois forces at Versailles. Echoes of the original Revolution of 1789 reverberated in the accusations, as Parisian radical women were portrayed as blood-drinking harpies. The sobriquet petroleuses was concocted by bourgeois forces, and when the time came for the fall of the Commune and the massacres that followed, the demonic Other gender were slain in an attempt to tamp down any sort of liberation mentality.

Thomas is the author of a celebrated biography of one of the female Communard leaders, Louise Michel, and this hidden history is authoritative and well-researched. Unfortunately the narrative occasionally falls into the first-person perspective, which is distracting. It’s understood that all historical accounts consist of arguments and the personal standpoint of the writer, but that need not be taken as literally as Thomas does.

The Other persists in our contemporary period, in a supposedly post-feminist world, and that Other will continue to exist as long as the struggle for hegemony takes place between and within societies. Shafts of light which reveal undiscovered or ignored historical narratives are welcome at any time, and The Women Incendiaries is a classic example of history from the shadowy below.