I’ve started a podcast on which I intend to interview authors about their books. As the title suggests I’ll be talking primarily to authors of non-fiction and criticism but I hope also to move out into fiction and poetry as times goes on.
The first episode is the extended version of interview I did last year with the Irish historians Ferghal MacBhloscaidh and Kerron Ó’Luain on the Irish Civil War, the most recent one is a conversation with Conor McCarthy of Maynooth University’s English Department on the life and work of the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said.
I recently announced the end of the blog but I guess a not insignificant number of people still read old posts, so I’m going to continue posting updates here along with those on my more aesthetically pleasing actual website.
Since I was last on here I wrote a review of Roland Grigor Suny’s Stalin: Passage to Revolution, which you can read here, a short piece on the Demands Most Moderate Substack on Leon Trotsky’s analysis of fascism in Germany and a critique of the views of the late Scottish Marxist Tom Nairn on Ireland for Heckle magazine
Readers of Marx will know that his writings, on the levels of their content, topic and style, can be separated into two distinct categories. First, the polemical journalism marshalling a broad swathe of human history and social change within highly quotable, almost literary turns of phrase, second, the more abstract, scientific (possibly less enjoyable but no less necessary) critiques of political economy.
This is of course not to suggest that Marx’s writings on current affairs are devoid of serious analysis, nor that works such as Capital are free from spleen. Rather I wish to argue that these two reasonably distinct writing styles are products of the two revolutions which shaped the continent Marx surveyed and resultantly, the social phenomena he subsumed within enormously powerful conceptual frameworks which still provide us with crucial insights into the nature of change in human society. We might go so far as to suggest that it is in the dual character of revolution itself that these two formal impulses find their source; the romanticism of the French bourgeoisie coming from below, the merciless administrative revolution of English industry imposing itself from above. We will begin in reverse chronological order, with the latter of these two.
A simplistic account of the Industrial Revolution would confine its geography to England, Scotland, Wales and its temporal span to the nineteenth century, though its predicates and consequences extend far further than western Europe, to cotton plantations in the southern United States, Ireland, as well as other colonial peripheries from which raw materials, food and labour were plundered to fuel this domestic transformation of social relations; a growing population, urbanisation, pasture, infrastructure, railways, canals, factories, steel and coal. Out of these raw materials a new, stronger, modern form of social domination came, one far more sustainable than the one based on landed property and hereditary titles that preceded it.
Capitalism itself of course pre-dates industrial formation. Evidence for the existence of capitalist enterprise and wage labour within feudal as well as pre-feudal societies have been documented most comprehensively from a Marxist perspective by Jairus Banaji in Theory as History (2010). Fundamentally Marx’s writings pertain to a European model of capitalism, as we would expect given where he came from as well as the nature of the historical evidence which was then available to him. Marx’s understanding of conditions through which peoples outside of Europe reproduced their existence was overwhelmingly derived from the highly distorted works of European Orientalists. Later in life Marx ultimately dismissed Orientalism, but sadly never took the information he had derived from more accurate sources into a full-length work, which might have broadened the scope through which we understand the rise of capitalism both within and without Europe’s boundaries. Nevertheless, quantity has a quality of its own and the extent of there-shaping to which the natural environment was subject, the partial democratisation of social life brought about a definitively novel synthesis of mercantile, industrial and financial capital, which, like these earlier instances, still ebbed and flowed or remained vulnerable to internal and exogenous shocks, but has survived, unbroken, to the present day.
Industry in late eighteenth-century France was not sufficiently developed in and of itself to bring about a revolution on the scale of the English one. The motor which drove the events of 1789 was oiled by the deep intellectual ferment among thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and Voltaire. A middle class of educated entrepreneurs, lawyers, local administrators, teachers, who were beginning to engage with the writings of these authors, to interrogate the control the Church exerted over social and moral life, found that the lack of consistent representative or consultative assemblies, the limitations of state mechanisms such as taxation, diplomacy and warfare when under the control of inefficient, expensive and apathetic monarchs with the power to wage expensive dynastic wars undermined their business interests. The revolution might have simply eked out a few reforms addressing these issues were this the only strata roused to action by, but these radical ideas which challenged superstition, prejudice and tradition as expressed in monarchical and aristocratic authority also spread among a far more destitute section of the population, among tradesmen, workers and agricultural labourers, who derived from them a utopian vision of a society rationalised and governed according to the precepts of human reason.
In The Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx articulates this as a struggle between two competing ways in which society may be organised; a gestating cold, rational and calculating capitalism, the aspiration of the propertied to strengthen their hand borne along in part by the energies of the dispossessed, against an unenlightened, backwards, decaying and romantic feudalism. In this latter mode of production commodities are produced by urban artisans in workshops they own and live in. This is a specialised handicraft, it is learned on a controlled basis, there are barriers to entry, each master would have a certain number of apprentices and they are often members of representative associations called guilds. Industrial production and the coercive laws of the capitalist market administers a fatal shock to this system, forcing people out of small production in rural homesteads, or living off agricultural surplus, into factories to earn their wages by selling their labour power to a capitalist entrepreneur.
For a certain amount of the working day this wage is being earned but once the worker has manufactured sheets of linen which they could theoretically buy back with their wages, but any further value generated is recouped by the capitalist without paying for it in the form of surplus. It is precisely because of this surplus that Marx is interested in the working class in the first place. This class as a whole confronts this method of surplus extraction as a mechanism through which they can be further exploited on a larger scale. The capitalist subsists as a parasite on the work of others and there is therefore no reason why he cannot be eliminated from the equation. The worker might instead be producing sufficient linen to satisfy the requirements of society at large, to clothe as many people as might need it rather than wasteful consumption in the form of say, decorative curtains, and thereafter, enjoy their day. Having achieved or at least having in view its bourgeois revolution, Europe now needed a proletarian revolution, to usher in a social order of authentic freedom, finally overthrowing private property, the vice both feudalism and capitalism held in common.
This was the central difference between Marx’s conception of socialism and those of other socialists or social reformers of the time. Marx’s attention is focused on the material reality of capitalism, predicting its direction of travel on the basis of its internal contradictions or tension points, understanding how the class character of society creates objective barriers and how these barriers might be overcome. Utopian socialists or anarchists, such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Wilhelm Weitling made more vague appeals to a universal brotherhood of humanity and called for popular uprisings of labourers to the end of an effective return to social relations under feudalism, in which the individual craftsman might roll back the deleterious consequences of industrialisation. Marx knew that it is only through industrialisation that a future of material abundance could be achieved and appeals for a return to a pre-industrial past is not just reactionary but ultimately impossible. The competitive pressures of the market from which industrial capitalism emerges cannot be wished away, but must be transcended. In this way a bourgeois revolution was a necessary pre-condition for the establishment of socialism. This is not to suggest that these events are in any respect schematic or pre-determined. The process by which people were alienated fromtheir smallholdings, the means by which they obtained their material sustenance, was a brutal process. Capitalism comes into existence as Marx wrote, ‘dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. Any transfer of class power is likely to be similarly disruptive and therefore socialism is to be achieved through struggle, organising, forming organisations such as unions, social democratic parties and international organisations in which the socialist parties of each nation can meet and discuss and co-ordinate the formation of a front against the bourgeoisie. In certain respects this trajectory simplifies the events themselves, which threatens to omit differing tendencies and competing factions whose particular interests did not always tend in this single direction. However, like Marx’s abstract model of capitalism in which distinct modes of production emerge from and supersede others, it allows us to understand what is taking place behind the epiphenomena, the logic behind the events, if they can be said to have any and nuance any major distortions in a particular context with actual historical evidence.
For a labour movement coming into existence alongside a system of exploitation operating for the first time on a global scale, the French Revolution was the intuitive model for the construction of a new society based on social justice, not just due to the challenge it offered to arbitrary forms of authority which workers now found themselves subject to, but also the utopian promise of transforming social relations between people, an actualisation of how society might fulfil basis liberal demands for equality and freedom on a mass basis. This was to be the ideological inheritance of the Jacobins, one of the more radical factions of the revolution, led by Maximilien de Robespierre who set the pace of the revolution from the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793 until Robespierre’s fall from favour in 1794. Amidst the paranoia, and significant number of often arbitrary executions which characterised the Jacobins’ reign, there was a germ or ethic of social equality and welfare, as well asthe expansion of the franchise to all citizens, including women. At the outset of his political career Napoleon Bonaparte was an ally of the Jacobin faction and his own regime was contradictory. In order to secure popular support he retained many aspects of the revolution’s achievements. He did not seek to render the state more hospitable for the French aristocracy who were in exile, he constructed a modern bureaucracy, granted freedom to the Jews, militarily assisted the United Irishmen, but crowned himself Emperor and moved against the anti-colonial rebellion which preceded our own in Haiti.
The moment of revolutionary outpouring in Europe that emerged the same year The Communist Manifesto was published, and in which Engels briefly participated, ultimately came to nothing. The first instance which provided Marx with a concrete example against which theories of proletarian revolution might be tested came with the Paris Commune.
The Commune anticipated many of the revolutions which were to take place during the following century, in that it occurred due to French state’s participation in a disastrous war effort brought about by an incompetent monarch, whose legitimacy Marx had diagnosed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852). Napoleon’s capture led to the establishment of a moderate Republican government in Paris led by Adolphe Thiers. Through a combination of a succession of military defeats and a poor allocation of food leading to starvation in Paris, an armed contingent of the working class in the national guard became increasingly restive. Socialist journalists and agitators such as Louis Charles Delescluze began to gain popularity by denouncing the government for their incompetence. Officers became increasingly perturbed as army units ordered to fire on crowds instead fraternised with the masses and the provisional government set out to disarm them. These manoeuvres led to officers being arrested or shot, the construction of barricades and large parts of the city under the effective control of a new self-organised regime, in opposition to Thiers. The government fled to Versailles, about twenty kilometres outside the city, and a Central Committee was formed which produced a manifesto calling for elections, control over the police, magistrates, freedom of the press, public meetings and association, the expropriation of articles of primary necessity, their allocation according to need and the arming of citizens.
The leaders of the commune were primarily followers of Louis Auguste Blanqui, the influence of Marx was far outweighed by followers of Proudhon, as anarchism was then gaining influence within the International Workingmen’s Association. In addition to the anarchists there was a significant number of opportunists which led to a vagueness of aims and a proneness to grandiose declarations over practical action. One of the most significant of these was the commune’s seemingly principled refusal to seize the money in Parisian bank vaults. As participant-observer of the commune Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray writes: ‘While abolishing their budget of public worship, which was at Versailles, they bent their knees to the budget of the bourgeoisie, which was at their mercy’. Another failure Lissagaray identifies was delaying a march on the government in Versailles for three weeks, which gave Thiers ample time to prepare a regular army which was able to repeal the ill-prepared, under-equipped and indisciplined forces of the commune.
Ultimately the Commune was crushed by the regular army after two months, in a week-long campaign of brutal counter-insurgency during which thousands were killed and wounded. The extent of the commune’s internal divisions, its concern with emphasising its legitimacy, rendered it unable to maintain the first assembly in history in which more than a quarter of the representatives were workers, over the long term.
Though the influence of Marx’s thought was minimal, and only very few committed Marxists were participants, Marx understood the importance of the commune, following and documenting its progress over the weeks it unfolded. Marx did so not just because it made his name notorious throughout Europe and his being cited in the reactionary press as its primary orchestrator, which he noted with some satisfaction in his correspondence, but because of the innovative nature of its civic and legislative assemblies, with elected representatives subject to instant recall if they violated the popular will. These institutions, constructed from below institutions represented as far the future historical and political development of human society, as he expressed in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann. Marx wrote The Civil War in France (1871) in order to extract lessons of the commune for the benefit of the International and for future socialist movements. In this work we find Marx’s theory of the state, with its military, police and bureaucracy, which first developed under feudalism, transformed over time into an instrument for enforcing the interests of the bourgeois capitalist class. The future of a society led by a proletarian government did not lie in taking control of this instrument in the expectation that it could be bent to progressive ends, but rather in smashing it. Vladimir Lenin, in exile from a provisional government under pressure from the proletariat and peasantry returned to this work and elaborated on it for the purposes of the Russian working class in State and Revolution (1917).
The emergence of the Paris Commune in France would seem to have validated the schema by which Marx regarded the course of human societies and their development. It was in France, Germany and Britain that the bourgeoisie first began to accumulate capital, assert itself within the state and exploit the maturing working class. It would therefore stand to reason that the collective consciousness of the toilers would take shape in these places, begin to form mass organisations and build a new society to overthrow the existing order. As with everything in Marx this is of course subject to disclaimers; both Marx and Engels were increasingly interested in Russia towards the end of their lives, noting the significantly greater amounts of overt forms of state coercion than were in evidence in Europe as a crucial component in creating a revolutionary situation and the ways in which it may be possible for a relatively underdeveloped society to leap over the stage of the bourgeois revolution he initially regarded as a necessity, and advance straight to socialism. Though he doubtless had significant disagreements with the anarchist narodnik or populist movements then attempting to propagandise among the peasantry for the formation of collective agriculture, he did take note of them.
Ultimately the historical events which unfolded were more complicated. Enormous labour struggles did happen in the west and secured significant gains but revolutions which brought about comprehensive changes in the social order happened in nations like Ireland, China, Cuba and Algeria. Looking at the balance sheet of the twentieth century, it is clear that the number of revolutions in underdeveloped nations far outnumber those which took place in the heart of imperialism and one of the reasons this has been the case is precisely the robustness of the state apparatus that Marx placed so much emphasis on. The precise forms of political legitimacy which took shape in nations with a strong indigenous bourgeoisie were ultimately too strong for the revolutionary sections of the labour movement to overcome. In colonial contexts, as well as smaller imperial nations, the middle class were weak; they were constrained from developing to full capacity because they had come late to the process of industrialisation. According to the terms of capitalism as it existed, they could not compete with the prime movers of the global market, at least not within the constraints of free trade. Resultantly, significant constituencies composed of peasants, landless labourers and industrial workers, employed on a far more precarious basis and without access to representative institutions or welfare states, continued to endure in places such as these.
Alexander Parvus described Russia at the outset of the twentieth century as an economically backward society; existing in a condition of uneven and combined development. This meant that there was an emergent and growing proletariat in the factories in the cities but also an enormous rural peasantry, living in what was more or less a medieval context, culturally, economically and politically. What financial capital had developed was overwhelmingly in the form of foreign investment. In addition to this, the Russian army was weak; under-equipped, under-resourced and in comparison to those of western states, unorganised.
The authentically proletarian representative institutions which Marx laid such emphasis on in the Paris commune re-appeared amidst the collapse of state authority in Russia, in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, with the formation of Soviets. As operationalised in the Russian context context, these are bodies which are pulled together across all sections of society, with delegations of particular factories or districts as well as peasants councils from the countryside. As long as they existed in Russia, they attested to the capacity of the masses to enact their own conditions of freedom, to an extent that has not since been seen at any stage in human history since.
If the political coalition under Charles Stewart Parnell had been successful in securing Home Rule in Ireland in the late nineteenth century there would perhaps have been an opportunity for Ireland to remain within the union on a similar basis to the status of the six counties after partition, shoring up a new Catholic establishment within a reformed dispensation. Similarly, there are a significant number of points in the years running up to the Russian Revolution in which Tsar Nicholas II could have stepped to one side, allowed the more rational and sustainable form of governance in the Dumas to attain greater power, to allow administrators such as Sergei Witte to conclude state-subsidised developmental projects, but, instead the Tsar taking a role emblematic of the many instances in Russia from 1904 – 1917 attesting to the power that it is possible for single individuals to wield over the course of world historical events, refuses to do so. It is precisely for these and other reasons, such as the brutality of the secret police, the deployment of the army against striking workers that the Russian Social Democracy, as opposed to European wings, did not seek a compromise with capital within the state, but rather brought the revolution to its successful conclusion under the leadership of Lenin, who often had to face down significant internal resistance from party colleagues in order to do so.
The Bolsheviks were not aiming to establish a single socialist regime in Russia which would happily co-exist with the European capitalist powers. All figures whose later disagreements were to determine the course of events for as long as the state existed, from Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, Nikolai Bukharin and Grigori Zinoviev, all regarded this as the necessary development in order to break through the contradictions and limitations of the Soviet economy. Many of the Bolshevik leadership had spent significant periods of time in Europe or the United States in exile from Tsarist autocracy and had been involved in revolutionary émigré organisations. They regarded themselves as the vanguard of an international and irrevocable historical movement towards working-class power on an international basis and without a European revolution on the horizon, to hold down the fort until this was accomplished. In pursuit of this end once they had taken power Leon Trotsky set about a diplomatic strategy as the USSR’s commissar of Foreign Affairs, calling upon the workers of Europe to rise against their leaders by publishing secret treaties negotiated between the capitalist leaders against the interests of their working class. Ultimately this strategy did not work. The German Revolution, which is probably rightly regarded as a significant hinge point that might have broken the isolation of the Soviet government and opened up a path whereby forced collectivisation may have been enacted in a manner that less coercive. As it was, the exigencies of existing as an isolated regime in an antagonistic world system, which encircled, invaded and boycotted them made appealing over the heads of governments in order to stoke the militancy of the masses, as during the English general strike in 1926, an awkward proposition.
Not only are there far more revolutions in underdeveloped nations but their class character seems to become far more ambivalent as struggles for national liberation seem to shape the course of world events far more than proletarian internationalism. The most important reasons for this was the United States entering into global capitalist hegemony in the aftermath of World War II. In order to prevent the enormously popular European communist parties capitalising on their anti-fascist credentials, no thanks to the official policies of the Comintern, the US re-shapes Europe in its own image as a market for its own exports. The most robust welfare states being constructed in imperialist nations is most comprehensible in this setting, a mechanism for moderating disenchantment with the post-war dispensation. More overtly coercive forms of counter-insurgency were also visited on nations of the global south, with mass killings being inflicted on peoples in Guatemala, Indonesia, Korea and Vietnam. In this sense, claims that nation rather than class has been the primary engine of human history is to overlook the nation as a key means through which class is mediated under imperialism. It is often socialists that we find playing key roles within the most radical factions within these movements because as socialists and anti-imperialists they understand that the task of constructing socialism is an international one that requires its being challenged at multiple points simultaneously.
One of the key diplomatic strategies for the USSR in the postwar period was to push against the expansion of the US where it could, supporting and encouraging the growth of these anti-colonial regimes; for example, the USSR purchases goods from Cuba under a US blockade at prices well below those of the international market. Such gestures were often far more opportunistic than they were principled and sometimes even more of a liability than a help, as Fidel Castro experienced in their attempts to export revolution to Angola and repel South African offensives into Namibia.
The strength of the writings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, arise from their attention to real-world instances, events and examples from the context in which they wrote and acted. One of the primary issues with formulating revolutionary theory within our own situation, is that we lack these examples. The most recent point at which movements for national and social liberation were widespread was more than half a century ago and emerge from very specific legacies of colonialism, which of course remain with us, but in less overt forms, which are far more adept at nullifying or re-directing dissent. It is obvious that capitalism faces a multitude of conflicting crises. Profitability is at such a low point that the only strategy the major capitalist powers have for growth is the financialisation and inflation of assets, for the purposes of which mechanisms such as zero percent interest rates and quantitative easing have been devised, leading to a situation in which inflation may have escaped the capacity of global financial institutions to control. The system which has brought the majority of the world’s population into unfathomable depths of poverty now offloading onto them the consequences of climate change all seem to point towards a certain terminus. However, environmental concerns aside, this portentous analysis echoes in many respects that of many within the second international and we should not understate the capacity and creativity of capitalism to re-direct itself to evade crises, especially given that the left has a long journey ahead in bringing itself to the strength or organisational capacity it had a century ago.
Anderson, John Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.
Banaji, Jairus. Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Haymarket, 2011.
Deutscher, Isaac. The Prophet: The Life of Leon Trotsky, The One-Volume Edition. Verso, 2015.
Engels, Friedrich. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Wordsworth Classics, 2008.
—— & Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Wordsworth Classics, 2008.
Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878 – 1928. Penguin, 2015.
Liedman, Sven-Eric. A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx. Verso, 2018.
Lissagaray, Prosper-Olivier. History of the Paris Commune of 1871. Verso, 2012.
Marx, Karl. Class Struggle in France 1848 – 1850. International Publishers, 1997.
——, Civil War in France: The Paris Commune. International Publishers, 2008.
Rabinowitch, Alexander. Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising. Indiana University Press, 1991.
——. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. Haymarket Books, 2004.
——. The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. Indiana University Press, 2007.
Reed, John. Ten Days that Shook the World. Penguin Books, 1977.
Rodney, Walter. The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. Verso, 2018.
Salvadori, Massimo. Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880- 1939. Verso, 1990.
Trotsky, Leon. History of the Russian Revolution. Penguin, 2017.
Steve Barbaro was kind enough to ask me to publish a short story in the sixth issue of his avowedly distinct literary journal / zine / website new_sinews, I recommend you take an hour or two to rattle around in its archives this weekend in order to remind yourself what some people are still interested in having literature do. This is always a healthy exercise.
The story is called ‘1980’, you can read it here, it’s an attempt to do justice to Irish politics.
Direct thanks due of course to Steve, as well as Odrán, TMITBP and xenorealisms, who all read this in draft, indirect thanks due to Alan Kinsella and Brian Hanley.
The good people at Rupture Radio had me on to put a few questions to Bill Rolston and Robbie McVeigh about their monumental study of colonialism in Ireland, ”Anois ar teacht an tSamhraidh’: Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution‘.
You can listen to the podcast here and read my review of their book which appeared on Liberated Texts here.
Many thanks to the good people at Rupture Radio for having me on, I recommend going through their back catalogue for any other episodes you might be interested in listening to.
When reading Sally Rooney’s novels I wonder whether or not she is doing the same thing as Joanna Hogg or Harmony Korine, wherein something vacuous and / or vulgar is being represented as a comment on societal vulgarity and vacuousness or whether those being represented, whether upper-class English people or lower-class Americans, are intended to be in and of themselves, sympathetic or interesting. The answer is always both, but I think Beautiful World Where Are You represents a turning point in Rooney’s writing career at which the central point is indeed that we find academically high-achieving and precocious people who attended Trinity College Dublin sympathetic and interesting.
There are at least four distinct narrative modes within this novel.
i. mimetic depictions of how characters sit, where they are looking, what’s on their phone screen, how they hang their clothes up or don’t, whether or not they uncoil the cables of phone chargers. These sections are more surface than depth. Nothing is, rather they appear or suggest; there is a constitutive tenativeness at work here, especially in instances in which someone appearing to be nonchalant as a pretense to feeling some other way would be of little or no consequence.
ii. sections in which Eileen and Alice, the two central characters, send emails to one another, discussing relationships, both former and prior, reflect on how they feel, how they appear to themselves, how they appear to others and how others appear to them. Into this come also the novels’ ideas, such as right-wing politics, civilisational collapse and the felt biological need to have babies. The extended treatment of ideas at length represent a difference from previous works; Frances and Bobbi’s intellectual or politics interests in Conversations with Friends were exclusively a function of having scandalous things to say in company.
iv. retrospective exposition. To paraphrase; ‘Eileen’s sister played sports at school’, ‘Alice and Eileen would eat toast together long into the night’, ‘Eileen won all the academic prizes for which she was eligible’. This is only mode in which the reader moves back and forth in time.
Though self-consciousness is common to ii. and iii. and ideas come through in dialogue as well as emails I would not suggest that we are in the territory of free indirect discourse. Instead there is a more or less absolute cordon sanitaire cleaving one from the other. This is not to the works’ benefit, read alone the clunkiness present in ii. is undeniable:
‘My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976 when plastics became the most widespread material in existence. You can actually see the change in process if you look at street photography from before and after 1976. I know we have good reason to be sceptical of aesthetic nostalgia but the fact remains that before the 1970’s people wore durable clothes of wool and cotton, stored drinks in glass bottles, wrapped food produce in paper and filled their houses with sturdy wooden furniture. Now the majority of objects in our visual environment is made of plastic, the ugliest substance on earth. A material which, when dyed does not assume colour but rather exudes colour in an inimitability ugly way. One thing a government could do…is to prohibit the production of every form of plastic not necessary for the maintenance of human life’.
This paragraph and others would prompt me to think that we are firmly in the territory of Korine-Hogg, that the Kantian readings of social relations or human history are intended to transgress against our attention, or, as other critics have suggested, keep those who have showed up for the sex, or didn’t think Marxism was cool a decade ago at arms-length, given that the Anglo-American novel is in something of a golden age in terms of the number of ideas about late capitalism or modernity being ventriloquised, as in autofiction, essay fiction, theory fiction, creative non-fiction, whatever we want to call it. Whatever we might think of these works – and their class biases, originality and elitism have been litigated in many articles and reviews – I think its fair to say that one of their distinguishing features are their success in dovetailing the fictive and non-fictive with a certain amount of formal elegance.
Splitting the boundaries between these distinct modes might have allowed for a greater amount of resolution in both, or pointed a way beyond the relentless struggle within each character’s minds between politics and individuality such that they may not need to be led towards the submission and sacrifice available to them in Catholicism. This turn is interesting to read at a time in which reproductive rights are increasingly a political flashpoint. Lauren Oyler, in a recent article in the London Review of Books, seems to despair of the growth of a counter-cultural Catholicism and though no doubt numerically negligible it’s still not nearly as rare as I would like, particularly in Ireland. The implicit contention in Beautiful World Where Are You that Jesus is a bit Marxist while jettisoning everything that makes the established Catholic Church what it is cursory, and unconvincing. Allowing the emails to speak more to the novel’s matter might also have done for its non-specificity, there is an email that considers the topography of Dublin’s relative freedom from architectural fedual remnants and whether or not this makes its topography more democratic than those on the continent. Even within the context of the novel itself this is a mad thing to say, the scandal of Dublin’s rental market is represented and compared unfavourably to Paris. The apocalypticism of right-wing politics are a frequent touchstone but a reference to a British politician making an offensive statement on Bloody Sunday remains just that.
In each of Rooney’s novels the supposed disagreeableness and fervency of particular characters will comfortably alongside their popularity and brilliance. I look forward to seeing if Rooney will try to introduce a greater amount of friction between these two poles in her future works.
I appeared on The East is a Podcast to talk about the history of British imperialism in Ireland, with particular attention to the conflict in the six counties from 1968 – 1998. It appears in two parts, first part here, second part here.
Fair to say my reading habits over the past two years or so have been preparing me for this discussion so hopefully others will find it informative and useful.
A short story I wrote, with the wordy title presented above, was accepted for publication at the Belfield Literary Review, the second issue of which is available for purchase here for just eighteen quid. I want to emphasise that this is extremely good value given the work of other writers also available in there; Adrian Duncan, Christodoulos Makris, Darragh McCausland and many others.
Thanks to the editors Niamh Campbell and Paul Perry.