Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Marx

Delmore Schwartz Part3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday July 6 2014

The Heavy Bear who Goes with Me

In this poem, Schwartz objectifies his own body as a separate entity:

The heavy bear who goes with me,   

A manifold honey to smear his face,   

Clumsy and lumbering here and there,   

The central ton of every place,   

The hungry beating brutish one   

In love with candy, anger, and sleep,   

Crazy factotum, dishevelling all.

This separate entity is somewhat gross, something of a burden and an embarrassment. I am reminded of Yeats’s image of old age as a tin can tied to a dog’s tail. Schwartz uses as an epigraph a quotation from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: the withness of the body”

Whitehead speaks of the “withness of the body” and observes that in daily life our bodies are the immediate environment of our lives.  As children, we learn about this withness in joyful ways; in adults it causes suffering.  Man is a dual creature; consciousness gives him a sense of time and of “otherness,” but at the same time, he is an animal like other animals. Human consciousness exists within a body that demands the same kind of life-sustaining materials and is subject to the same kinds of appetites—for food, for physical comforts—as other, lower creatures. The accompanying bear

Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope   

Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.   

—The strutting show-off is terrified,   

Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,   

Trembles to think that his quivering meat   

Must finally wince to nothing at all.

 

There is no room for vanity here:

 

A caricature, a swollen shadow,

A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,   

Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,   

The secret life of belly and bone.

This bear is not even under control. With his grossness, he endangers the poet’s relationships:

Touches her grossly, although a word

Would bare my heart and make me clear,   

Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed   

Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,   

Amid the hundred million of his kind,   

The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

It is almost as if the body will not allow us to achieve what we really want.  No matter what our intentions, our aspirations, the body cannot travel in that direction. This is sad to read with the knowledge of Schwartz’s own inability to control his compulsions.

Themes

SchwartzDouble

The double or doppelganger is a recurring feature in literature – Dostoevsky’s The Double, The Victim by Schwartz’s friend Saul Bellow, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Stevenson. In fiction and folklore, a doppelgänger is a double of a living person and sometimes portrayed as a harbinger of bad luck. In some traditions, a doppelgänger seen by a person’s relative or friend portends illness or danger while seeing one’s own doppelgänger is said to be an omen of death. Heautoscopy is considered a possible explanation for doppelgänger phenomena. This is a term used in psychiatry and neurology for the reduplicative hallucination of “seeing one’s own body at a distance”. It can occur as a symptom in schizophrenia and epilepsy. The presence of the double causes conflict, as there can never be peaceful co-existence between a character and their second manifestation. In many instances where there is a double, it is the embodiment of a specific set of characteristics either that the original character desires to have, or a concentration of their worst characteristics, thus living up to the “evil twin” stigma.

SchwartzMirror

There are striking pictures of Schwartz looking in a mirror or as a double image. His protégé, Lou Reed, wrote a song called “I’ll Be your Mirror”.

loureeddelmoreschwartz_102612_620px

Schwartz is following in the doppelgänger tradition by dramatizing man’s dual nature. The only creature on earth possessing a sophisticated consciousness that gives him a moral sense and an understanding of the consequences of his actions, man is nevertheless compelled to exist in a material body that is really as much a part of him as is his higher intelligence. No matter how hard he tries, man is never able to separate his spiritual nature from his physical side.

Schwartz believed his name embodied a dualism. The surname is very Jewish and the forename a bit WASPy. There is a dichotomy between old world civility and new world philistinism, and generational differences between immigrants and their American-born offspring. Much of his work is about attempts to transcend what he saw as the inevitable disappointments and profound disillusionment of life.

There is also, as in Yeats, much about masks.

 

But tonight I am going to the masked ball,

Because it has occurred to me

That the masks are more true than the faces

Perhaps this too is poetry?

Now that I know that most falsehoods are true

Perhaps I can join the charade?

 

Schwartz often focused on middle-class New York immigrant families whose children are alienated both from their parents and from American culture and society. There is much talk of hope as well as despair.

How the false truths of the years of youth have passed!

Have passed at full speed like trains which never stopped

There where I stood and waited, hardly aware,

How little I knew, or which of them was the one

To mount and ride to hope or where true hope arrives.

The themes of separation and isolation run through Schwartz’s poetry and prose. The title piece of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and Other Stories (1938) is an account of an evening spent viewing a film about the narrator’s parents. Schwartz examines conflicts between the Jewish heritage and modern American culture. Jewish life in the United States is also the subject of The World Is a Wedding (1948), a short story collection that is a novella in ten sections. “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life” displays Schwartz’s interest in family relationships, the role of the artist, and feelings of alienation; “America! America!” focuses on a writer’s sense of isolation from his fellow New Yorkers, his family, and his Jewish heritage.

Delmore, although he was a Jewish writer immersed in Freud and Marx, was also interested in Christianity and there are strong Christian themes in his works. The inevitability of death was a common theme as were love, forgiveness and the inability to escape our past.

Summer knowledge is the knowledge of death as birth,

Of death as the soil of all abounding flowering flaring rebirth

 

He wrote memorable phrases about poetry and music.

For poetry is the sunlight of consciousness:

It is also the soil of the fruits of knowledge

In the orchards of being.

 

In his poem “Vivaldi”, he wrote:

 

This is the immortality of immortality

Deathless and present in the presence of the deathless present.

This is the grasped reality of reality, moving forward

Now and forever.

 

He was an essentially urban being being but could write about nature. The whole of the poem “A Little Morning Music” is quotable but here is a taste:

 

The birds in the first light twitter and whistle,

Chirp and seek, sipping and chortling – weakly, meekly, they speak and bubble

As cheerful as the cherry would, if it could speak when it is cherry ripe or cherry ripening.

 

Next week- Delmore’s decline and death.

 

 

Gramsci, Dayan and New Labour

I recently had the strange experience of receiving an e-mail from Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary. I would not expect such a man to be my friend. I will not forget his role in the illegal invasion of Iraq. My new friend Alistair was writing to thank me because I had signed a petition he had organised challenging Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail to debate with him about the paper’s attack on Ralph Miliband, the late father of Labour leader, Ed Miliband.

The article by Geoffrey Levy, published on 27 September 2013, described Ralph Miliband, who arrived in Britain as Belgian Jewish fugitive from the Nazis, served in the Royal Navy, and became a distinguished Marxist academic, as a “man who hated Britain”.

Levy argued that that young Ed intended to fulfil his father’s dreams and replace Margaret Thatcher’s legacy with a new 21st century socialism. “How proud Ralph would have been to hear him responding the other day to a man in the street who asked when he was ‘going to bring back socialism’, with the words: ‘That’s what we are doing, sir’.” A number of right wing commentators conflated the Milibands’ arguments in favour of socialism with the smear that they were in favour of violent revolution and repression.

I was reminded of the wacky world of the British Labour Party (and its uneasy relationship with Marxism) when I read Dayan Jayatilleka’s article in Ceylon Today dated October 13.

Dr Jayatilleka writes:

“It is no accident that the renovation and recovery of the British Labour Party during the long night of Thatcherism was intellectually spearheaded by three outstanding theoreticians of the Marxian Left, Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, all of whom drew on the political science of Antonio Gramsci, to critically comprehend the success, national and cultural, of the Thatcher phenomenon of ‘authoritarian populism’ (Stuart Hall) and the ossification and obsolescence of the Labour Opposition.”

That seems to me to be problematic on several counts. I will deal with the concepts of “Marxian” and “theoreticians” later.

I vaguely knew Martin Jacques when we were contemporaries at Manchester University in the heady “revolutionary” days of the late sixties. What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive! We did not move in the same circles, although I knew people who knew him. He was almost exactly a year older than I was. Our tangential crossing of orbits induced me to follow his career with some interest. He achieved some degree of media fame in the 70s and 80s when, under his editorship, Marxism Today– the theoretical magazine of the Communist Party of Great Britain – became readable and even slick and fashionable. The grim old Stalinists of the CP embraced media-friendly Euro-Communism and started wearing gaudy silk ties, smart double-breasted suits with pleated trousers, abandoned their wrapover baldy men look and started talking fluently on TV.

Martin entered the world of think tankery and became quite influential. If you trawl the blogosphere patiently, you will find references (accusations?) from the left that he made New Labour possible. However, it is a bit of a stretch to imply that Gramsci had some connection with “the renovation and recovery of the British Labour Party”.

I also had a tangential connection with Stuart Hall when I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee. Professor Hall was a candidate to succeed Sir Arthur as Chairman. I argued Hall’s case vigorously but 1984 was not the time for an SSSAC chairman who was black and Marxist. Incidentally, one of the SSAC members was quite friendly and humorous. Henry Hodge was a human rights lawyer who later went on to become a High Court judge. His wife was Margaret Hodge, who achieved notoriety as the leader of left wing Islington Council (nicknamed “Enver Hodge”, after the Albanian despot). She later went on to become a minister in the Blair government and in 2010, she was elected Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. The Hodges were neighbours and friends of the Blairs. Henry once remarked that he was married to the Labour Party. Margaret (née Oppenheimer) is a multi-millionaire. The Daily Mail alleges that her role on the PAC is compromised by the fact that her company paid just 0.25 per cent in tax on its profits last year

In 1983, I was present in the House of Commons to hear Gordon Brown give his maiden speech. It was very impressive in a dour kind of manner, but I did not detect the influence of Gramsci.

Soon after taking office in 1997, the new Blair administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One of Blair’s “triumphs” had been to abolish Clause IV of the party constitution. This was what made the Labour Party socialist because it dealt with nationalization of the commanding peaks of the economy. By getting rid of this central pillar of Old Labour principle, the party became New Labour and abandoned any pretence of socialism. Blair had never been a socialist; he was one of those careerists who decided politics was a good job option and then chose the party that suited him best, regardless of principles. On attaining power, there would be no attempt to re-nationalize privatised industries, like the railways or water, even though 73% of the population wanted that. New Labour brought further privatization by stealth. Blair and his finance minister, and later successor, Gordon Brown, pursued with great zeal the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), using private capital to fund public projects. Private companies prospered, the public paid.

The problem with theory is that it has a tendency to disappear up its own fundament. Karl Marx was a brilliant man who made many perceptive judgements about the way the world works. Like Freud, he has been a major influence on modern life. Freud was a big fraud who made up most of his theories without any scientific proof. It would be better if we regarded Freud and Marx as creative geniuses rather than trying to shoehorn the real world into their theoretical framework.

This shoehorning can be fatal when one believes that the end justifies the means. Let us look at the career of Eric Hobsbawm. When he died at the age of 95, even right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson praised Hobsbawm’s achievements as an historian.  In 1998, Blair appointed Hobsbawm to the Order of the Companions of Honour.

However, Tony Judt cautioned that Hobsbawm’s bias in favour of the USSR weakened his grasp of important aspects of the 20th century. David Pryce-Jones thought Hobsbawm “steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth”. In an interview with Michael Ignatieff in 1994, Hobsbawm said 20 million deaths might have been justified if a communist utopia had been created. The problem with utopias is that they do not happen so no loss of life is justified. Hobsbawm retained his CP membership long after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. David Pryce-Jones accuses Hobsbawm of actually supporting the invasion of Hungary. Marx biographer Francis Wheen argued: “When writing about how the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s brought new recruits to the communist cause, he cannot even bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to ‘temporary episodes such as 1939–41’. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring are skipped over.”

Hall, Jacques and Hobsbawm’s advice may well have helped to make Labour electable. Hobsbawm’s daughter Julia was, like my new friend Alistair, a media adviser to Blair. It is very odd that these CP diehards would advise abandoning socialism and making Labour Thatcherite. Ralph Miliband described the thinking of Marxism Today under Jacques as a “very pronounced retreat from some socialist positions.’ Eric Hobsbawm’s writings in Marxism Today lent support to Neil Kinnock’s strategy of steering Labour rightwards. It is ironic that this gang of Stalinists gave Britain a new Thatcherism under Blair rather than any kind of socialism whatsoever. Hobsbawm derisively referred to Blair as “Thatcher in trousers”. This may have been some cunning Baldrickesque plan but I would ask any remaining socialist in the present-day British Labour Party – “how was it for you”? Was the outcome good for socialism or Britain?

Commodities

The word commodity derives from the Latin commoditas meaning “fitness, adaptation”. It  came into use in English in the 15th century, from the French commodité, meaning  a benefit or profit. By 2013, commodities have come to mean what is fit to be adapted to the capitalist system.

In economics, a commodity is a marketable item produced to satisfy wants or needs. We generally think  of the term commodity is applied to goods only –  in general parlance a commodity is a thing, a material object for sale.

The term commodity market refers to physical or virtual transactions of buying and selling involving raw or primary commodities. One of the characteristics of a commodity is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole. Commodities trading covers natural resources  such as iron, coal, oil and agricultural products such as sugar, wheat, rice. Soft commodities are goods that are grown, while hard commodities are the ones that are extracted.

The enthusiasm for  ethanol and biodiesel linked energy markets in London and New York to Chicago’s agricultural futures trading, as well as creating  tensions between rich countries and poorer food importers hit by grain price spikes as rich nations forged ahead with policies that, essentially, meant burning poor people’s food to move cars around.

Commodity  trading houses have preserved a remarkable level of anonymity despite playing  a crucial role in the daily supply of energy and food. The leading independent energy trading houses – Vitol, Glencore, Trafigura, Mercuria and Gunvor –handled more than 15m barrels of oil a day last year. ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus, handle about half of the world’s grain and soybeans trade flows. Glencore and Trafigura control as much as 60% of some markets, such as zinc. These trading houses are so influential that they may have become systemically important, “too big to fail”, like banks and insurance companies.

A somewhat disturbing feature of 21st century life is the extension of soft commodities to include what some have described as  fictitious commodities, which in turn has led to commodification of many areas of human life previously safe from the red tooth and claw of the marketplace. The earliest use of the word commodification in English seems to be in the OED in 1975 but Marx long ago noted its effects, using the term commodity fetishism. Marx extensively criticized the way that market values can replace social values and  communal systems.

Douglas Rushkoff uses as examples: “Our parties become commodified as Tupperware moves in to turn them into buying opportunities.” “The techniques for proper breast feeding used to be passed down from mother to daughter, but now there is a market for lactation consultants. As a result, one of the most intimate human functions has become commodified.”

The Marketization of Society: Economizing the Non-Economic edited by Uwe Schimank and  Ute Volkmann, is a collection of essays describing a number of soft commodities: ”intellectual property as a revenue category that purportedly rewards intellectual creativity. Historically, the production of knowledge occurred outside the market, in institutions such as guilds, universities, religious bodies, or state institutions.”

 

Monsanto patents seeds that poor peasants have been using for centuries;  they can now charge the peasants for Monsanto products. If British water can be privatised and traded by foreign capitalists, why not the air that we breathe? (There is a market in carbon.) There are even cases of casino capitalism spread-betting on natural disasters. A Web site called Intrade, based in Dublin, allows people to bet on the likelihood of future earthquakes or epidemics.

 

Commodification is often criticised on the grounds that some things ought not to be for sale and ought not to be treated as if they were a tradeable commodity. I have written in these pages of my experience as a management consultant observing the introduction of  health-care “reforms”. Those reforms aimed  to create an “internal market” in health care. Conservative politicians believe that to be more efficient public services  have to be more like businesses operating for profit. Conservative and Labour governments advanced creeping privatisation. The Health and Social Care Act of 2012, against overwhelming opposition from the medical profession, effectively killed the NHS. Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson are taking over provision of health care. Their “risks” will be secured  by the taxpayer. Marga Institute Chairman Emeritus, Dr. Godfrey Gunatilleke,  said that market economics which treat health as a commodity would not meet the challenge of an aging population.

Human beings are not fungible (uniform, interchangeable, and substitutable like cash for cash, corn for corn, and gold for gold)  units of labour.  Even money is a social creation based on social trust and governance. Richard Titmuss demonstrated the  importance of the non-market gift economy based on social reciprocity and sharing when he wrote about blood donors in his classic book, The Gift Relationship. The irony is that the market which treats blood as a commodity is less efficient.

 

 

 

 

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