Monday, 26 April 2010

The Ancient Garden

It’s long been a commonplace of Marxist literary theory to argue that “the difference between science and art” is that “science gives us conceptual knowledge of a situation; art gives us the experience of that situation” and, like most commonplaces, this one manages to be both deeply inadequate and disorienting as well as pointing in the direction of something useful and true.

I’ve had a surfeit of “the experience of that situation” recently, working my through Hwang Sok-Yong’s brilliant and moving novel The Ancient Garden. There’s nothing quite like weeping through your tea breaks to mark you out as the office oddball, but I can’t imagine the reader who could get through this story and remain unmoved. The resilience of realism’s strategies is worth noting: a fairly conventional device of splitting the plot-, narrative- and story-time via letters and recollection in not-quite-tranquility by characters ‘sadder but wiser’ manages to evoke both the scale, tragedy and grandeur of the Gwangju massacre – and the struggles which shaped the ‘386’ generation more widely – and offer us an insight into the human impact and complexity of those times and their legacy now.

Experience becomes an issue in other ways as well. For any socialist in one of the oppressor countries there’s bound to be a healthy discomfort from time to time as we ponder the experiential gulf between our own lives and those of others. I don’t mean a political point by this; the idea that things being worse elsewhere means we should ignore injustice here is never one I’ve understood, and I’ve no patience with calls to substitute solidarity with gratitude. My point is a vaguer one, about feelings: impossible sometimes to talk about starvation and torture and war when it’s so distant, so foreign from the life world we can draw on for comparison.

Hwang’s novel gives us a sense of that world, but he also captures something of the imaginative and emotional demands of what movements fight for. The non-argument that ideas and theory and articulate visions mar fiction they appear in (the show don’t tell carry-on) is too lame to waste time with here; what The Ancient Garden illuminates is how often everyday life is used as an ideological stand-in for alternatives to politics in art. Food, family, sexual love, nature, beauty, idleness: it’s impossible to imagine a vision of the good life which doesn’t treasure these things, yet far too many celebrations of what we might have now turn into implicit arguments against wider transformation. Hwang is alive to that tension and draws from it to give his novel its charge.

All of this, of course, is a roundabout and no doubt overblown and agonized way of trying to communicate how much I loved this work, how much it moved me, and how important it felt, how vital a record, a testament, and a call to continue. Although she doesn’t at first seem like she’ll be the hero or the model of resilience, it’s the voice of the character Han Yoon Hee which stays in my mind:

There will be endless debates and numerous arguments that will always need to begin from square one; compromises that no one’s happy with will be made, and after a long wait will come some slight progress, which will most likely be distorted after a while. All there can be is a partnership or an election. It will be impossible to figure out how the threads got entangled, so you will be lucky to find the one you just missed. And everyone will resemble everyone else while holding onto the end of that one thread and arguing over it, never again able to go back to the starting point. While trying to destroy the system, they will form another system in order to destroy it. No one can remain a warrior forever. Even the revolutionary committee goes home after a day’s work. At home, the wife takes care of the kids and complains that his paycheck is late again and nags that he is never home and whines that there is no more money. Again and again, they eat and drink and fight and have sex and go to work and begin debating again. In between the land he had left and the sky and the far future there is an infinite black hole with its mouth wide open. A revolution? That is a frozen scintillation. If you are not banished like Oh Hyun Woo or murdered by bullets in front of a barricade like his brothers, you will have to live an exhausting life as an activist who has to commute to work. Still, even if that is the case, how beautiful a revolution is. Even if it makes your mouth dry, even if you end up quivering with disillusionment, it still electrifies you and reminds you that you are alive.


That long quote is from pp. 366-7 of Jay Oh’s translation of The Ancient Garden (Basingstoke: Picador, 2009).

The experience quote at the start of this post is from Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkley: UC Press, 1976), p. 18.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Japan in the Supermarket of the Kiwi Psyche

Not available online, alas (and that’s a real alas, for real reasons, not just vanity) but some of you might be interested in my essay "Japan in the Supermarket of the Kiwi Psyche" in the latest Journal of New Zealand Literature (27: 2009) on the cultural politics of treatments of Japan in contemporary New Zealand literature.

If you’ve got a university connection this might work, otherwise it’s off to the library.

[O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us! I’ve never had “salty milk” ice cream but, if Rakuten is to be believed, it’s an NZ thing…]

Monday, 12 April 2010

Demonstration Culture!

Over Easter I was lucky enough to be able to go to Marxism 2010 in Melbourne, a worthwhile event in all sorts of ways (my particular highlight, among plenty of rewarding sessions, was being able to listen to Trevor Ngwane, veteran South African anti-privatisation campaigner).

As part of the conference I spoke on some of the inspration and lessons of Korea’s Candelight Movement from 2008. The talk and discussion went fairly well, I think, and, when there’s time, I’ll try and write it all up as a post.

In the meantime I want to offer you a heartening quote I uncovered – as with so much else of value on Korea, from the Hankyoreh - during preparing for my talk. The background is appalling – a plan by the thugs in the GNP to remove the right of free assembly – but the admission itself is fabulous. Here’s ex-Prime Minister Han:

“The government intends to counter illegal strikes and violent demonstrations that could have negative effects on the nation’s economy. To reach the level of an advanced nation, it is necessary to correct the backwardness of our demonstration culture.”

A demonstration culture….what wouldn’t we all give to have one of those?

Right-wing fantasies aside, though, this is of course on a different order to preferring kimchi to marmite, sensible as that preference may be. A demonstration culture is built out of what EP Thompson calls the “moral culture” of the working class; it’s forged by organization, politics, ideas, traditions. Time for the rest of us to get busy.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Chaplin's Modernist Realism

Brecht was convinced that if we were to read a fine novel and then learn later that it had been written by Lenin, our opinion of both the book and the Bolshevik would suffer. Being able to form a set of rounded characters or turn a shapely sentence aren’t, it seems, part of the skill set you demand from a revolutionary theorist and working-class leader.

It hasn’t dented my opinion of him, but discovering Charles Chaplin’s My Autobiography has been as creatively destructive an experience as the one Brecht imagined for himself. Chaplin is, of course, one of the great Modernists. His autobiography, though - a story of one man’s journey from ‘small garret’ to end up ‘sadder but wiser’ in a Swiss palace - is a triumph of a particular type of English-language Realism. Where else has this kind of double generic life been going on? What moonlighting might yet be uncovered? Did Lukacs have a similar text hidden away, History and the Stream of Class Consciousness?

All of the outrage and indignation you’d expect from the creator of The Great Dictator is here (interesting, too, his observation that he could never have made that film had he known the full extent and horrors of Nazism’s anti-Semitic outrages):

I found poverty neither attractive nor edifying. It taught me nothing but a distortion of values, an over-rating of the virtues and graces of the so-called better classes.

Wealth and celebrity, on the contrary, taught me to view the world in proper perspective, to discover that men of eminence, when I came close to them, were as deficient in their way as the rest of us.

Chaplin achieves this ‘proper perspective’ with the help of baroque vocabulary (“the ‘he man’ atmosphere of the studio would have been almost intolerable but for the pulchritudinous influence”) and high-energy ‘literary’ touches (“to gauge the morals of our family by commonplace standards would be as erroneous as putting a thermometer in boiling water.”). He even manages to come up with a quick guide to character along the way: you can always tell someone’s worth by what kind of an Oscar Wilde they turn out like. One theatrical entrepreneur “looked like a coarse edition of Oscar Wilde.” No trusting him then. Emil Ludwig, on the other hand, “looked like a refined Oscar Wilde.”

It may be that my shock at all this richly totalising detail and perspective has been conditioned by the last century’s wars of position around realism and modernism. This is how Michael Denning argues it:

The two leading transnational aesthetic terms – realism and modernism – were so embedded in the cultural Cold War that they became mere honorifics, with little actual meaning. In the communist world, favoured writers were proclaimed realists; in the capitalist world, they were deemed modernists. The discoveries that apparent modernists were actually realist – think of the cases of Brecht and Picasso – and the reverse claim that classic social realists were actually modernists (as in contemporary reinterpretations of Lu Xun) have regularly been part of the ideological battle conducted through these terms.

Perhaps, then, Chaplin’s Autobiography shows the realism in his modernism, and the modernist possibilities bursting out of his realism, and we can enlist him as an example of what John Roberts has identified as “modernist realism” or the interrupted conversation between the two:

At the depth of this dolorous period, Mother began to develop migraine headaches and was forced to give up her needlework, and for days was obliged to lie in a dark room with tea-leaf bandages over her eyes. Picasso had a blue period. We had a grey one, in which we lived on parochial charity, soup tickets and relief parcels.

Works Cited

Michael Denning, “The Novelists’ International” in Franco Moretti (ed.), The Novel, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 705.