I recall, a good number of years ago, reading that ‘a philosophical novel is an impossibility.’ I maintain that it was Iris Murdoch who said this – I remember being struck by the idea that, if anyone were to know, it should be her – but I can’t for the life of me dig it up via Google. Irrespective – if this were true, bad news for Sophie’s World and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – but not for Lars Iyer’s 2014 novel Wittgenstein Jr, because, despite the name and the nominal subject matter, it is in fact a love story.
The narrative follows, loosely, a group of philosophy undergrads in present-day Cambridge over the course of their degree, united by the presence of a shared lecturer. A lecturer they half-jokingly refer to as Wittgenstein Jr, as if he were a diminutive version, in all the eccentric mannerisms, of the more famous namesake. The jumbled-together nature of the cast – boys from different backgrounds and with different approaches to and desires from life – is highlighted in the work itself, resulting in moments of humour and pathos in equal measure as they strike off one another and maintain an uneasy friendship. This is balanced against the somewhat abstract maunderings of Wittgenstein Jr (whose real name is never offered up) which, while they don’t necessarily build to a coherent philosophical project, do massage the story forward.
No normal, straight-ahead tale, the prose style throughout the work is in a state of flux: at times, dialogue is laid out as a screenplay – named characters in block print, followed by words that we assume are passing in some manner of ordered temporality. At other times, we have the situation related to us by our protagonist, Peters, in a clipped, present-tense reportage that curtails any worries that he might not be the most faithful of narrators. Thirdly, we have the broad-stroke, hermetic declarations of the titular Wittgenstein Jr, as filtered by Peters, thrusting themselves between the actual events of the story.
It’s somewhat difficult to dissociate my own experiences from those of the novel – I fear that, being situated in Cambridge myself, I’m giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to the book. How much am I filling in gaps within the presentation, when I too have walked along the University backs, drank late at night on Cambridge’s rooftops, spent lazy afternoons meandering to Grantchester? Doubly, I’ve been an undergrad in a philosophy program, too. Much of the experience rang true – Iyer was a lecturer in philosophy at Uni of Newcastle before taking the position of Reader in Creative Writing, so he ought to know, if most recently from the other side of the equation – but how much is just my own insertion? Then again, the experiences we each bring to a reading inform it – there can be no distilled, pure version of any such affair, can there?
My biggest complaint, structurally, is brought on by my own experiences: no women in the class itself, and the female characters outside the main, male undergrad set are little more than set-dressing. In my own cohort, the few female colleagues amongst the majority male crowd were by far the best of us – but, and this is something endemic to analytic departments, few is the rule. Likely, my friends and colleagues performed so much better than the rest of us because of the unvocalised assumption that they were, even in the 21st century, interlopers, and thus had to outstrip the rest just to get by. I can only assume that Cambridge, at the undergrad level, is even worse on this. It would have been positive if Iyer was able to critique this state of affairs in some way, but I appreciate the lampshading nonetheless. The reported romances, those few that involve women, are dealt with on an abstract, allegorical level (and it is the disappointment thereof, the inevitably mundane nature of the amoureuse, that stalls the romance).
Rather than receive reports on the minutiae of the didactic process, the descriptions of the classes the group take with Wittgenstein Jr are opportunities for gnomic, aphoristic utterances that do more to provide an atmosphere to the book than anything of a linear, plotted construction. There are through-lines, such as the idea of the ‘English lawn,’ which resurface at various points. The metaphor is used as a heavy-handed critique of the modern Oxbridge reality, without necessarily hearkening back to a ‘better’ past:
“The English lawn is receding, Wittgenstein says. And with it, the world of the old dons of Cambridge.
New housing estates, where once was open countryside… A new science park where once were allotments and orchards… New apartment blocks near the station, their balconies in shade … And towering barbarisms: Varsity Hotel, looming over Park Parade; Botanic House, destroying the Botanic Gardens; Riverside Place, desecrating the River Cam…
They’re developing the English lawn, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glassy towers on the English lawn. They’re laying out the suburbs and exurbs on the English lawn. They’re constructing Megalopolis on the English lawn.
And they’re developing the English head, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glass-and-steel towers in the English head. They’re building suburbs and exurbs in the English head…
The new don is nothing but a suburb-head, Wittgenstein says. The new don – bidding for funds, exploring synergies with industry, looking for corporate sponsorship, launching spin-off companies. The new don, courting venture capitalists, seeking business partners, looking to export the Cambridge brand. The new don – with a head full of concrete. A finance-head. A capitalist-head.”
Iyer does a good job at presenting the self-important priggishness of overly-clever young men, puffed up on their own abilities and lacking the self-awareness to temper their more brash statements. Your humble reviewer may or may not be able to attest to the veracity of the following passages…
“EDE: Have you noticed how the rahs are all saying literally now? I was like literally exhausted. I was like literally wasted. But nothing they say actually means anything! Literally or figuratively! Most of the time, they don’t even finish their sentences. I was literally so… They just trail off. They barely speak, most of the time. Mmms and ahhs. Little moans, nothing else. Oh reeeealllly. Lurrrrrvely. Coooool.
And they use the word uni, which is unforgiveable, Ede says.”
“We speak of our desire for despair – real despair, Ede and I. For choking despair, visible to all. For chaotic despair, despair of collapse, of ruination. For the despair of Lucifer, as he fell from heaven…
Our desire for annulling despair. For a despair that dissolves the ego; despair indistinguishable from a kind of death. For wild despair, for heads thrown back, teeth fringing laughing mouths. For exhilarated despair, for madness under the moon.
Our desire for despairs of the damned. For crawling despairs, like rats, like spiders. For heavy despairs, like those on vast planets, which make a teardrop as heavy as lead…
Our desire for the moon to smash into the earth. For the sun to swallow the earth. For the night to devour both the sun and the earth.
We speak of our desire for extinction, for cool mineral silence. For the Big Crunch, for the end of all things. For the Great Dissipation, when electrons leave their atoms…”
Truthfully, the only thing that saves these extended sections from contemptibility is the earnest, charming honesty by which they are delivered. As much as they signal – on their surface – entitled, inexperienced boasting, the reality is that of young, nerdy men bonding, building a friendship to push back against the often-hostile, imperfect world they wish they could change for the better, or at least to their conception of what that might mean. Moments of shared, unselfconscious awkwardness – such is the mortar of friendship.
There are passages where the reader is offered glimpses of Wittgenstein Jr’s mounting paranoia – never so sharp, though, as to turn the tenor of the book, which remains fundamentally light in its touch. The sheer outrageousness of it, though deadly serious in delivery, can’t but undercut itself. One can almost picture Bernard Black uttering the below –
“The dons are always ready to pounce, he says. Always ready with their greetings. Hello, they say. Nice weather we’re having, they say. How are you?, they say. How are you getting on?, they say. What have you been up to?, they say. Each time: an assault. Each time: a truncheon over the head. Hello. Nice day. Hello. Hello.”
As I had mentioned earlier, though, the work really shines when it is relaying the essence of Cambridge, descriptions of the physicality and references to the culture combining to provide a hefty psychogeographical distillation. One where you can almost feel the sandy crumbling of acid-rain washed architecture under your fingers, the heaviness of all this accumulated, academic prerogative bearing down on you.
“Flooded pasture. Meadows full of standing water. Salt-water wetlands. Tidal creeks and meres. Rivers braiding, fanning out.
You get a sense of what the Fens used to be like, before they were drained, Wittgenstein says. Settlers building on banks of silt, on low hills, on fen edges. Towns like islands in the marshland.
We imagine the first scholars, expelled from Oxford, founding the new university in Cambridge. We imagine the first colleges growing out of boardinghouses. The first classes, teaching priests to glorify God, and to preach against heresy. The first benefactors, donating money for building projects. The first courtyard design, at Queens College, the chapel at its heart. The first libraries, built above the ground floor to avoid the floods. The lands, drained along the river, and planted with weeping willows and avenues of lime trees. The Backs, cleared, landscaped lawns replacing garden plots and marshland. Cambridge, raising itself above the water. Cambridge, lifting itself into the heavens of thought…”
I started off this review by denying the idea that it should be a ‘philosophical novel,’ and instead declaring it a love story. I think I’ve shown some of the appreciation it has for the particular moment in life the characters share; the physical place they find themselves in. There is a more prosaic, more carnal love story that winds its way through the piece, but, I think, to give it away here would be a disservice to the reader. As much as it comes to the fore towards the end of this relatively short piece, it does a good job of injecting a degree of energy, of providing motion that makes sense of and solidifies the earlier passages.
Suffice to say, if you yourself have come from a humanities background, or really from any space where a volatile, passionate friendship has sprung up – one that hangs together despite itself, and burns the brighter for it – and it’s something you’d like to see represented; if you’ve a desire to get a feel for what Cambridge is like as a place and a head space; if you’re interested in intriguing and challenging narrative forms, there are worse tales to read than this.
Plus, it’s quite funny.
Picture the scene before you – you know it well – the standard one, trotted out for decades now by the self-satisfied, oh-so-earnest mega-charities: sub-Saharan Africa, swollen-bellied children so far-gone into their destitution they barely swat at the buzzing flies. But, wait, you’re not in sub-Saharan Africa, you’ve just left the A5, on your way to Milton Keynes. Those fly-blown children? Glassy-eyed Millenials. The flies themselves? Babies. Oh, forsaken one, you’ve found yourself at Ikea.
Take a closer look at these desolate people around you as you ascend the escalator – they will be your group, your tribe. Together, you will venture through this strange land. It won’t be done on purpose, there will be moments where you find yourself almost alone – these will be the worst, when the immensity of this place begins to bear down on you, the weight of the precariously stacked plastic tchotchkes, the forest’s worth of balsa-wood spoons dumped in steel cages, the aluminium garlic presses in their hundreds, all feels like it will crush the sanity from your tortured brain – but, inevitably, one of your tribe will wander back into view. The site of that collar-popped striped shirt, those third-best yoga pants, the flip-flops, will set you at ease. Here, here in this mad bricollage of Euro-chic consumer goods, here is something you can hold onto.
You will stick to the predetermined paths that shepherd you along the ‘long, natural way’, only very seldomly venturing off to examine the mesh backing of the FLINTAN, the lumbar support of the FJÄLLBERGET, or the thread count on the SKÖRPIL. These paths will usher you on your way, offering a subconscious balm against that greatest of all fears, the threat of becoming lost, going feral and living out your days in the cramped, kaleidoscope world of the showrooms. No, by sticking to the paths, egged on by the unattended screams of your tribe’s offspring, you’ll safely make your way to the juncture.
A choice is now forced on you, which, admittedly, can be a bit of a shock after the structure of the showrooms – do you break your pilgrimage, and head to the food dispensary, or do you venture forth into the ‘market hall’? The hollow rumblings of your stomach decide for you, and unerringly your feet guide you past the ‘market hall’ and into the ‘restaurant.’ You queue amidst the other millenials, grasping plastic tray in both hands. Why have they put the dessert first, you wonder idly as you grab yourself two servings of the Swedish apple cake. Good thing too, as, though you don’t know it yet, the ‘veggie balls’ you spoon onto a plate subsequently will leave you feeling hungry before you even exit the store. Even with the two pints of Norwegian lingonberry sparkling water!
Temporarily restored, you brave once more the surging crowds, re-inserting yourself into the flow and sweeping through the cavern-like maw of ‘the market.’ You notice, bobbing along in the swirling mass, the heads of some of your tribe – unbeknownst to you, it seems they too succumbed to the vagaries of their mortal frame. Their harried, ungulate expressions reassure you, and you calm enough to begin examining your surroundings. The swing-top KORKEN stacked metres high? You can’t go wrong at £1.75! Get 5! The 18-piece FÄRGRIK? £13.50? Get two! Ooh, what a sweet design on the GLÖDANDE! Get three in case one chips. Alas, you must be having fun, as your meandering course, assisted by the shuffling herd around you, has brought you to the end of the market – a hole in the ground.
As you descend the escalator, you’re assaulted – olfactorily. Laid out beneath you stretch hundreds of scented candles, and their individual waxy odours blend to a miasma that chokes ever more thoroughly as you descend. Tugging your loved ones along, you rush through to clearer airs and find yourself –
in the flatpack. A farness of flatpack. A warehouse worthy of any seaport, situated within the store, now stretches before you. Banners hang from every row’s end, depicting and naming the ‘designers.’ As one, they smirk down on you. They know this place is theirs. They run the gamut from corn fed all-American to bright-eyed Slav and on to canny Eurasian and can be anywhere from 28 to 73 (but, though it won’t be until you’re safely ensconced in the car and bootling down the motorway, the thought creeps up on you – only one gender is ever represented), and they all have the same expression. The only thing that wards off the fascistic is the size – just shy of your Nuremberg banner. The only escape from their ever-present gaze is to duck into the aisles themselves, to be confronted with their creations – handily disassembled and packaged for your convenience.
Dodging in and out of momentary respite, you see it ahead of you – the goal of this odyssey – the discount den. You pass by the spare SKORVA and the stacked LÖNSET, paying them no attention at all. How can you delay, when some other schmuck might snatch the mis-matched FÅGLAVIK set? The ever so slightly-lumpy HÖSTFIBBLA must be yours! Success! You wrestle the cracked BJÖRKSTA from the boney clutches of some sucker’s gran and rush over to the till.
The queue is three groups deep, and, due to the various trolleys, baskets and carts each are possessed of, you are forced to abandon your comrades to wait. You quickly pass your wallet to your partner and dash. The Norwegian lingonberry sparkling water has returned.
You get back in time to catch the final cash through. Congratulations, you’ve just spent £783.56.
Comment on the American Election
Does Hillary Clinton face enormous amounts of misogynistic abuse? Without doubt.
Is this a major issue? You betcha.
The rhetoric that has been lobbed at Clinton in this election cycle, and back in 2008 as well, by both the left and the right is reprehensible in the extreme and needs to be countered in every instance. It is damaging to women everywhere, working to preclude eligibility to the highest office in America, and by extension, one of the most powerful positions in the world, purely on the basis of gender. Attacking Clinton on this level has rippling effects that reach far beyond this single presidential race.
This is not to say, though, that Hillary Clinton merits the Presidency. Her attackers may couch their positions in sexist rhetoric, and their aims are betrayed by this, but attacked she deserves to be.
What are the crimes of Donald Trump? Unscrupulous business practices, likely tax evasion, the whipping up of racial animus the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation. These things have palpable, real consequences – hundreds of lives worsened or ruined, scores of individuals suffering physical assaults, businesses that people looked to for their livelihoods ripped apart. Donald Trump, while not a fascist in the ways we have known before, is a reckless, dangerous cretin, and to allow him access to the powers associated with the Presidency would be a grave mistake. What we have seen of him thus far, his blundering unpredictability, should give us pause.
How does Hillary Clinton stack up in comparison? The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that is all the more frightening for its mystery – we don’t know what he’d be able to achieve, how much damage he would be able to inflict. On the other hand, we know exactly what will come of an HRC presidency. She’s held enough high offices, been close enough to the power structure of the US now, for decades, to allay any questions one might still have.
Hillary Clinton is a murderous, corrupt, racist neo-con, and a presidency with her at the helm will be a continuation of the current murderous, corrupt, racist regime we’ve had for decades.
The damage that Donald Trump has been able to inflict upon the world pales to insignificance when compared with that of Hillary Clinton. When Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton supported the vicious military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Honduras, legitimating the violence and internationally-maligned illegal conduct of the actors. In the wake of this, violence against LGBTQ people has spiked, the economy has tanked, and organised crime has seized control of ever more of the country. Hillary Clinton has been hawkish for her entire political career – her opposition to regime change in Haiti in ’94 came not because she was averse to needless death but because the effort was ‘too disorganised.’ She voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, quibbling over her motivations only after the whole thing came apart at the seams. At the time, she vocalised her support for that most-American of policies, gunboat diplomacy: “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” Despite paying lip-service to not involving America in Pakistani engagements , the drone-strikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2008, all reservations evapourated upon being confirmed Secretary of State. She was a proponent of the surge of troops in Afghanistan under Obama and was for regime change in Libya. In Syria, she has been a supporter of dumping ever-more weapons into the ring, supposedly to aid the ‘moderate’ militias, in truth untraceable once they touch ground. It is plausible that a Clinton Presidency will raise tensions with Russia to the point of disaster.
Racism, particularly against blacks, has been woven into the cloth of America from its start. That said, it was the policy choices of the Clinton administration in the 90’s that set the scene for the current rash of institutionalised violence playing out now – with 102 unarmed black people murdered by police in 2015, and, at last count, 36 this year. Adding those that were armed with anything deemed a ‘weapon’ causes both numbers to multiply steeply. The heightening of the racist war on drugs, the implementation of the fundamentally flawed 1994 crime bill, the scapegoating of urban ghettos and those forced to live in them as source of all of society’s ills – these actions have brought America to where it is today. And Hillary Clinton, with her talk of young, black “super-predators” vocally supported it the whole time. While it was Trump that took ‘the Birther Movement’ to it’s farcical extremes through Obama’s two terms, but it was her campaign in 2008 that sowed the seeds of distrust, questioning Obama’s status as an America. We saw the same tactic used this primary season, with the Democratic National Committee – which we know to have been in cahoots with Clinton’s team due to leaked emails – actively triangulating to undercut Bernie Sanders on grounds of his Jewishness and his atheism. Clinton has shown again and again that she is shameless in her use of racist rhetoric to achieve her aims.
Trump, with his “small loan of a million to get on his feet,” his multiple bankruptcies, his dozens of failed businesses, exemplifies what it means to be part of the moneyed elite. His conduct, the fact that he is not held to account, is symptomatic of the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. It is Hilary Clinton, though, who is complicit in the creation of this situation. Clinton has been the tool of Wall-Street for decades, participating in the repealing of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 that lead directly to the financial crisis and world-wide economic recession of 2008. She has opposed efforts to reinstate it and has said that she will not do so if elected president.
In what has quickly become the take-away soundbite from Monday’s Presidential Debate, Clinton reeled off a list of her undoubtedly impressive accomplishments when questioned by Trump on her stamina. It is true, she is possessed of a strong fortitude, especially when we recognise that she has risen to her position in a system stacked against her as a woman from the start. But as we can see from the sample above, it is just these accomplishments that preclude her from deserving the Presidency. Or would do, if it were not the case that, in this day and age, the division of the American people, the grovelling abetment of the moneyed, the callous interventions into other nations’ governments is exactly what the President is meant to do.
Hillary Clinton, scion to war-criminal Henry Kissinger, canny fixer for Wall Street, inveterate racist, would, in any other pairing, be without doubt the villain. It is a sorry state of affairs that she looks the lesser of two evils.
The Vesuvius Club
It’s a hackneyed turn of phrase – we’ve all heard it, whether directed at ourselves in moments of deep personal opprobrium, or, later, jesting with friends, bonding over the fact that we are all of us imperfect beings – but, Mark Gatiss, I’m not even mad. I’m disappointed.
I picked up The Vesuvius Club: Graphic Edition from the local library a while back. The comic version of Gatiss’ 2004 novel of the same name, the work is a condensed version of Gatiss’ text coupled with Ian Bass’ art. Black and white, the depiction is a blend of real-to-life and caricature, stark lines with negative space in solid fill. Far from the worst I’ve seen, it remains perfunctory – there isn’t much here that benefits a second viewing; it’s all surface.
The volume covers a single arc, and runs to 100 pages, as well as character splashes and newspaper-style adverts on the inside covers. It’s here that the frustrations set in. The design, at least to my mind, sets you up for something similar to Moore and O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – both series cover the same period, the late Victorian/Early Edwardian, both have a puckish reverence for the aesthetics of the era, both blend the mundaneity of the period with the fantastical. It’s a bit of a difficult comparing much of anything in comics to Moore’s work – there is almost always a clear divide in quality, in depth, in novelty, etc., etc. What little I’ve read of Gaiman’s work sometimes comes close, but I’ve seen little else. Which is all to say that it might be a little unfair to compare this, an adaptation of a work, from a writer of various media, to that of a focussed effort from a master of the form. The failure to achieve greatness, however, is not what I’m so frustrated by.
Moore, as a story-teller, is definitely not without fault, and League, for all it’s depth and detail, is a flawed work that, at least in the main run, collapsed under its own weight. While clearly riffing off the period each issue was set in – it was, after all, an effort to blend all of literature – the whole arc was steeped in Moore’s particular style of progressivism. Though the characters themselves may have been constrained by Edwardian values, the narrative itself didn’t play to those rules – indeed, so much of the story is driven by Mina Harker’s efforts to assert herself in a “man’s world” playing a “man’s role.” When odious, racist depictions surfaced, they were almost always undercut and inverted; acting, rather than as signifiers for themselves, to show off why these caricatures were wrong in the first place.
To its benefit, Vesuvius is not totally without this – the protagonist is bisexual, and one of his accomplices gay, and this is not treated as morally reprehensible by the tone of the narrative, if not always their fellow characters. However, I fear that Gatiss may have played it too straight in his appreciation for and representation of mores of the period. Characterisation of other elements in the story are lifted almost whole-cloth, without any evidence of satire or nuance, from the racist and bigoted tropes of the era. There is a stereo-typical ‘mandarin’ looking awfully a lot like something Mickey Rooney may have played who, inevitably, runs the Opium Den, and then the villain, in the reveal, turns out to be a transvestite. And mad. ‘Cause nothing’s more twisted and evvilll than a mentally distressed person with a penchant for women’s dress.
Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the literary world at the moment, what with Lionel Shriver’s recent key note pushing back against what she feels is political correctness gone mad, and the inevitable blow-back she received as others circled the wagons (for my part, I think both parties are wrong). Vesuvius, though, is obviously not a case of appropriation as much as it is stale tropes that were rankly offensive when they first surfaced, let alone more than a century later. What is worse is that we all know Gatiss is better than this – his work in Doctor Who and Sherlock (“The Abominable Bride” aside…) are some of television’s better efforts, so it’s not as if the man is a serial offender or endemically prejudiced.
I can only hope that this is a singular misstep in an otherwise reputable career. Evidently Vesuvius has been in production for the small screen for a while. Hopefully they clean it up a bit.
In the continuing accretion of dolor following the Brexit Referendum, I’ve been reminded of something I read in the weeks leading up that might shed some light on the result. The result of both the referendum, and the shaping of society that has gotten us to this point, that is. Of all things, it was a puff piece on the actor Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout, for you Potterites). A short, Q&A style article, it spent the majority of its length ribbing received wisdom and PC shibboleths, but never to a truly threatening degree, which has become Margolyes’ trademark of late.
Amongst the various questions about her youth, her co-stars, her views on Western cultural practices and Middle-Eastern geo-politics, she referred to her class roots, saying ‘…my mother was uneducated and felt inferior. She was determined that I would go to university. She’d say, “I want you to be able to talk to anybody about anything” – and I can.’ Because I’ve a wide masochistic streak, I proceeded, upon completion, to read the first few comments “below the line.” Amidst the swathes of drek and sprinklings of misogyny, one commenter stated (well couched in sexist piffle) that ‘…the notion that only those who attend uni can debate and discuss any subject is not only inaccurate, but patronising to the vast number of working-class men who win any kind of argument with these individuals, even though they think they have an advantage over us because we’re not “educated”. Being vociferous and having the temerity to never back down or capitulate is a sign of a good orator, and Miriam hasn’t displayed these attributes, merely that she believes in social cleansing.’
I’m willing to give Margolyes the benefit of the doubt on this one, not in small degree because I would tend to agree with her, and assume that that is not what she meant, but our andro-centric commenter does have a bit of a point. At the very least, his invective taps into the sea of feeling that has driven us to these dark times, the frustrations of a large section of society made to feel lesser.
Earlier this week, I attended a pro-EU rally here in Cambridge. Weather was miserable, and the audio equipment was suffering, but the assembled local grandees were able to struggle through and pass along their message of condolence, of renewed effort, and all the rest. Everyone to speak was quite emphatic in saying that not all Brexiters were racists, not all were xenophobes. All the more jarring, then, the echo-chamber affirmation of disdain following the denunciation of prime-ministerial hopeful Michael Gove’s now-notorious line – “people have had enough of Experts!” Oh, yes, silly Gove and his distrust of experts, and silly Brexiters for being so gullible as to follow him. Because, of course, there is only ever one proper way to read things, statements only ever mean what they say on the surface, and Michael Gove and his ilk invariably deny the facticity of reality. That’s definitely what’s going on here. Let’s all have a good, self-congratulatory chuckle for knowing better than those clods, that facts are facts and that there are people who know them. Quite right.
Wait. What’s that you say? It’s not the facts people may have been tired of, but the hectoring, dismissive way they are so often delivered? Preposterous! People that know best know best after all! Leave everything to the professional professionals, and don’t worry your head about things you can’t understand anyways!
More seriously, you can see the overlap between the two issues without an overwhelming amount of effort, I think. The tacit assumption that those who haven’t been through the ivory-bound gates of the academy are precluded all knowledge, whether it be conversational or economic, is likely a bit overdone, but, as is often the case, it’s the way in which these subjects are presented that is at issue. The locking-out of people from the conversation, and the tone-deafness of the infrequent missives to these penned herds, have long been a problem, and it’s no surprise that it’s started to rankle.
As I said a moment ago, I would tend to agree with Margolyes – education is one of the few goods-in-itself, and I hope I’d be one of the last people one the list of anti-intellectuals. However (and I recognise that an off-the-cuff remark in a >500 word article isn’t likely to show nuance), I fear that the spirit of what she was saying about Universities, the ideal of them, doesn’t match the reality. Probably never has, unless for a very small slice. The blithe assumption that it does and that this is an effective way of cutting up society is, understandably, offensive. The idea, though, that University education ought to provide one with a richer, more vibrant life, a tool-set to explore deep interests and an exposure to the broader world, coupled with the universal access to these boons, now, there is something to strive for.
In his closing comments to the Oxford Student Union a year or so ago, Stephen Fry (another embattled anti-PC’er) quoted from Wilde’s De Profundis, the letter the poet wrote to his sometime paramour (and downfall) Lord Alfred Douglas, saying ‘That you failed to get a degree at Oxford is perfectly understandable. Many great minds have failed to get a degree. What is not forgivable is that you failed to acquire what is sometimes called the Oxford Manner, which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.’ So, we see that this conception of what Universities are for is not a new one, or rather, not one of the last half-century. While there are plenty of worthwhile careers built out of it, this is what a proper education in the Humanities is meant, or should be meant, to instill, the zest for life. The technical sciences, the professional courses, while they might have more obvious and immediate economic benefits, can only be augmented by the addition of this. Too much of the modern University, with its bloated bureaucracy and its efficiencies schemes and its slashed budgets, is aimed only at producing something quantifiable, and it is diminished by this in a fundamental manner.
Many of the people I’ve known who best exemplify the Oxford Manner, the ‘ability to play gracefully with ideas,’ the possession of a boundless curiosity about the world, have never had a lick of post-secondary. Conversely, I am acquainted with many people who have attended top-tier universities and are dumb as a stump, doubly uninterested and uninteresting. So, clearly a University education is not always necessary for these gains, nor does it always work. That said, it takes a very particular type of person to seek out such knowledge, to take on that mode, for themselves. Much more likely is it that, given the opportunity and the skillset to make good on it, people will take this on once shown how. While you may not be able to make a horse drink having brought it to water, it’ll certainly do better there than in the desert. We must expand education in our society, obviously for the concomitant economic benefits, but also to make of our society a collection of better humans, more involved with the world, more engaged with their lives and better able to take part in their communities. We cannot continue to shut the door on these opportunities and laugh at those locked out. We cannot continue to fob off on the economically disenfranchised the barest of educations, ‘streamlining’ them into becoming living tools for business’ gain and little else. We are beginning to see the unrest that this causes, the deserved distrust and anger that generations of this foolhardiness brings about.
Perhaps Brexit shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but hopefully it will provide the wake-up we so clearly need.
And so, here we are, in the Brave, New, Post-Brexit World. But not really – despite the slim majority (52%) on the side of the Leave vote, article 50 – the clause of 2007’s Lisbon Treaty that covers the exit of a member state from the EU – has not been triggered. And may never be so. Cameron, in a clever, if thoroughly spineless, move refused to act immediately on the results of the referendum, saying instead that he was stepping down and would allow the next Prime Minister to move the situation forward. Meanwhile, over in the Leave quarter, we’ve seen more back-pedalling. Nigel Farage has distanced himself from any firm statement on the allocation of that £350 million weekly delivered to the EU, not of course that he has the authority to do anything with it, but the suggestion that this might be redirected to the NHS played no small role in deciding the minds of many. Iain Duncan Smith, much closer to the levers of power, has also downplayed that particular “promise.” On the xenophobic side of the Brexit coin, the Conservative MEP that headed up the Leave campaign Daniel Hannan has admitted that, even with an exit from the bloc, they will not be able to stem migration. A gormless, squirming Boris Johnson has as much as said that he didn’t expect to win. All in all, a pretty pathetic showing from the Victorious.
And that is merely a portion of what’s going on with the Tories and UKIP. In the country more generally, we’ve seen a continually declining exchange rate for stirling – at a 12% drop last I checked, it represents the most abrupt depreciation for the currency ever, and the lowest rate in 35 years. £125 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within 5 hours Friday morning, with continuing damage to the FTSE 250. At close on Friday, markets worldwide saw the loss of approximately $2 trillion, which has only increased in the new week. Last night, the country lost its Triple-A credit rating with Standard and Poor (the last major credit agency to rate them so, others having reduced their rating in response to austerity measures in previous years – though they too reduced their already slashed values). In Scotland, which voted almost unanimously (by area) for Remain, Nicola Sturgeon has begun the drumbeat of Independence once more, whereas Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland have called for a uniting with the Republic, and Plaid Cymru, in Wales, is calling for their own national referendum. The PLP Blairites have, in their wisdom, taken this time to stage a (failing) leadership coup. The arch-quisling Hillary Benn was sacked over the weekend for initiating it, and that rational move has set off a cascade of resignations from the shadow cabinet – 35 at last count.
I was, rightly, criticised for passing over the subject of migration in my last piece. To be fair, I didn’t intend to offer a comprehensive gloss of the situation, rather a background for my more academic concerns, but it has proven to be such a pivotal issue in the whole farrago that to not mention it was a glaring omission. As if we needed proof that, for many, this is the key issue of the referendum, we’ve seen a disgusting uptick in racist rhetoric and action since the results came in Friday. There have been instances of cars and homes leafleted with anti-polish slogans; groups of non-ethnic English verbally harassed up and down the country, even just outside Cambridge; there have been Muslims told “you’re next.” Reports are still trickling in from the weekend of multiple acts of vandalism, windows smashed and exteriors vandalised. Huffpo have an ongoing collection of reports, and it is troublingly long. People, people who have lived here for generations, are afraid in their own country. Although it occurred before the referendum was actually held, I would be remiss not to mention the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist – Jo Cox who headed the all-party group Friends of Syria, focussing on Syrian refugee response. ANTIFA brigades are suddenly looking a lot less LARP-like.
This is something I struggle with in discussing these matters in conversation, choosing the level at which to frame them. Often times, I will, while holding to one level in the back of my mind, say something that accords with another, and later on foul myself up on the contradiction between the two. More to the point, the question – what of the rights of migrants? – has many answers, depending on how the question is framed. At the most normative level, the level of “what should the world be like,” the question is easily answered – acknowledging the illusory nature of borders and illegitimacy of existing power structures, digging into what ought to be available for people, yes, it is easy to say that there should be free movement of people and that they should be extended the protection and rights accorded to all humans vis a vis their humanity. Unfortunately, and this is particularly important when trying to convince someone sceptical of such a position, normativity is not sufficient.
In the world realpolitik, basic human rights, never mind those that are self-evident or supposedly God-given, get short shrift. As ever, freedom issues from the barrel of a gun and force rules the day. The legalese is good for little else than assigning blame once the damage is done, and arguing from a position of how-the-world-ought-to-be when your interlocutor holds to this is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. Thankfully, we haven’t (yet) sunk to that depth. However, there are still the circumstances on the ground to be considered when we ask the question.
In answer to this, then, at least on the level of ‘the hard-nosed, disillusioned realist,’ we must recourse to law. What law protects the rights of European migrants in the UK? Obviously, that of the EU. A set of laws that, if ever the Tories choose to take the plunge, will be rescinded. In this instance, what laws would the migrants have? None, other than those ensured by the UN and whatever invariably-odious writ the Government draughts to replace the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It’s a safe bet that the rights – economic and otherwise – granted to foreigners in this yet-to-come piece of legislation will be sparse. It is, or will be, a fait accompli, and to have a conversation about it, framed with those parameters, is to accept this. What of the rights of migrants? The rhetorical question presents itself – What rights?
So, as rudimentary as the above all is, it does go some way to illustrating my trouble with the question. But, for we who hold to ideas of a better future, isn’t it our job to push against the ‘facts on the ground,’ to push against the way things happen to be, until they align more closely with they way they ought to be? It is ours then to make the case for why the laws need to be changed, to strive to realign the balance of powers such that we have the weight on our side, the weight enough to actually matter in the realms of realpolitik. Assurances have come from the like of Boris Johnson, saying that the status of EU migrants already present in the country will no change – but, looking at even just his track record of the last few days, you’d be a fool to think he won’t change with the wind. We need to push back against the racism, the scapegoating, the lies, and, in some ways most disheartening, the silence on the part of those who should know better (Lexit campaign, I’m looking at you).
All those are nice and stirring words, but that is about the sum of it without an actual, achievable, plan. Well and good to say that, after the Revolution, everyone will be treated justly and graciously, but it won’t be slogans alone that get us there. Demonstrations, and I stress that they are useful in some, limited, respects, don’t stop wars. We need to grapple with the situation, and that is one of parliamentary democracy. There is still hope for a Labour party run in a social democratic way – far from ideal, but this is about damage control now. There are accusations that Corbyn and his team didn’t do nearly enough for the Remain campaign, and even that they actively scuttled efforts amongst the Labour wing. The fact remains, two thirds of Labour voters, despite the obvious incentives of voting out (generational disenfranchisement, economic punishment by elites, continuing disposable status under the status quo – not all reasons for Brexit were racist) voted remain. Comparing this with 46% of Tory voters who voted to stay in the EU, it seems farfetched to say that Brexit was Corbyn’s fault, that he didn’t deliver (as if the votes of an electorate are some packaged object to be shuttled back and forth) the Labour constituents.
There is likely to be a leadership race within the Labour party, and, as far as the rights of migrants go, never mind a whole host of other issues, our best bet is to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. But then we must hold his feet to the fire – it is not enough to simply elect and assume the job is done, we must hold him to his promises. Whatever his past malfeasances, large or slight, unfortunately, there’s no one else in the Labour party who is a better candidate.
While it’s true that I’ve been, for some time, in a state of flux when it comes to ethics and how I view the world, I’ll admit that I still find myself slightly allergic to ends-oriented systems. I’ve the gut feeling, the intuition – as much as I might disdain them as quanta of ‘proper’ knowledge – that the necessary causal link between the action and the desired outcome just doesn’t hold up. Nothing so far reaching as a Humean denial of the whole apparatus, I simply can’t put to rest anxieties cropping up from the unknowable nature of the future. We can at best guess at what our choices will result in, and that doesn’t cut the mustard for the big decisions.
That all said, recent political events here in Britain have (further) shaken my confidence in Kantian, maxim-based deontology. Tomorrow marks the day of referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union, riding under the rather facile portmanteau ‘Brexit.’ Appropriately, I would imagine, the vote is closed to Europeans living in Britain, but, and this I don’t quite understand, it is open to Commonwealth citizens who’ve been living in the country for the requisite period. Thus, I am faced with the three choices – Brexit, Bremain (and you thought the former was a neologistic nadir!) or abstain.
The run-up, while it has grown a bit tedious of late, has energised public discourse in a way that one doesn’t often see in usual elections. Perhaps this is explained by the largely-populist nature of the Brexit campaign – the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have for several weeks now been resorting to dog-whistle, and in some cases blatant, racist tactics to stir up opposition to the EU. The existence of UKIP as a party is based on the hindbrain vapours of a slice of the populace, and proof of this has only been reiterated over the last few weeks. But, depending on the day, the Leave side surpasses that of the Remain in the polls, so there is more going on here than just abject bigotry. Some portion has to be chalked up to the dismal, dirge-like nature of the In for Britain campaign, a campaign who have relied almost entirely on the tactic of economic fear mongering, delivered up by panels of rich business people, moneyed luvvies, and pompous bureaucrats – the very elites that set the average punter’s blood to boil.
There is, also, a principled reason to exit the Union. From its start, it has been and continues to be an inflexible, undemocratic monolith catering to the needs of multinational corporations. While some worker’s rights, some environmental and safety standards, some crumbs from the tables of our fiscal superiors are codified by the EU, every tangible gain for workers has come through struggle, as is ever the case. The EU, for all its vaunted protection of European citizens, has been systematically eroding the rights of workers for decades. One need look no further than the South of the continent for that, where the ongoing punishment of Greece looms particularly large. The EU, and its destriers, the IMF and the ECB, are not our friends. We would do well to be rid of them.
We would, that is, if their absence wouldn’t leave us even worse off. The country has a unipolar economy directed entirely towards finance, and most of that focussing on funneling money into Frankfurt. The Tories, though it has been amusing to watch this referendum split their party most acrimoniously, are still in power, and any arguments that we will be better positioned to argue against TTIP, to redirect the funds we send to the EU to shoring up the faltering NHS, are belied by that. We have no unified Left-opposition, as Corbyn/McDonnell continue to allow the Parliamentary Labour Party Blairites to run wild, and the radical Left remains in complete disarray, suffering delusions of mass insurrection every time George Galloway or Alan Woods feel dyspeptic. No, leaving the European Union in present circumstances would sink the economy of Britain (we’ve already seen sizeable fluctuations in the pound’s exchange rate, and there are rumblings of a second Scottish independence vote to come, should Leave triumph) and it is ever the working classes that suffer most acutely in such situations.
Returning to ethical concerns for a moment, my quandary becomes a bit clearer – can a maxim, in its successful execution, reflexively undermine the purpose that animated it? I’m not unaware of the irony here – that I should start by saying I’m wary of ends-oriented systems, and then problematise deontology by soiling it with the mere possibility of results. However, I still feel as if there is more to it than that, that this hangs more on Kant’s own formulation – to will the success of an event is to will the means for it – and if there is something mangled about those means, surely this is a problem. I suspect that the issue could be dodged by reframing – maxims are meant to be simple, categorical affairs, and the presentation I’ve provided here – even if boiled down to handy slogans like ‘Avoid acts resulting in Class collaboration’ or ‘Do not undermine the emancipation of working people’ – is incompatibly complex.
There are, of course, cogent criticisms of the maxims and, despite what Kant thought, their tendency to snarl one another and themselves. If the above count as proper maxims, this then looks like one of those cases. If not, then this particular snag is avoided, but at the cost of leaving us wondering how we build a useful system out of the infinitesimals maxims would surely be reduced to, to avoid fouling themselves up.
Whatever the fall-out of these systematic concerns, the fact remains that this is a no-win scenario. At best, we have lose-less and lose-more on the table before us, and, in the interests of damage control, I suspect I’ll be voting, with clenched teeth, for Bremain tomorrow. In the interim, I’ll try to dig out my copy of the Groundwork, and tighten up what is, I admit, a rather sophomoric interpretation of the situation.
Wordsworth famously said that “…poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I’m not entirely sure I agree with him, but, insofar as the continued reportage of my travels are concerned, I suppose it’s as good advice as any!
Returning, then, to the now-far off Antipodes, I shall do my dutiful best to recount my time in Melbourne and Sydney.
I should start by saying, aside from the base of operations for most the stay being located in ‘burbs of Melbourne, what little I saw of either city was limited to the CBD (for the North Americans, that’s the Central Business District – the Downtown). As such, I certainly wouldn’t want to position myself as an authority on everything that’s available in either spot, nor what might define their individual characters.
That caveat aside, what struck me about both cities was how much either has retained their late-Victorian/Edwardian quality – many of the building fronts of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries still remain, sitting relatively comfortably amidst 21st century high-rises. This is in stark contrast to my home city of Toronto, which, while it is still undergoing an aggressive Manhattan-isation in the downtown core, was never very good at retaining its old buildings to begin with. Perhaps it has something to do with the comparative climates – I’m sure it’s not very nice to shiver through a 10˚ winter without air-con or insulation, but I can’t imagine it being as taxing on plaster and brick as the multi-month freeze/thaw cycle we see in Ontario. Carrying the Victorian element further, there is also a rather imposing statue of the Empress in Melbourne’s CBD. I’m developing the strange feeling, as I visit more of the colonial countries, that we’re all yoked together in this – everywhere the Empire went, still we are overseen by this matronly reminder of our collective past. It’s not something I’d really thought about until seeing this, so quickly on the heels of the Imperial statuary in Singapore. Bit spooky, really.
My first introduction to Australia’s own version of this was in the outer towns around Melbourne – for all their monotonous suburban sprawl, there were generally at least a building or two that had stuck around a century, usually a pub (or hotel, as they are known in Vic…not to confused with actual hotels, which are also called hotels…), which were invariably bedecked with a rather charming iron grille work. I’d see it again and again during my stay; it became a bit of an idiomatic Australian architectural quirk, in my mind.
Built over 50 years later than Sydney, Melbourne came with a touch more planning. This is evident in the present, with the CBT still laid out on a grid form as designed by Robert Hoddle in 1837, and a rather clever one at that. All major street names are paired, there being a wide street meant for the front access to blocks of buildings, and a corresponding lane, thinner, intended to be used as a service access. Of course, nowadays, shops, offices and accesses front on both the street and the lane, but one can appreciate the intent of the original. Many of the lanes are now pedestrian only, with some streets shut to automotive traffic for particular festivals and events.
Some of the best examples of the city’s Victorian birth are the arcades that cut through many of the blocks – covered spaces with shop frontages, the floors are often tiled in mosaic, with ironwork and statuary adorning the walls. Reminiscent in style of either neoclassical motifs or of renaissance Mediterranean Europe, which would turn out to be rather appropriate given post-war immigration patterns (outside Athens, Melbourne sports the largest concentration of ethnic Greeks anywhere). Offering a different feel, but no less enjoyable, there are also open alleyways, many of them crowded with small shops and restaurants, liberally graffiti’d for that urban frisson.
Central Melbourne also sports a genuinely impressive Art Deco tower in the Independent Order of Odd Fellow’s Building, also known as the Manchester Unity Building, on Swanston Street. We’ve our own IOOF Building in Toronto, built in the Gothic Revival style, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Melbourne’s. The tower has had an eventful life since it was built in 1932 – at one point the toast of the city, it fell into disrepair and changed hands multiple times, with multiple efforts at maintenance and restoration, only to be finally returning to its former glory in these last few years. Several floors of the tower have been purchased by Dr. Pajouhesh, the man behind Australia’s largest dental firm Smile Solutions, and he has painstakingly restored the original décor. Carved images adorn the walls on the main floor, offering up platitudes about the fruits of progress and shared labour. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on this – the MU Order came to Melbourne at the height of the Great Depression and sought to enliven the city, providing needed stimulus to the economy by way of construction jobs and purchasing nearly all the materials needed locally. It’s a reminder that, especially in places of uneven development such as post-colonial Australia, Capitalism could be a positive force. Dr. Pajouhesh’s efforts in restoring and sharing this piece of the city’s past shows that, once in a very long while, it still can be.
Not only were we able to visit Australia’s capital Canberra, as I detailed in my last entry, but we also had the good fortune to spend some time in Melbourne’s rival, the city of Sydney (I preferred Melbourne, which is convenient, because my wife might’ve done something deleterious to my wellbeing otherwise – honest, Melbourne’s great, I swear).
Mirroring the dendritic spread of its streets, the core of Sydney is subject to steep differences in altitude, making for difficult manual driving and worse cycling. It’s no San Fran, but, trust me, it’s bad enough. As mentioned before, Sydney is half-a-century older than Melbourne, and the chaos of its penal origins show. No clever grid layout here, no business minded dual lane-and-street with accompanying tram system to be seen. No, the streets still hearken back to the hoary past, even though the city has become a major commercial and financial hub for the Southern Hemisphere.
This nascent success is not without ramifications, either – housing prices, not that they’re great in any large Western city these days, are particularly egregious in Sydney. Gentrification is rife, as was exemplified by a stroll along the newly refurbished Darling Harbour walk. Pristine pavement, spotless wooden benches, gardens of flowers and cycads freshly transplanted in tanbark beds, the path exudes moneyed exclusivity. The only people we saw aside ourselves were the expectedly well-accoutred joggers, taking their exercise in their neoprene and lycra while on their contractually mandated lunch break, descending from the office tours that butt up against the waterfront here.
It was not always like this. On the other side of the harbour, between the Bridge and the Opera House, lie the Rocks. In its previous incarnation, this section of the city was the first stop for immigrants from the 19th century through to the post-war period. As such, the area had the usual make-up of shanties, tenements, bawdy houses and what-all one would expect on the ragged edge of life in a big city, European flotsam thrown up by the sea – little more than a fresh kick at the can keeping many of them afloat.
There is some effort at keeping this history alive, even as the skyscrapers encroach on the precinct. An archaeological dig, a sizeable one for an urban environment, sits adjacent and underneath a YMCA building, with the stubs of walls and various levels of flooring from the original buildings in the area, from the 1800’s, exposed. Artefacts are on display, the usual gamut of clay pipes, broken bottles, bent cutlery that you expect from this era – presented alongside the actual locations of discovery does have more of an effect than the usual sterile museum presentation, I must say.
Even better than this, they’ve a block of terraced houses preserved from the period – some of which were still serving as housing up to the nineties – that had fallen into the possession of council housing for a number of decades and are now maintained by Sydney Living Museums. The Museum run tours of the property, called Susannah Place. Each separate dwelling has been done up in a distinct period, with, where available, furnishings appropriate to the era. In several instances, there were records of the tenants, as well – photographs, letters, descriptions of who they were and what brought them to Australia. Set up after the penal period, the area saw several waves of immigration, starting with the lower orders of British, Irish and Welsh during the 19th century, through to the Mediterranean influx after the WWII which has so defined Australia since. The information that they have on these individuals, while not a superlative, humanises the space – it’s one thing to see some old ruin and appreciate its antiquity, quite another to walk through the tight quarters of an apartment knowing that 7 people, of three generations, lived under this roof, with no plumbing, and gas regulated by coin-operated meter. Plucky individuals that they were, this was taken in stride – our guide related to us the fact that one Italian family in the 60’s (the 60’s!) liked to boast that they had “running” water – the adult sons of a widowed mother would run from the outdoor faucet to the basin and back. Disinvolto!
This is not to say that we had a terrible time in Sydney, far from it. On our final afternoon, we braved the rain and enjoyed some of the older neighbourhoods, replete with period architecture from more than 100 years ago. Found a sweet record store where I was able to pick up an album of Mauritanian folk music. The day before, somewhat better in the weather department, saw us spend a lazy hour above Bondi Beach, working on the sunburn. I say above, as we stuck to the verge atop the actual sand – didn’t have our trunks with us, and it provided us a great view. It was, I’ll admit, a bit disconcerting looking out across the ocean, especially to the South, knowing that there was nothing but trackless depths between us and the bottom of the world.
Returning to Melbourne, we visited the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment. The combination of nostalgia on the part of my wife (who has been many many times before) and the successive slashes to the budget delivered an experience that didn’t quite live up to expectations. It’s not terrible, it was just kinda…meh. It didn’t help that, naturally, being nocturnal, the marsupials were less than interested in showing off for curious foreigners. Apparently, their aquatic exhibits have undergone some heavy reductions, with the substitution of a crappy multi-media experience instead of actual animals. Nice bird enclosure, though – multi-storey cage you could walk through, with good sized trees and a brook.
Oddly, the Zoo was also firm in their insistence that you not use excessive amounts of toilet paper – it seemed like every few hundred metres, there was another cartoon of a ‘roo or plaster cast of a wombat pontificating on the evils of loo roll. I get that deforestation is a major issue, but this seems like a rather weird hill to die on.
It wasn’t long after that that we were bound for Bangkok, with its canals, humidity and recurrent admonitions on the proper respect for the Buddha – but that’ll be a tale for another day!
Caught the pre-release screening of the recent Columbian film Embrace of the Serpent last night at the Arts Picturehouse, which was followed up by a Q&A with the director, Ciro Guerra. Described by the Guardian as a “dreamlike exploration of the Amazon’s Imperialist pollution,” the film has won, amongst a host of other awards, the Art Cinema Award at Cannes, and is currently up for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
Before getting into the film proper, I’d like to pause for a moment and comment on how enjoyable it was to have access to this, the film itself and having the director present afterwards. I suppose this is what comes from living in a country with twice the population of Canada, crammed into a third the area of Ontario. What’s more, though, I think there are important cultural differences – that, to continue to support cinema such as this, to have a public that desires and consumes it, there is something not necessarily inward-looking, but perhaps self-regarding, about English culture that can be lacking in Canada. Sure, we get this sort of thing at tiff every year, and I’m sure the Lightbox runs events like this once in a while, but to have a chain of cinemas throughout the country, able to keep afloat fiscally, dedicated to this is something highly unlikely back home. I get that this is an artefact of a preening aristocracy, self-absorbed and eager to display their rarefied quality (no doubt redoubled by the jolly-jumping middle classes), but it is refreshing to see the effects of a conservation-minded Conservative politic, even if all that’s left of it now are ghost-like vapours of culture.
Returning to the film – the critics aren’t wrong. Shot in black and white on 35mm, the film offers a look at the Amazon that is lacking in other efforts. As Guerra expressed afterwards, it simply couldn’t have been shot in anything other than greyscale – trying to effectively capture the colours of the rainforest, never mind expressing their collective importance to the Indigenous, quickly became obvious as impossible. The choice to go black and white also had the benefit of levelling the playing field – everything stands out as equally important because nothing stands out from its surroundings. It’s a different way of seeing the jungle, one that throws it into relief and, surprisingly, aids in parsing the density of scenery. Using 35 mm was refreshing – refreshing in its lo-fi quality. Quick panning, aerial shots of the landscape blurred in a manner less common in the age of digital film, and it was a welcome change. It would be a mistake to think that this was then a muddy, murky film – far from it, with startlingly pristine long takes in several cases – but taking advantage of the limits of the medium allowed for an augmentation of the already dream-like quality of the narrative. Guerra rightly recognises that the world is chaos, and it is we that give order to it – this belief informs his work as director. Seeing the film for the cinematography alone would be worthwhile.
The story itself is dual – one vein, taking cues from the notebooks of historical German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg, follows the eponymous explorer as he and his assistant are guided along the Vaupes by Karamakate, a shaman who believes himself to be the last of his tribe. The second course, set several decades in the future, also features Karamakate, who now guides the American explorer Richard Evans Shultes on much the same journey. The two paths leap-frog one another, visiting the same locations separated by history, the story becomes a meditation on loss, mistaken effort, and the rotten fruits of greed. The transition between the two is effortless, whether they be super-imposed on one another or transition via seamless tracking shots, the calibre of something out of Hitchcock or Iñárritu.
Seeing this in Cambridge, there was (of course) an Anthropologist in the audience who has spent decades in just this area of Columbia. During the Q&A, he was quick to point out that the film seemed to play into the standard dichotomy, that one could either be fully indigenous, or entirely Western. This is a theme within the work, Karamakate railing against Theo, calling him nothing but a White and deriding his inability to understand the world, and, again, attacking the assistant Manduca, for wearing Western clothing and taking on their mannerisms. Guerra responded to our worthy Anthro by making clear that he did not set out to make the film as any sort of Ethnographic work – none of the plant names are reflective of real, sacred plants, none of the rituals or tribes are reflective of real peoples or their beliefs, beyond overarching, shared Amazonian myths. The character(s) of Karamakate pushes back against this dichotomy, as well – there is a scene where Theo tries to retake his stolen compass from a tribe they visit along the river, fearing that, should they learn how to use it, they will lose their idiomatic understanding of location and navigation. Karamakate smacks him down, saying that it is not for him to refuse them the knowledge. Here, we have the paragon of purity, making the argument for autonomy – even to the point of “sullying” themselves. It is their choice to make. On the other side, we do see the shaman as prejudiced against the Westerners – for all his Paternalism, Theo argues back in a separate clash that he is not here to plunder, he is a man of science, and if he does not bring back knowledge to his colleagues, his people, in Germany, they will never understand and the damage already done will prove lasting.
Both narrative streams, the early and the later, quickly become a sort-of Amazon Tale, seemingly a sub-genre of adventure in the jungle, where odd, fantastic things occur. Already mentioned was the visit to the village – there is also a stop at a Christian mission, both in the initial and the second narrative. The first has direct ramifications on the second, with choices made in the past developing into something out of Conrad – were it not one taken from the genuine history of the area, that is – with a European convinced he is Christ himself and ruling, harshly, over half-way indoctrinated natives, the product of, in Karamakate’s words, the worst of two worlds. There is an altercation with a slave in a rubber-grove, a man whose arm has been lopped off, whose left eye has been mangled, whose body is ribboned with scars, who demands, pleads, that they kill him. The imagery of that scene, the impact of it, has been on my mind all day. All of these, despite their very concrete histories, feel as if they’re viewed through the lens of magical realism, there is something on the tilt about the whole film, an additional potency that is beyond the ordinary.
Guerra stated that they worked hard to open up the forest, to make it less of the stereotypical place of terror and threat to Western eyes, than one of respect and balance – stray too far outside the bounds, and you will come to grief, but there is a path that can see you through. Both Theo and Evans quest for the sacred yakruna flower, the first for its healing powers (he is afflicted by an unknown disease, and it is only by the constant ministrations of Karamakate that he survives at all) and the second for its purported symbiosis with the rubber tree. In the first quest, the European and his assistant must abide by the prohibitions of Karamakate: it is the dry season, and they must not eat the flesh of animal or fish, must not lie with women, must not cut any tree to the roots, lest balance be over-turned. In the second, we see Karamakate lost – his people are well and truly gone, his actions ostensibly listless. It is difficult to pin down for certain how much he returns to his agency versus how much he was guiding Evans the whole journey, but it is not until they have retreaded the original path that he takes the situation in hand, cultivating the American in ways he realises he failed to for the European, due to his own distrust.
Though it needn’t be said, the performances are excellent. I counted some six languages spoken, and, while the Columbian cast will have come naturally to a few, everyone involved does a masterful job. Nilbio Torres’ performance as the young Karamakate is huge – Herculean in emotions, whether in rage or jest. Antonio Bolivár’s take on the older Karamakate is just as good, portraying the character sunk into himself after a life of frustration and defeat, yet retaining a glimmer of cunning, hinting at the Titan he was and could become once more. Neither are professional actors – drawn from the Indigenous population of the area, you can see that Guerra’s statements ring true – when they commit to something, they do it wholesale, without self-consciousness or restraint. Torres’ story is actually rather humorous – as they travelled the area trawling for the cast, Guerra’s team found that the people were only too happy to take part in the experience, to have their pictures taken, to clown around. All save for one. The whole village were ready to commit, but, of course, it was all or nothing, everyone agreeing to do it together or none at all. Despite his whole family beseeching, the man remained intransigent. Finally, he acquiesced, on the sole condition that, if he took part, it would be as the star. Sure enough, one look at the photographs taken and Guerra knew he had his Karamakate. He didn’t make the wrong choice.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put my question to Ciro Guerra. While many questions touched on the role of and the interaction with the Indigenous of the area, I was curious to find out what sort of traction this film, and films like it, get in the wider Columbian society. Is this sort of story seen as an integral part of the national character? How does this fit in the ongoing rise in cultural consciousness throughout the greater South America? Is this the reserve of the cosmopolitan elite, as it is here in Europe, or is this something enjoyed by the average person as well? I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for answers.
Embrace of the Serpent opens for general release this Friday. Do do your best to find a screening.
Despite my reservations, I caved. I saw the Warcraft film.
Coming off the first trailer, I had my trepidations. The dialogue, such as it was, was trite and clichéd. The animation (more on that later) was, frankly, silly looking. I figured this whole venture was nothing more than cynical fanservice – Blizzard has definitely reoriented itself over the last half decade and more towards unscrupulous profit creation, and I thought that this was more of the same.
Banality, as far as the eye can see…
It wasn’t until Mark Kermode’s grudgingly positive review that I decided to commit.
I’d have to say that I largely agree with his estimation – you can see director Duncan Jones trying to hammer this behemoth of an intellectual property into a compelling story, and, for the most part, he succeeds. Unfortunately, it’s telling that it was a struggle every step. There must be some concessions given on the grounds that this is a first-off, for both the Warcraft universe and Blizzard as a whole, so there is necessarily going to be some dry ground to cover, some limbering up before we get to a running pace. That said, I hope the stage-setting that this film in many ways existed for doesn’t stall the whole venture altogether.
I’ll be honest, while I was an avid fan of the series when I was younger, WCII being my first real gaming experience, my enthusiasm started to wane with Warcraft III. WCIII, of course, was a stepping-stone for the genre-defining MMORPG World of Warcraft, and, given my distaste with the prelude, I wasn’t crash hot on the main course. The polygonal animation schema irritated me, and I couldn’t really get behind the pay-for-play scheme, which seems to have become the norm across most platforms now. The storyline, with each successive addition to WoW, has also become a bit ridiculous – it’s telling that the next expansion is revisiting the past, hearkening back to the original vitality (time travel – the plot device of knaves, thieves and people written into a corner!). But, this is meant to be a review of the film, not the whole body of work.
Characterisation: I caught myself on numerous occasions, primarily with the un-animated humans thinking – I’ve seen that actor before… but where? A quick look over at IMDB dissolves the mystery, but I’ll save you the time – Travis Fimmel, playing our protagonist Anduin Lothar, is, as everyone should know, the lead on History’s Vikings. Ben Schnetzer, as Khadgar – the one I had most trouble with – was one of the mains in last year’s Pride. Dominic Cooper, playing King Llane Wrynn, has been in a boat-load of stuff. Ben Foster, whose performance as Medivh overshadowed the other actors, I knew from a bit part in a previous X-Men film when he played the reluctant mutant Angel. Much less hairy at that point. Paula Patton, struggling valiantly against prosthetic tusks, played the pseudo-love-interest come plot mechanism Garona. Amongst the CGI characters, only the character of Durotan, clan leader of the Frost Wolves, was rounded out. He was voiced by Toby Kebbel, whom you may know from Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.
Fimmel’s portrayal of Lothar borrowed more, I think, from Ragnar Lothbrok of Vikings than from the Warcraft canon – while still a formidable warrior, we see a Lothar that is less of a tank whose primary strength is size than a cunning, wily individual, using his intelligence and speed to overcome stronger opponents. This, by the way, mirrors the characterisation of the humans vs the Orcs – while not portrayed as stupid or necessarily brutish, it is made clear that strength is on the side of the Orcs, while tech and tactics are the humans’ forte. The character development during Warcraft I and II was thin, to say the least, but the impression that was given by accompanying art and lore for the character pointed to something a bit more solid than Fimmel’s presentation.
If the characterisation of Anduin Lothar is thin in the game, that of Khadgar is barely there at all. As such, Schnetzer has more or less a clean slate with which to build the character. What we get is something like the audience’s surrogate – amongst all the characters, Schnetzer’s Khadgar is the youngest, an untried wizard with determinedly benign motivation. His ingénue portrayal allows for some humorous moments with his elder superior in the Arts, Medivh, as well as with the half-breed, half-wild Garona. The character isn’t totally inept, as he shows on several occasions, and there is enough in the performance and the story to allow him some personality. Not totally bland, but neither especially striking.
As much as other characters are given space to show their motivations, to react to the narrative as it unfolds, I thought that Foster’s Medivh, the magical guardian of the realm, was the most nuanced. To be fair, his was probably the only grey character in the bunch, so it stands to reason that we get to see the most facets presented. As he showcases so well on Vikings, Travis Fimmel is no stranger to leaning in to the camp when necessary, but I thought it was Ben Foster, who, if he never was quite able to steal the show, always had the right hammy intensity to fit the scene. Whenever he showed up, in whatever mood was fitting, my eyes were drawn to him. There were problems with the presentation of the character, for sure, but they weren’t generally of Foster’s making – but more on that later.
Kebbel’s Durotan pulls a lot from the character of Thrall as developed in the games Warcraft III and World of Warcraft. No big surprise, as Thrall (thpoiler alert) is Durotan’s son, so, if Blizzard intend to continue with these films, it makes sense that they would want to provide a springboard for that character’s development. In this film, however, Durotan acts as a vehicle for the humanisation of the Orcs, if you will. We see the character with his family, his new-born son, as well as leading his people and facing the moral quandaries that that leadership brings. The voice acting, really across the board, though it is in this character that it gets to run the fullest, is sufficient to the task.
Themes and Story: The narrative hews fairly close to the original lore, telling the story of the Orc’s arrival in the world of Azeroth and their first confrontation with the humans of Stormwind, with a few interesting departures. Primary amongst them, to my mind, is the depiction of the Orcs – while in the early games, the Orcs appear to be a fairly unified force, intent on conquest with only shadowy reference to their barren homeworld, Warcraft: The Beginning seems to take up themes we would see later in the series, with the redemption of the Orcs and their presentation as honour-bound, tragic characters more at home in Warcraft III than Warcraft I. In some ways, this is the theft of the son’s arc by the father, with Durotan taking the role his son Thrall would come to play later on – makes me wonder what they intend to do with future films. Otherwise, this is fairly by-the-numbers, and that, I think, is where it runs into a bit of trouble.
As mentioned earlier, there are moments where you can see the struggle playing out between producers and director – the necessity of delivering the narrative elements the fans expect, against the effort to shape this into a film that stands on its own merits. Unfortunately, the hem and haw undercuts both.
Parent child dynamics are, as Kermode rightly highlights, a throughline for the film. On the side of the humans, the primary one is that of Lothar and his son, Callan – a young soldier who has had a fraught relationship with his father since birth, as his mother did not survive it and Anduin blames him. On the other side of the divide, we have the family of Durotan – his pregnant mate Draka, not to be left behind while the first wave of warriors explore the new world, travels through the portal from Draenor against better judgement (to be fair, Durotan was fully aiding and abetting this scheme, so deserves as much blame himself). She goes into labour while between worlds, and the child is stillborn in Azeroth. Gul’dan, the chief warlock of the Orcs, resurrects the child with stolen life energy using the cursed Fel magic, which turns him the characteristic green of a corrupted Orc (damn, that was a nerdy sentence). The family then become a microcosm for all of Orc kind – corrupted by the Fel magic, and yet literally needing it to survive. Depicting familial relationships on both sides does a good job at showing the commonality between humans and Orcs, as well as allowing for deeper motivations vis a vis duty, honour, revenge, etc. And don’t take that as a disparagement of Draka – while definitely merely a supporting character, she’s arguably the biggest badass in the film.
Regrettably, because of the ground to be covered, and the finite space to do it in, these motivations never get to be much more than skin deep. I can understand cutting certain parts of the backstory – it was a good choice to make no mention of the Burning Legion, for example, as well as to gloss Sargeras into Medivh’s story. There were other instances, and perhaps these were bits left on the editing floor, that would have beefed up the interaction between characters satisfactorily. For example, perhaps references to particular events in their shared past, to get the audience more invested in the three-way friendship between King Llane, Lothar, and Medivh, and have them care about its ultimate fate. Doing so would also have given Medivh’s final scene, especially his final line, the weight that it was lacking.
I appreciate what they chose to do with Garona’s character – starting the story in Draenor, the Orc homeworld, and the use of Draenei slave lives to power the Fel magic of Gul’dan, explains Garona’s half-Orc nature – the absence of said explanation always bugged me in the original lore. Alas, that’s about where it stops. In most everything else, she exists to move the plot forward – whether it be in her interactions with Taria, Lothar’s sister and Llane’s Queen-consort, in her position as romantic interest (consummated? unconsummated? the fact that we can’t tell either way is illustrative of my point) for Lothar himself, or even her role in Llane’s ultimate fate. As much as she gets a healthy amount of screen time, and plays several pivotal roles, it’s difficult to see the character as properly rounded – personal motivations are there, but it’s not as if it’s anything but in service to the story.
Art Direction: As much as it was one of my initial worries, the overall aesthetic choices were the saving grace for the film. The CGI is top quality – most importantly, it has a tactility that is the ultimate test for these sorts of films. Interactions between the live-action and the CGI look physical, not superimposed after the fact.
The colour saturation was a good choice – there was definitely room for this to play out like some grim-dark Zack Snyder film, everything blackened iron and brown blood. Instead, they wisely elected to go with an almost cartoony amount of contrast, sticking true to the feel of the games.
This was continued in the costuming – preposterously large pauldrons on the humans, bone fetishes adorning every inch of the Orcs. One misstep, though, was the fabric used in Khadgar’s cloak. I’m not sure what they were trying for, but it looked like a fuzzy bathrobe. This was more than made up for by the depiction of magic – the characteristic blue sigils of the human arcana, the sickly green of the Fel (the life-drained, gooey corpses of the victims of the Fel were a nice touch). It lent an over the top, camp feel that fit the sporadic injections of levity.
After witnessing many – many – ogres literally explode in WC II, I was a bit surprised by the lack of gore in the film. Several characters are eviscerated, more are bashed by hammers and stones and whatnot, but, outside of the odd blood spatter, we never actually see the results of all this violence. I can grant it to them, though – no doubt it was necessary to slip under an age rating, and it is likely the young that will be a big part of the audience on this one.
The music is probably the weakest link in the film, which is not to say that it is necessarily bad. I can understand that the score of the original games would be ill-fitting in a feature film, game music intended to be unobtrusive where film music is meant to augment desired emotional reaction, but it would have been nice to have a bit of a reference to it, even by way of tongue-in-cheek homage. Especially, given the effectiveness, at least in my opinion, of said music in building the feel of the early games – both the overall atmosphere and the distinct character of the races. As it was, I can barely remember the film score. It didn’t stick to the tried and true Wagner/Williams leitmotif approach, nor did it have the sheer size of a Howard Shore composition. It ticked the boxes as far as dissonance and driving rhythm for the martial scenes, something lighter for more emotive ones, but it’s not as if there were any remarkable themes or particularly memorable passages. The lacklustre nature of the score was even more surprising when I learned that the composer is the same person responsible for HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which has nothing but effective, theme-based music.
All in all, I’d say it’s earned the dubious title of best film I’ve seen based on a video game. Here’s hoping the tug-of-war in the editing room doesn’t sink future efforts in the series.