Tag Archives: literature

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

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An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 2 – Dick and the Illusory War: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


The final part of my Cold War/sci-fi/American history essay. I was especially pleased with some of the analysis of Dick’s characterisation in The Man in the High Castle but disappointed that I had to rush Do Androids Dream Electric sheep due to word limit constraints:

 

DICK AND THE ILLUSORY WAR

 

In his 1955 talk Pessimism in Science Fiction Dick argued that the collapse of belief in progress had led to an unavoidable preoccupation with doom. Hence the science fiction writer was “absoluted, obliged” to “act out the Cassandra role” of giving early warnings of the grim times to come[i].”

Huxley was not alone in believing that science fiction could act as cautionary prophecy. He was also not the only one to recognise the stagnation of genuine progress during the Cold War period. Here we see that in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, Phillip K. Dick also asserted that ordinary people’s cosy everyday realities were menaced by “grim times to come”. He felt “obliged” as a writer to highlight what he saw as the main threats.

            For Dick the most important threat seemed to be the manipulation of reality. The “doom” that fascinated him was not simply nuclear destruction but the exposure of reality as a fabrication. Again and again his enormous body of work deals with the idea of life not being what it seems and conspiracies maintaining the status quo. Often his protagonists uncover seemingly pointless and elaborate fabrications that lead them to question their own sanity. “The paranoid theme manifests itself in Dick’s novels through the discovery of institutional conspiracies to promote versions of reality for often ultimate purposes often left unspecified[ii].”In The Penultimate Truth (1964), Dick raises the idea of a ruling elite maintaining the illusion of a long since ended war, in order to maintain their positions of power. The unsuspecting public is imprisoned underground, believing a nuclear war to be raging on the surface. They are kept busy producing lead robots to fight the fake war. The illusion is maintained through state controlled media and the speeches of the “Protector”, a President-like figure “who legitimates the regime by casting the administration as selfless guardians willing to brave the dangers of radioactivity for the public good[iii].”Clearly Dick is drawing a parallel with the ideological conflict sold to the American people at this time. It’s no wonder writers like Dick questioned the Cold War, as by its nature the conflict rarely went “hot” and provided concrete evidence of fighting and if skirmishes did occur they were in far away lands. Dick would also explore the theme of illusion extensively in other novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and in so doing comment on the political fabrications of the period.

 

There were countless events that may have triggered Dick’s suspicions during the Cold War period. I have chosen two examples of illusion that seem particularly relevant to his work. The first example of Resource War as a stimulus for illusion is linked to ideas raised by Dick’s characters in The Man in the High Castle. In this novel Dick has created his own Cold War betweenGermany andJapan and superficially the reasons for their rivalry are mainly ideological, just like the real conflict. However through his characters musings on the Nazi Party’s grand schemes it emerges thatGermany’s aims are primarily the extension of its own wealth. The most imaginative scheme described is the conversion of theMediterranean into arable farm land. This project clearly has the intention of expanding the resources of the German people and improving their living standards. Ideologically driven projects of genocide are also mentioned but the emphasis is on the lifestyle available inGermany as a result of their material conquests. Dick is clearly commenting on the political conflicts of the time and questioning whether it is in fact greed rather than idealism motivating confrontations with Communism.

            The second example I give as a likely influence on Dick’s work is the myth of the Missile Gap. Dick seems to deal with the idea of producing unnecessary weapons directly in The Penultimate Truth. In this novel an illusion of war is maintained in order to control the awareness of the population and maintain a power structure. In real lifeAmerica produced nuclear weapons, rather than the robots of the novel, to deal with an invented technology gap with the Soviets. This myth was sustained by the media and Dick reflects this in the novel too.

 

We have already seen through Huxley’s criticisms that economic factors were crucial to the rivalry betweenAmericaandRussia. The notion that the Cold War was a purely ideological struggle between democracy and Communism is nonsense.Americawas concerned by the expansion of Communism because it was a system of governance that would ultimately be controlled and exploited by the Russians. The primary motivation for the Cold War was not a moral disapproval of Communism and its failings, but to sustain an economic system and therefore a way of life. The Second World War merely removed all the other competitors for the resources of the world, weakening them to such an extent that to acquire anything they must sit at the table of one of the superpowers. A century before the Second World War, it had already been observed thatAmericaandRussiawould one day be direct and supreme competitors by Alexis de Tocqueville, in De la Democratie en Amerique:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.[iv]

The Cold War fulfilled this prediction of Americaand Russiadetermining the fate of at least half the world, as there are few regions the division did not in some way consume. One of the areas particularly embroiled in competition was the Middle East. This was because oil was now the resource everyone craved, just as gold, sugar or coal had been for the competing empires of the past. As Americamade the transition from the world’s largest oil producer to its biggest importer, it scaled up its military presence in the oil rich region. In 1940 Middle Eastern oil only accounted for 5 % of world production, but by the 1950s Americahad moved to secure its potential[v]. It took advantage of British weakness following the Second World War to replace them as the dominant power in theMiddle East. TheSuez crisis of 1956 forcedAmerica to choose between her Allies taking on a dictator who was flirting with the Communists and the oil of the Arab world; it chose the oil. It also repeatedly stopped short of fully supportingIsrael, despite the power of Zionists in American politics, in order to maintain relations with oil abundant Arab states. OperationAjax, a CIA led overthrow ofIran, was carried out in response to the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There were worries about Soviet plans forIran but these were concerns about the flow of oil, not the method of government or the welfare of Iranians. The Americans knew full well that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company could be influenced or replaced by American firms like ARAMCO or Standard Oil. The Russians, once in place, would be less accommodating.  

The Cold War was a resource war on a global scale and the resources involved were not simply fuels like oil.Americagained immensely from friendly, prosperous governments. Therefore wars like the Korean War, whilst not fought to secure control of a particular treasure, were carried out with the aim of acquiring an asset. They were also preventative, in that they halted the Russians from advancing any further and seizing land that may yield future benefits. Importantly they were clearly not ideological, as the Korean War was fought in support of a cruel dictator as tyrannous as the northern alternative, with the exception that he would do business with suited money men.

 

A recent article in The Times analyses the world’s current stockpile of nuclear weapons. The article is prompted by Iran’s efforts to join the nuclear club and is headlined “Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas[vi]”. The main message of the article is “the world already has enough nuclear weapons to destroy every single nation on the planet.” Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for daring to suggest a world without nuclear weapons as President of theUnited States. However the world seems locked into a situation that makes it impossible to get rid of the destructive devices, despite a commitment by the Cold War powers to reduce their own stockpiles. This is because the hysteria of the Cold War arms race was not controlled and now the technology is far too freely available. The origins of this ludicrous ability to destroy humanity several times over lie in the pressure cooker of American politics at the beginning of the 1960s.

            The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik is partly responsible for the sheer number of nuclear armaments produced. It was not just the initial launch in 1957 but a whole series of satellites that shocked and amazed the world. The Americans had dismissed the Russian plans as propaganda but Sputnik’s radio bleeps provided the world with solid proof; Russiawas winning the technological race. The scientist Edward Teller said on television that Americahad lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbour[vii].”American pride took a severe beating and its military were also given a nasty shock at the realisation that Soviet missiles could soon be reaching US cities. The result of immense public pressure was a flurry of reactionary schemes to close the missile gap, the “technology gap, and behind that an education gap. A lasting legacy of the panic generated by Sputnik was the passing of the National Defence Education Act of 1958, in which at last the case for federal involvement in education was accepted by Congress[viii].”However not all of the schemes enacted in the hysteria were so harmlessly beneficial in the long run. As well as thousands of new university places the panic spawned thousands of new nuclear weapons. In 1959 the defence budget was increased by President Eisenhower to more than $40 billion, over half the entire federal budget. The press saw this as a long overdue response to the Sputnik crisis but a reluctant President Eisenhower had been more realistic. He knew from intelligence reports comprised of detailed photographs by U-2 spy planes, that the missile gap with the Soviets was a myth. However the top secret nature of this information meant he could not use it to ease political pressure on himself and as a result he was forced to increase the production of nuclear weapons anyway. His silence on why he felt reluctant to increase spending had already damaged his administration beyond repair. The American people turned to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in the election of 1960 instead of Eisenhower’s deputy Richard Nixon. Kennedy placed great emphasis on restoring America’s lead in the technological race, only to find on taking office that America was in reality already far ahead of the Soviets.

Dick chose to reflect the illusory aspects of the Cold War period in his writing. He did this in a number of ways and in many of his works, but I am choosing to focus on two of his best known novels, The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the most obvious illusory element is the fake animal industry. Status within society is determined by whether or not you own an animal. This had led to a supply of fake electric animals in order to satisfy the demand. Dick may have taken inspiration for this fake industry from government reports during the Cold War that recommended the construction of futile nuclear shelters and sanctioned the sale of “private family fallout shelters” by companies at a cost of “$2,395-installation extra[ix]. Here we have a clear example of government orchestrating an illusion in order to gain profit and control. Official reports calling for nuclear shelters served the dual manipulative purpose of keeping the public in fear of attack but also making them feel that they were empowered to do something about it, thus avoiding hysteria. Allowing companies to sell private shelters to families would also have wrongly made people feel that they were taking positive action to protect their loved ones. It also allowed nuclear protection to commercialise and create an entirely new industry based on a fiction. The government directly instigated an illusion for profit.

 

The Man in the High Castle presents an alternative ending to the Second World War, in which the Axis powers triumphed. Whilst this would be a drastically different reality in many ways Dick makes a comparison with his own world by setting up Japan and Germany in a similar superpower standoff to that between the USA and USSR. He comments on the Cold War by creating an alternative one of his own, with arguably more extreme opponents. He reveals shocking snippets of information regarding world affairs in his alternate world, only through the individual musings of his characters. Indeed I think the believable characterisation in The Man in the High Castle is an important part of Dick’s representation of the theme of illusion.

The first character we meet in the story is Mr R. Childan, proprietor of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. It is interesting to analyse the way Dick introduces us to Childan, as the novel goes on to introduce us, in my view successfully, to a number of different characters. All of these characters allow us to view Dick’s alternate world from a different angle, but they are all ordinary, accessible people with narrow viewpoints. The result is a tremendously varied novel, with intertwined narrative strands converging upon one ultimate revelation.

            Dick does an excellent job of establishing Childan as a character very quickly. We soon realise that Childan is a proud business minded man firstly because he is thinking about the upcoming business of the day and then from his actions in tidying up the shop. He takes “a cup of instant tea”, which suggests he is unwilling to stop, he likes to be busy. There is also an attention to detail in his preparations that serves the dual purpose of establishing the setting of the shop in our minds and features of his character like pride and tidiness. There is some further background detail about businessmen hurrying to work, purely for purposes of realism, before a more telling detail about Childan’s character.

Women in their long colourful silk dresses…he watched them, too.[x]

Dick does several things to show us that this detail is telling. Firstly the three adjectives, “long colourful silk”, without commas, give the sentence an elongated, seductive sound. They highlight in what way Childan is looking at the women by drawing attention to their “dresses”. Dick also adds in a suggestive pause as Childan’s thoughts wander. Finally there is the “too” tagged on to the end of the sentence, which further sets it apart from other background details. Later in the novel, with Childan’s character more firmly established, Dick hints again at his vulnerability.

I always give satisfaction, Childan thought. To my customers.[xi]

Here it is the “To my customers” that Dick highlights as a telling detail. Just three words tell us an awful lot about Childan’s character and how he has allowed his professional and public appearance to dominate his life. There is a strong indication that something is missing, or of a sense of inadequacy when it comes to real relationships with people. Dick continues to drop hints relating to this theme throughout the novel, particularly when Childan has conflicting feelings about his attraction to the Japanese wife.

            Dick explores the theme of illusion through Childan in several ways. One of these I have touched on in that Childan has an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness compared to an outward professionalism. Another is the way in which Childan can recognise and dismiss one aspect of society as fabrication but not others.

The radio of the pedecab blared out popular tunes, competing with the radios of other cabs, cars and buses. Childan did not hear it; he was used to it. Nor did he take notice of the enormous neon signs with their permanent ads obliterating the front of virtually every large building.[xii]

Here Childan seems to dismiss the culture of advertisement as artificial and false. He lets it wash over him, an unavoidable aspect of his routine but not an influence upon him. He also doesn’t hear the “popular tunes”. The implication of that phrase is that the music is mass produced, lifeless rubbish, worthy merely of the background. However whilst Childan refuses to buy in to the illusion of advertisement, he readily embraces the struggle to climb the ladder of social status. At various points in the novel Childan recognises the fixed nature of the social system, determined almost entirely by race. He appears to acknowledge that his race means he will never advance beyond a certain position. And yet all of his actions in the novel are geared towards how he can advance himself and “have, even for a moment, higher place”.

            Dick also uses Childan to show how illusion can be imposed from above. He has Childan blame the Germans for the racial social structure which is constraining him and then praises them for their vision. Childan describes Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing as works of progress. He even defends what the Nazis have “achieved” in arguments with others. He reflects the theme of Resource War through Childan by having him describe ideological motivations in a way that shows they are actually material. He convinces himself Aryans are better because “Those fellows certainly looked happy. And their farms and cottages were clean[xiii].” Dick suggests that it is the strain of being occupied and ruled by the Japanese that has led Childan to hold such contradictory views at the same time. Dick’s way of showing the enormous influence the occupation has had on Childan is to have his internal monologue mimic the speech patterns of the Japanese he both hates and admires.

Has he stumbled onto correct notion, Childan wondered, that certain of the historic objects in stores such as mine…are imitations?[xiv]

 Here Dick is commenting on the long term effects of American occupation on the minds of people. Dick’s awareness of Japanese culture would have made him mindful of the effects of American occupation on the country and others likeGermany. In particular Dick must have worried about the legacy of resentment that accompanied the dropping of the atomic bombs. He was also fully aware of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the First World War that only lead to greater slaughter. By changing Childan’s speech patterns Dick is suggesting how people can be psychologically altered under occupation in ways they don’t even realise. In a more recent examination of the issue, David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel Ghostwritten has a Japanese character who has become a terrorist partly as a result of the American legacy. Today the resentment felt by many in the Muslim world towardsAmericamay have been caused by a similar process of American superiority.

Despite the various narrative strands at work in The Man in the High Castle, such as Operation Dandelion, a Nazi plan to launch a nuclear strike against Japan and Julia Frink’s relationship with a volatile Italian; it is ultimately The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within a novel, which gives the story its illusory message. Of course there are other elements of the narrative that are linked to the theme of illusion, such as the fake jewellery and antiques business and the uncertainty regarding the identity of agent Baynes, but it is the hope of an alternate future that provides the novel’s key illusion. The revelation at the end of the book is that the truth behind an illusion may be extremely disappointing, perhaps so much so that we might wish to return to the illusion. Here we can draw parallels with Huxley, in how the Savage fails to appreciate the Brave New World. As part of that theme of disappointment Dick deliberately leaves the fates of characters we have come to care for hanging in the balance.  This though is part of the message of The Man in the High Castle. We cannot be sure of anything.


[i] Seed, D. American Science Fiction and the Cold War. Edinburgh University Press 1999, page 135

[ii] ibid, page 136

[iii] ibid, page 137

[iv] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009

[v] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 109

[vi] Binyon, M. 2009 Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas. The Times 6 October page 28

[vii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 173

[viii] ibid, page 175

[ix] ibid, page 178

[x] Dick, P. The Man in the High Castle. Penguin Classics 2001, page 9

[xi] ibid, page 27

[xii] ibid, page 27

[xiii] ibid, page 29

[xiv] ibid, page 175

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 1 – Huxley and the Prophetic Utopia: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offers excellent insight into the Cold War, despite the fact it was written in the early thirties. Indeed because of this earlier date of publication Brave New World is neatly positioned to shed light on the competing ideologies that would shape the world we know today. It’s also all the more impressive that many of Huxley’s ideas retain a degree of accuracy, when unlike Orwell (whose 1984 provided the other prophetic twentieth century novel), Huxley was writing before the enormous changes of the Second World War.

HUXLEY’S INFLUENCES

Perhaps the first enlightening principle to take from Brave New World with regard to the Cold War is how the opposing sides have similarities as well as striking differences. The figurehead of Huxley’s society, Henry Ford, is an icon of both capitalism and America. Effectively the God of Brave New World, Ford is worshipped in bizarre and hypnotic community ceremonies. It seems that his legacy of mass production accounts for his importance in a society conditioned to consume with a smile on its face. All of these pillars holding up the Brave New World seem distinctly American. However as Huxley himself wrote in 1928 “To the Bolshevist idealist, Utopia is indistinguishable from a Ford factory[i]. A society grounded in the wonders of mass consumption requires mass production. Factories are the habitats of the workers and therefore a Communist element emerges in the Brave New World. Huxley reminds us all how Communism is a child of capitalism. The aim of happiness for all is also recognisably Communist, albeit through propaganda rather than reality. The true triumph of Brave New World however is not how it incorporates two competing systems into one society but how it exposes their most damaging flaws. The reality of Communism triumphs over the ideal with the caste system reflecting how actual Communist countries turn out. The Alphas of Brave New World are the Party members of Communist Russia; privileged by position and a (relatively) luxurious quality of life. The liberating qualities of capitalism are also smashed by Huxley’s perfect machine of consumption. Through over-organisation the individual freedoms to pursue hobbies such as sport are slashed; everything must contribute to the pot of stability. Perfect capitalism comes to resemble Communism by placing the state above the individual.

Which then, of the two powerful forces destined to grapple for international influence, most compelled Huxley to write his unique novel? The answer is another reason to respect Huxley’s power for prophecy. After the First World War, Huxley predicted that Americawould enter a period of “inevitable acceleration” towards “world domination[ii]. This acceleration was not immediate, as despite Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points forming the backbone of the new League of Nations, America would never be a member. The opposition at home took advantage of anti-Wilson sentiments and soon public opinion resulted in a period of isolationism between the wars. Nevertheless America’s powerful corporations, boosted by their advantageous position in the First World War, continued to spread their wings globally. After the Second World War American isolationism was unthinkable even to most Americans and after forty-five years of Cold War Huxley was proved right that America would be the nation of “world domination” not theSoviet Union.

Brave New World is largely inspired by Huxley’s first visit to America in 1926. The 1920s saw a revival of anti-American feeling amongst the intelligentsia of Europe. Certainly this may have been fuelled by resentment lingering from the First World War, which left Europe ravaged and America bountiful. Men like Huxley may well have been suspicious of American opportunism but regardless of this a spectre of suffering loomed over Huxley’s generation which influenced their attitudes. On May the 5th Huxley’s ship arrived at San Francisco. He was greeted almost immediately by reporters, setting the tone for a whirlwind “celebrity” tour of the country. On board ship, before reaching America, Huxley had been reading My Life and Work by Henry Ford after finding it in the ship’s library. This discovery would prove crucial to the creation of Brave New World and influence the way in which Huxley viewedAmerica as he travelled around it.

            Despite arriving with the typical privileged and English views of American society, Huxley’s view of Americain the midst of the Roaring Twenties was far from clear cut. He found Los Angelesparticularly bewildering as he noted that “thought is barred in the City of Dreadful Joy and conversation is unknown[iii]. He also disapproved generally of the growing culture of materialism, the trash pumped out by Hollywood and the “vulgarity” of the flappers. Huxley’s whole family was more taken by New York and Huxley delighted in excessive socialising. Although Huxley at times seemed wholly negative towards America, claiming that a “radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards” was underway, he still left the country with an overwhelming sense of its split-personality, spotting the “strange co-existence of Puritanism and wild hedonism in America” which arguably is still the case today[iv].

Huxley’s visit to Americaand his political stance on a number of controversial issues has led many to debate whether or not Brave New World is intended as a dystopia or utopia. Of course the literary debate surrounding whether or not it is possible to write a utopia at all plays a crucial role. Huxley was joining a long line of much discussed visions of society, each with its own controversial answer to the question of the human condition that for some fundamental reason the reader tended to resist. But Huxley himself, despite the breadth of ideas in the book, must have decided whether or not he wanted the reader to be left with a mood of negativity or possibilities.

            It is possible to argue that Huxley intended certain aspects of Brave New World to be perfect and even desirable solutions to social problems. Certainly Huxley had the foresight to address underlying flaws in the structure of society that were not discussed in the mainstream, perhaps because the task of tackling these issues seemed insurmountable. Even today some of Huxley’s concerns remain unchallenged, particularly in political circles, as candidates are fully aware that such things divide the electorate. In a recent article in The Times population growth is described as the “great ecological timebomb” that by 2050 will have exploded global population to “9.2 billion”. The premise of the same article however is that ordinary people or “cogs in our messy, glorious, capitalist democracy” (a phrase Huxley might’ve approved of), merely want to live their lives without surrendering anything to deal with such massive problems. The writer concludes that the “Green” fanatics of today would have to seize control in a manner similar to that of the “Reds” in the past in order to impose unpopular solutions from above[v]. Perhaps Huxley saw such a coup as the only viable solution too, as in Brave New World it is clear that at some point a group seized control amidst the chaos of war and economic strife and implemented its own system on society.

One of the features of the new order is a permanent solution to the problem of population control. In the various “hatcheries” not only the number of people but the quality of people can be adjusted and refined. Huxley had a genuine interest not only in the control of population but in any scientific method that might improve the genetic stock of the species. In various 1930s radio interviews he advocated eugenics, now a term dirtied by Nazism, as a way of dealing with Britain’s problems. Statements such as “any form of order is better than chaos”, have led some to reason that Huxley seriously supported the radical solutions proposed in his novel[vi]. However Huxley’s intellectual interest in emerging answers to problems like population growth is understandable given that he is a man of considerable scientific background. As for his fear of chaos, Huxley was not alone. Already haunted by the Great War, his generation were obviously perplexed by a decade of financial collapse, social change and dictatorship. After hearing a Parliamentary debate Huxley, like many others, became disillusioned with politics and scraps of information from experiments like theSoviet Union began to sound appealing. This is by no means an indication that Huxley proposed the schemes within his novel as viable options. The manufacture of babies is a device that highlights the issue of population. A sensible interpretation is that Huxley wished the extreme he described, or anything close to it, to be avoided by prompt action.

Huxley’s biographer Nicholas Murray is certain that Brave New World is a dystopian vision. He says “that the real meaning of Brave New World is that the idea of utopia is toxic”. This suggests that Huxley took a particular view in the literary debate surrounding utopias; they’re a bad idea. Murray goes further by comparing Huxley and Orwell (a common comparison) and pointing out that their attitudes towards utopias are shaped by the visionary projects of the time, namely the intended paradises of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. These examples seem to suggest that any attempt to perfect society will encounter opposition and incur casualties. In Huxley’s case I think it is more relevant to talk about the consequences of an American utopia however. We know that Brave New World was written before the shocking emergence of atrocities following the Second World War. Therefore the expansion of American control, the spread of their culture and the dystopian consequences of this sprawling growth, seems more of an influence on Huxley’s creative process. In Brave New World Revisited Huxley confirms that his intention was always to warn primarily against “government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of the individual”, rather than against the tyranny envisaged by Orwell[vii]. This makes it clear that Huxley’s primary target for criticism in Brave New World was the “American system”; a system that in 1947 President Truman would argue was “the only way to save the world from totalitarianism[viii].

PROGRESS

There are numerous examples throughout Brave New World of aspects of American culture that Huxley exaggerates into dystopian features of his fictional society. In fact the first chapter alone contains several elements that we can see have been influenced by Huxley’s concerns about Americanization. For example the first paragraph of the novel contains the slogan of the World State, “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” Whilst this may sound more like the Communist inspired mottos that Orwell made famous in 1984, it can also be likened to the mind numbing advertising catchphrases emerging as part of the corporation culture that was absorbing power in America. Also present in the first chapter is an American sense of scale. Huxley effectively uses the tour given to new recruits at the Central London Hatchery as a lens through which he introduces the reader to the foundations of his fictional world. At one point the Director, who is leading the tour, instructs a member of staff to “Give them a few figures”. This instruction and the description that follows reflects an aspect of the American ideal that may have particularly worried sceptics such as Huxley; the notion that bigger is better. Huxley’s description of the way the new recruits react to the size of the establishment is extremely revealing;

“Two hundred and twenty metres long, two hundred wide, ten high. He pointed upwards. Like chickens drinking, the students lifted their eyes towards the distant ceiling.[ix]

 

Here we get a clear insight into Huxley’s attitude towards an American ideal of progress. Bigger is not necessarily better, but in Huxley’s description of the awe-struck students he recognises the blinding qualities of grandiose projects.

The theme of size and quantity as the measure of success is continued throughout the first chapter, with continued reference to the output of the hatchery. Huxley was well aware of the importance of scale to the American system and the downsides of its reliance upon it. “The concept of scale is crucial to understanding the American economic model… American monopolists realised after the Civil War that scale above all gave them power: they could pay their suppliers less because the suppliers had nowhere else to go, they could charge their customers more, they could drive smaller competitors out of business[x].” The demand for scale did not have negative impacts inAmerica’s early years, as there was still plenty of sparsely populated land to colonise. The bulk of territorial acquisitions are forgotten because they were smoothly exchanged for dollars rather than the blood of American soldiers. The 1803Louisiana Purchase saw theUnited States double in size for just $15,000,000. The previous owners, the French, were delighted with this sum for what they regarded as land without strategic value. Napoleon would plough the American money into expanding the Channelport ofBoulogne in preparation for an invasion ofEngland. It is easy with hindsight to suggest that he chose the wrong scheme.

As Americagrew however the need for scale would begin to impact upon other nations. The outcome of the Civil War determined the character of America’s elite; the industrialists defeated the landowners. This new elite were responsible for a shift from property and populating, to profit, when it came to expansion. It was these industrialists that Huxley knew could exploit the system. Huxley would have been particularly worried by the influence of big business upon government; indeed in Brave New World he has the two become the same thing. It’s possible to draw parallels between the rapid expansion of America’s navy following the Civil War, so that it went from a force smaller than Sweden’s to only the Royal Navy’s inferior by 1907, and the soma spraying riot police deployed in Brave New World by the world controllers. The navy grew as a direct consequence of American corporations demand for scale, just as the riot police intervene to maintain the social order and stop the disruption caused by the Savage at the hospital, which was threatening the supply of dead bodies which are utilised in Brave New World as a resource.

Huxley’s worry was that the concentration of power would lead to only a small group’s interests being served by government. He would’ve been outraged by America’s policy u-turn on Germanyand Japanfollowing the Second World War. In 1947 Americaabandoned a commitment to purge these nations of undesirable political elements and limit their strength, opting instead to adopt a policy of accelerated development to open up export markets, reduce occupation costs and counter the Soviet threat with the creation of strong allies. This decision was strongly influenced by the desires of Northern industrialists. As a result Americaembraced industrial monopolies such as Mitsubishi in both rogue states, accepting the concentration of power amongst certain political elites to achieve their own ends. Through the Marshall Plan Americaextended this policy to Europe, often choosing to support the status quo in order to open up new markets for profits. At home the USgovernment could satisfy their powerful business allies whilst also appearing humanitarian to the public by saving their beleaguered European friends from the menace of Communism. Huxley was critical of this deception but also of the entire culture of consumption Americaimposed on other nations via the Marshall Plan. He had encountered it on his trip to Americain 1926 and in Brave New World he warned against its dangers.

 

We have seen that part of Huxley’s strong suspicion of the American system is its particular version of progress. ForAmericamaking the leap to inefficient and exploitative economies of scale was progress. It has also decided that it has a global role to play and that other nations should follow their systems of government and finance. It took advantage of the threat of Communism and asked the world to make a choice between their way and the Red way. As a result today’s world is largely dominated by the triumphant American system, with even supposedly Communist China playing the capitalist game. Those not part of the grand plan are judged as failed, ungoverned and terrorist states. I believe Huxley would agree with the modern writer John Gray about what progress ought to be:

There is an ingrained tendency to think of progress in terms of convergence on a global way of life and, up to a point, a global viewpoint is unavoidable. Pollution and climate change do not respect borders, and war or anarchy in any part of the world has spill-over effects on the rest, but we should discard the idea that one sort of regime is best for everybody. Instead of thinking of progress as a movement towards a single, ideal way of life, we could think of it in terms different ways of life developing in their own ways. If some countries wish to opt out of the global market, they should be free to do so. If they want to pick and choose among new technologies, let them try[xi].”

I believe Huxley would share this view because of his passionate defence of individualism both through the satire of Brave New World and the urgent essays of Brave New World Revisited. If he did think along similar lines, as his work suggests, then nothing could be more opposed to progress than one nation attempting to impose its way of life upon others.

            In the context of the Cold War however it may seem foolish to talk negatively about progress. It is generally accepted that the pressurised atmosphere of the Cold War induced one of the most productive periods of advancement in the history of mankind. We have already touched on the staggering economic turnarounds of Germanyand Japan, both of whom are today modern nations in so many ways. Then there was the development of a military-industrial complex that fuelled changes in so many areas. In 1960 defence spending in Americaaccounted for 52 per cent of all federal spending. In total the Defence Department employed over 2.5 million people. Research projects on a whole range of subjects were handed out to countless universities[xii].  Spin-offs from the arms race helped civilian industries like electronics and air travel. Television brought exotic locations into your living room.

           However for Huxley the television brought terrible indications about the dangers of progress for progress’ sake. The 1960 Presidential election is now infamous for its televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Over 60% of the adult population watched the first live televised debate, which was surely a triumph for democracy, making politics truly accessible to voters. However Huxley saw it differently. A decisive factor in the election turned out to be Kennedy’s superior performance on television. An often quoted fact is that those who heard the first debate on radio preferred Nixon, whereas those who watched it on television liked Kennedy. This suggests that, judged purely on the substance of his answers, Nixon was the better candidate for most people. Reading transcripts of the debates reveals that the two candidates’ views on key policy matters were not grossly different and that neither decisively defeated the other in arguments.  This seems to suggest that television offered Kennedy the chance to charm away his inexperience and claim victory. Nixon’s strong record of fighting Communism and experience as a Vice President was overshadowed. In the long run Kennedy’s success at avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nixon’s corruption exposed by the Watergate scandal seems to vindicate the result of the 1960 election. However at the time an election was one primarily because of the candidate’s image. Huxley worried that in this new age anyone could exploit the good will of democracy, “All that is now needed was money and a candidate who could be coached to look sincere.[xiii]” For Huxley it was all too similar to the fervour that swept Hitler to power in Germany and if it wasn’t that bad, it was still degrading politics so that people were voting for symbols rather than policies; “Under the new dispensation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance.[xiv]


[i] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxi

[ii] ibid, page xix

[iii] Murray, N.  Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual, Abacus 2003 page 182

[iv] ibid, page 184

[v] Senior, A. 2009 Blunt warning about greens under the bed. The Times 24 July, No. 69896, page 27.

[vi] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxiii

[vii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 5

[viii] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 80

[ix] Huxley, A. Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page 8

[x] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009, page 353

[xi] Gray, J. Heresies: Against Progress and other Illusions. Granta Books 2004, page 63

[xii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 279

[xiii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 73

[xiv] ibid, page 73

Creative Writing: The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland Transformation Mash-up: Part 1


This afternoon I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland and thus a piece of creative writing I did for my English A-Level. It sticks in my mind because unlike most of my work, which I look back on with distaste after thinking it was ok at the time, I still think this piece is rather good. You know, for me. The A-Level Coursework assignment was to transform a text from one genre to another. For one piece I adapted parts of Hamlet into the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes-esque tale. For this one, which I am considerably more fond of, I took Margaret Atwood’s first person dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and adapted it in the style of Lewis Carroll’s fantastical nonsense. I truly embrace the random and baffling nature of Carroll’s tale, so I will post the explanatory commentary seperately to aid understanding. I really enjoyed writing this and I think I acheived what I wanted to do, echoing the themes of one book with the style of another. I was also aesthetically influenced by Nathaniel West’s Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust. As if it wasn’t strange enough already. So here we go then, I shall add it to my blog for my own pleasure at least:

The Chauffeur’s Tale

  1. 1.    Down the elevator shaft

Nick was starting to get rather bored sitting in the waiting room with nothing to do; once or twice he had plucked magazines from the table only to toss them back. It was a hot day and the bulky fans only stirred and swirled the air. His eyes felt heavy and tired.

He decided to head for the bathroom, splash some water, pull himself together. On the way he passed a potted plant, the usual sort of framed picture, an incompetent receptionist, a uniformed chicken and a brown leather sofa. Nick was already washing his hands when it occurred to him that chickens rarely adopted such an assured posture or wore uniforms. Neither did they often stalk the corridors of powerful corporations or wait impatiently for elevators.

“Hey! Hold the doors!” shouted Nick as he dashed out into the hall, just in time to see the elevator ease shut. For a moment he pondered returning to his seat, but curiosity, fuelled by prolonged boredom and a further glimpse of what was surely a bird of some sort, compelled Nick to wait for the next descent. He would fall further than he could ever imagine.

*

You’re late.”
Nick could not think what on earth he was late for. He had an appointment to keep certainly, but there had been no time arranged and some bimbo would no doubt fetch him. It hardly seemed to matter whether Nick concluded the business now in any case. Except Nick wasn’t in the waiting room and couldn’t recall what it was he did, had done or was doing.
“I said you’re damn late. And you can’t address the meeting looking like that, you’re a mess. I know you’re all a bad bunch, but they’re all under the impression you’re different and the best of ‘em.”
You? They?” Nick could stand now, if he dipped his head. All his clothes were caked in dust.
“Men, terrible, the lot of you. Hardly time to go into that though. They’re waiting.”
“Who are they?” coughed Nick as light returned to his eyes revealing “the chicken! Of course the elevator cable snapped, and, and…”
“Chicken indeed,” hissed the bird, proudly smoothing its uniform, “I am a hen.”
Nick suddenly felt terribly awkward as the bird was deeply offended by his rash remark. He groped around in his mind for the sort of diplomatic language he had not utilised since the playground standoffs of his youth, to no avail.
“Sorry, I’m not myself. I think I’ve had a fall. You must have a name?”
“Well of course you have, after a shock like that. No time for names. Out you go.”

Nick found himself looking out over something resembling the lobby of the building he thought he had entered an hour or so ago. And yet it was surely not that building. There were no guards, no staff, no doors, and no roof. A great crowd buzzed noisily below in anticipation of some great event. The gleaming, textured marble was grey and lifeless; neglected and battered by the scorn of a frowning black sky. Only stars studded the horizon where skyscrapers had bunched. Trash was strewn about with joyful abandon as if a festival had taken place. There was a draining absence of colour, except in the varied faces and heads of the crowd; dogs, cats, chickens (probably hens), dwarves, monkeys, children, rats, women and bears. All of them gazed at the cracked far wall, faces illuminated by a jumpy black and white projection. The film was no more than thirty seconds long and of appalling quality, but Nick recognised himself, holding the door for the Chief Executive of Masterton’s International and his mistress.

“Things must be clearer now.”
“Not really.”
The footage continued to play on a loop and the faces remained transfixed by it. Nick gawped at the sight of himself amplified to such a height. He touched his chest and compared the reality of it to the six foot wave of white light that was his torso for the people in this odd audience. He cringed at the flashing imperfections of his face, the thick creases around his forced smile. She had told him he had a French face.

“The activists know you are coming. They wish to hear from you firsthand what Offred is like. You will inspire them to freedom with your tale. It is written.”
Nick prayed that no one in the crowd would turn around and see him. If they did, they might become a mob. What did this fat hen want from him? How ridiculous she looked in her mismatched military garments, bursting at the seams, with her dangling beard flapping as she spoke.
“I’m sorry you’ve got the wrong man. I’m not important and I don’t belong here.”
The hen blocked Nick’s path as he turned to leave.
“That is you is it not? That is you and your Commander and your lover the sacred Offred. She was brave and came to you out of passion and a desire for freedom in defiance of the wicked White Queen. You love each other.”
Nick almost laughed. How strange the way events could be seen. Stranger still how they could still be meaningful; in fact have more importance, when viewed completely incorrectly.
“I don’t know who Offred is or the Commander or a White Queen! But yes that’s me…”

And he was holding the door for them, for her, as he had done so many times. Her elegant legs towered for all to see; the image was inescapable, a taunting reminder for Nick that the thought of her, of Laura, had once utterly consumed him. How could he possibly explain the sordid, uncertain reality of it all to this deluded bird? He could not be sure how he had felt, let alone decipher her true feelings. He was certainly angry now, looking back at how he had allowed himself to be toyed with and used as bait by the Chief Executive’s wife in a pathetic attempt to save her sham of a marriage. Even if he had lured Laura away the old man would have found someone else. Most of all it had been unprofessional to indulge his emotions whilst on business. His paymasters at Coppletons were relying on him for accurate inside information of Masterton’s International’s dealings, not for him to become entangled in some meaningless office soap opera. Nick had been lucky to get what he needed.

Nick tried to explain that Laura was just a girl. Yes they’d been lovers, but she would never have given up her lifestyle for him. In the end business came first for both of them.
The hen went quiet for a moment, then swallowing her rage, spoke again calmly.
“I don’t believe you are being honest with me or you do not truly know all the facts. Offred, our Red Princess, could never have been happy or content with any aspect of her slavery. In any case you work for the resistance and will eventually free Offred, heralding a new age. The Book says so.”
This time Nick did laugh.
“I must be dreaming! I was a spy but I didn’t resist anything. Hell why would I change the way things are when the money’s so good? Whoever wrote this Book of yours has a taste for romance and grand ideas instead of the truth.”

Nick was wondering if he should pinch himself to wake up and whether there was ever such a thing as a true story, or if they were all reconstructions at best, when the hen blew a whistle and shouted..“BLASPHEME!” The sound of marching feet approached.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Day 3


At last some progress. Today I’ve made it through about half of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, glanced through most of The Sartorialist and listened to two discs of The Finkler Question. Admittedly, in my attempts to make the most of my first audio book, I was doing other things and not concentrating for parts of that second disc. It’s undoubtedly a different experience to reading, even if with headphones it’s just a different voice inside the caverns of your own head. But it still requires you to put other activities aside and disappear into the narrative. It’s a very personal performance, just for you, by the actor/reader, but I’ll save the rest of my thoughts on it for another time.

Tomorrow I aim to tackle short stories and work towards an article on that genre in particular. I’ll also continue my audio book (there are twelve discs) and hopefully finish Triffids. I’m afraid that’s just about it, as I should get on with the reading, or embrace some sleep. I haven’t decided which yet.

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

A note on Faulks on Fiction


I used to be a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks. And I’m still a fan. But as with most things greater wisdom comes with age. Faulks is far from a faultless writer, despite the eagerness with which I devoured his works and the undoubted merits many of them have. With Engleby, a disturbing first person narrative, he proved he is capable of versatility. But many would accuse him of churning out almost identical historical tales. Birdsong was the perfect fusion of history and literature, but other novels have been weighed down by excessive research. Balancing storytelling and a fascination for history is a problem I sympathise with greatly, but nevertheless a damaging weakness.  However he seems to take to presenting rather naturally.

Last night the first episode of a new series entitled Faulks on Fiction aired on BBC2. Overall I found it immensely enjoyable and refreshing to see such a marrying of literature and history given pride of place in the television schedules. It focused on enduring, iconic characters of fiction. Faulks and those he interviewed made various insightful and valid points. But the programme was also often necessarily simplistic. On the whole this didn’t matter because it allowed an engaging chronological sweep; history through the lens of characterisation. What did matter was the weakness of the entire premise behind the series.

Faulks argues that characters can be divided into heroes, villains, lovers and snobs. This first episode was on heroes. And you can’t help thinking Faulks himself doubts the strength of his point. The programme works best when it’s simply exploring great characters, not when crudely grouping them together; categorising and labelling in a forced, basic manner. Some of the staggering generalisations really undermine the more thoughtful, original points Faulks makes.

 In interviews Faulks has piqued the interest of many by classing the character of James Bond as a “snob”. In many ways this seemed like a publicity stunt to hook viewers. But if Faulks genuinely believes this it might explain the disappointment of his tribute Bond book, Devil May Care, when he was supposedly “writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks cites Bond’s love of brands as the reason for his snobbery instead of heroism and would no doubt, if pressed, point out Bond’s sexist attitudes too.

The fascination with brands and even the outdated prejudices are products of the time and the author, not the character of Bond. Fleming peppers his narratives with luxurious products to stimulate the rationed masses of 1950s Britain, not purely for Bond’s love of them. The moments of prejudice are also clearly when Fleming’s own voice shines through, over and above that of his adored creation. Having watched this episode, Bond would undoubtedly have slotted in alongside countless other flawed heroes.

My views on the programme pale into amateurish bias when set against those of a fellow blogger however. Last night an interesting, thought provoking, funny and spot-on live blog analysed Faulks on Fiction as it happened. The start of the post suggests doubts in this particular reviewer’s mind; doubts I believe to be absurd given the depth, accuracy and skill behind previous entries. Read and support this valued writer:

http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/faulks-on-fiction-an-on-the-fly-review/