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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Oh, I wish I knew a priest,

To kiss him at the feet, a hairy white-collared beast

My gracious male guide,

A human image of gods pride

To love me as his own,

And late night calls on the phone

But this priest I knew was in sin,

and my t-shirt of life was creased,

Embracing the arms of the priest.

 

I should’ve got to know the nun,

Cruising in solitude, ministry of fun,

I like reading literature anyway

To talk the dangerous evils of ‘gay’

And feed me my milk at the end of the day,

But ‘I am so made that I cannot believe’,

And baby it aint in my heart to deceive.

 

Come to think of it, priest at school made me feel slightly sick,

And the nun in this town was locked up, brick by brick…

Still, I wish I knew a priest to get me through those times,

And in return, my friend, i’ll cover up your crimes.

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I have for a while been interested in late Victorian gothic horror. At an early age I relished the story of Jekyll and Hyde (1886), the horrid split between the gentile and collective, pleasant side of the man and the cunning madness of the evil side. Also, with a keen interest in ghosts I obsessed over the nearby Borley Rectory (the once ‘most haunted house in England) and the investigations of Harry Price, although perhaps sheepishly pursued more photographic ‘evidence’ to validate my intrigue than I should have realised. Reading The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins-Gilmore at school tickled further my interest in this subtle form of horror which could evidently (or especially as I now might say) permeate the lives of the grand mansion-types, making for a nice encapsulation of the term ‘gothic’ for me.

I think that because of the unsophisticated young mind and fascination with and inclination toward the supernatural, the old manifestations of ghouls and demons (which were also entertained by the Demon Headmaster and R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps) generated a horror that was undeterred by modern technology, scientific evidence and the gross modern manifestations of ‘evil’ one see’s on T.V. and the psycho-killer.  We learn where the true ‘evil’ lies in the world when get older. But in this artistic world, being psychotic isn’t scary… that person still conforms to the world’s natural order, and eventually reason and science. It is the suspension of these things which generates a certain type of gothic horror that infects the mind and is most effective when the mind does most the work itself. This all of course is considering that the prose is accessible and understandable; as inferred, the less said the better. So I approached Turn of The Screw with such anticipation.

It is a tough piece of work to get through – the convoluted writing style of Henry James is to use the old English vernacular, ghastly. For me there is much at fault with this style of literature, the kind where it takes about 100 pages to say what ought to have been said in 10, a far cry from the benign and agreeable prose of Dickens. The thought did not escape me that the rules George Orwell laid out for good English in ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) were a reaction to such writing as this (not that the rules were ‘commandments’ as such, but guidelines to how one should write. Clarity of language equates to clarity in political dialogue and thinking). In fact, it is hardly believable that Orwell was writing his work, including this, only about 30-50 years after James. And so I will subject Turn of the Screw to the scrutiny of Orwell’s critique and see how it is left up.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

This rule is not so horribly violated as some in Turn of the Screw. ‘I dare say!’ is used far too frequently, ‘by slip of the tongue’, ‘of the dammed’, ‘queer business’, ‘more or less’ all make appearances but don’t greatly offend.

  1. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

The novella is riddled with examples of this: ‘sequestration’ instead of a simple ‘separation’, the ludicrous ‘preternaturally’ when ‘unusually’ would suffice, ‘perambulations’ ahead of ‘inspection’. Sentences like ‘in the renouncement of one pretension’ clutter up the entire book and don’t make for an easy translation.

  1. If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.

Again, James falls foul of this crime too many times, notably with the long conjunctions which dominate the early chapters or instalments of the novella.  Examples: ‘it sufficiently struck out that, by tacit little tricks in which even more than myself he carried out the care for my dignity , I had had to appeal to him to let me off straining to meet him on the ground of  his true capacity’. An absurd jungle of words which barely carry any meaning – not only could words be cut out but entire sentences or passages…’headache inducing’ is the idea which comes to mind.

  1. Never use the passive when you can use the active.

These are harder to determine and it would take a close reading to discover these faults in Turn of the Screw. ‘“With them?” Oh on this the poor woman promptly joined me!’ is a common type of switch between speech and an internal monologue which makes for exhausting reading.

  1. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Jargon is of course harder to find in a short novel such as this, but strangely words like ‘fabulous’ are used to mean strange or unreal, which may just be the Victorian context but inspection of James’ contemporaries will show how different the writing could be at the same time. Same with ‘gaoler’ to mean in jail and James uses ‘mot’, the French equivalent of the ‘word’, packing in further hidden meaning to an unintelligible sentence.

  1. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This doesn’t really apply for James as it does say the political speaker, although break the rules, he certainly does!

Although Orwell meant for these ‘elementary’ rules to mainly be observed by those using ‘language as an instrument for expressing’ and not so much literature, I think it can be useful for text as well. Authors hold the artistic licence to write whatever and however they like. But especially for a gothic horror novel such as this it remains important to use simple words and phrasing (to sharp and sinister effect) to truly penetrate the clear mind. I look forward to my next novel of this kind and hope the lucidity for which I am looking exists.

Picture the scene: it is the middle of 1969 and famous Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono are staging one of their many ‘bed-in’s’ for peace from a hotel room somewhere in Montreal, or Holland. Lennon, becoming ever more outlandish in his peace protests since the release of Revolution the year before, is apparently leading a generation of angry, young, idealistic voices against the culmination of wars in the first half of the twentieth century, currently Vietnam.

Emotive, drastic, forceful words are flying in the face of the media from a man who has at this point been one of the most famous people in the world for the last 7 years (featuring many quotes which will survive the natural weathering of time far longer than one might’ve thought), but one shall stick out: ‘if everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace’. Less than ten years later, Lennon and Ono are of course living in their million dollar luxury flats in uptown New York where he easily managed to ignore the issue of his personal wealth and laugh off Orwellian socialism whilst continuing to oscillate his mantra of peace and love  – the same scene where the Beatle met his pointless, untimely demise. But these acts confirmed Lennon as a member of the 60’s peace movements along with his rock star colleagues.

The mentality of free love culminated in Woodstock some months after John and Yoko’s protest, highlighted by the cynical spectacle of Jimi Hendrix performing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ to an audience of mostly young draft-dodgers rather than any serious candidates for political protest (this can more or less be confirmed by reading audience accounts online at the dedicated Woodstock website). This was a spectacle which actually ended in a dirty field full of plastic bags, polluted water and all other imaginable by-products of hippies going without adequate cleaning facilities, toilets, food and free space for a week. As they all retreated home, it somehow signified the end of the 60’s counterculture movement.

It is an interesting question to pose, whether there is any long-standing significant impact of the sexual revolution and free love propaganda of the 1960’s.  Politically, it was certainly a revolutionary period – from JFK to Malcolm X, communism in Cuba and Prague, the war in Vietnam, the Parisian student revolts (the latter group subsequently becoming famous as the Soixante-Huitard’s, the sixty-eighter’s who encapsulated the defying spirit of their political ambition).  The free love zeitgeist may have helped move a generation of baby-boomers closer to their libertarian ideal in a few ways, but perhaps shouldn’t have been the primary catalyst.

The sexual revolution of the time basically coincided with new forms of birth control, empowerment of women through feminism, the gay movement and in Britain, at least, the introduction of the abortion act in 1967. It is tactful to suggest that sexual and hormonal energy which would have otherwise been discharged in a furore of violence or more destructive impulses at the issues of the 1950’s and 60’s – unequal society, the Cold War an development of nuclear technology, superficial politics etc. – was instead spent on flower power, pretty music and lots of lovemaking. Introducing drugs to the scene helps one see further the unhelpful distractions and the blaringly obvious dichotomy between preach and practice which permeated the lives of pseudo-revolutionaries. What was the real revolution?

Happily to us, it seems that the so-called ‘protest’ music of the 1960’s (Dylan, Joan Baez, The Beatles) also coincided with the defining issues of the day, but noticeably all American fodder; the civil rights movement and Dr. King, Vietnam, Haight- Ashbury, etc. There are for example, no Jimi Hendrix tunes about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The plight of Guevara only became world-widely celebrated decades after his work, somewhat ironically through the form of his imprinted face on t-shirts, posters and all other items of cheap consumerism. The 2003 film The Dreamers documenting the May 1968 student riots in Paris makes use of such rock and roll music for precisely what it was: a pleasing soundtrack. Allusions to The Stones and all bands portraying the hippy ideal were characteristically unpopular a decade later, best shown in The Clash’s 1977:

No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones,

in 1977.

Punk in America and Britain was the perfect antithesis of flower power in the late 70’s which only showed how much the music current despised the failed utopian dream. One wonders how the veterans of the era and the more politically minded took to their futile occupations of lying on lawns with tea and hash ten years previously… with stale nostalgia at best?

The culmination of events in the world that decade, mainly political, gave birth to the largest united shift of consciousness since the War and this means something. One therefore wonders what became of the free love legacy. The deaths of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy only signified that extremism still existed. The Nixon years in the White House in the 1970’s and the neglect of the Labour Party in Britain showed that politics was game as ever, with the Vietnam ending on its own accord – such events becoming illuminated through those rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight and past reflection. This is not to diminish the excitement of the time for say, a young journalist learning the trade of politics in real time in Israel writing on the Holy Land dispute, or the authoritarian regime in Portugal, or the rallying powers of Castro in Cuba; things which culminated long after the fads of the counterculture had worn off.  A brilliant account of this time and these activities is available in the rousing memoir of Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22. Taking in such events and pushing for a sense of moral duty on the streets must be the defining spirit of the late 1960’s.

So this is the legacy those of the time rightfully will remember. Having started with Mr. Lennon, we can certainly finish up with him. In 1970 Lennon released John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band amidst a haze of prog-rock nonsense and the premature deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The final line of the most poignant song on the record summed up the feeling of the time, at least only for the hundreds of thousands of crying hippies at the disbanding of the Beatles: the dream is over. I wonder if there could have been a better timing.

There is one depressing proclamation in answer to this question which is tempting to subscribe to; it was crushed under the merciless wheel of capitalism. Looking back, we can see that 2011 was a considerable turning point in international politics. Social movements seemed set to change the World. The Arab Spring might have been the biggest influence and catalyst for ‘Occupy’, but of course the two are fundamentally different in more ways we might know.

Unlike the Arab Spring the Occupy Movement met a rather demeaning response of apathy. The sigh of cynicism from the observers was heard almost in unison with the shouts on the ground. The extreme violence which met protestors in Libya, Syria, Egypt and many more, certainly validated their concerns, tragically in real time, with pressure mounting to a greater extent every day (than any uprising in the West), largely coming from the international community; in the modern age they are unable to ignore it.  Occupy is an interesting attempt to defy the outcomes of capitalism but a comparison cannot be made with sincerity to give respect and due justice to the cause across the Arab World.

Emotionally fuelled by YouTube videos of celebrities charging through the streets of New York (Mike Myers, Sean Lennon, who has inherited a life of total luxury in the Dakota Building overlooking Central Park), protestors yelled ‘we are the 99%’ to the blindingly indifferent slouching in their offices in Cities across the Western Hemisphere. It felt like a rather half-hearted delayed response to ‘hero’ of the movement, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), and one can’t help wonder if any of them would be willing to join the marches of their Arab brothers and sisters across the Middle East as well.

The unique and confounding aspect of this happening in America is precisely that fact. The American economic and governmental system is based on capitalism (and always to an extent has worked on a model of the free market in accordance with aims of the liberal Founding Fathers – however skewed this may feel now) and the steady pursuit of wealth and superficial democracy is the environment no American alive hasn’t grown up in or enjoyed. Take this in contrast with say, Portugal or Turkey and the political turbulence they have witnessed in the last Century; the authoritarian regime of the Estado Novo only ended in 1974 with a relatively peaceful revolution in Portugal, for example.   The events are surprising and none the less encouraging in this respect and illustrate an interesting generational difference (the same was true in London for Occupy and the student fee’s protest there the year before). It shows there exists a youth that want the same Western privileges and excesses as the post-depression, post-war teenagers had but without the moral weight of guilt. Revolutions are born out of disenfranchised youth. This is when the situation feels slightly idealised (and maybe will have always been the case).

The main question from the media and indeed surrounding any analysis of occupy revealed in the tone of discourse on the subject, is whether it is a legitimate grievance…six months of stay since September would show indicate that it is surely a genuine one. Dyed in the wool capitalists dismissed the protestors as spoiled hippies who were wasting their time, an understandable ploy (‘patting on the head’ as I like to call it) to condescend the youthful spirit of the movement. Wikipedia at least tells me that ‘In 2007 the richest 1% of the American population owned 34.6% of the country’s total wealth, and the next 19% owned 50.5%’[1]. It finally felt that the Country, as well as many others, was finally awaking to the reality of greed and may want to pursue policies of universal healthcare, or fair taxes for the rich, for example. The biggest threat to the success and legitimacy of a movement like this was surely for it to be forgotten, to turn stale.

It feels that something about the Occupy Protest lacked a certain sense of intellectual honesty and integrity.  Maybe it all came about around 20 years too early; the impact of climate change, nuclear proliferation and the rise of other global powers, and probably different economic and political systems, may very well make such protests about the fundamental behaviour of authority commonplace over the next few decades. Although it might be because the sensationalism has worn off (which ought to be half the aim of the movement for publicity), occupy seems to have fizzled out into nothing much to an air of disappointment. Because it is the first of its kind on a wide scale basis, there was and is no predictability around it and meanwhile the common cause of grievance is always just under the surface, if not in the US itself, certainly outside it.

One thing the movement did do was confirm suspicions of the foul prejudice and heavy-handedness of the Police across the US.  Video footage of this occurring is a good thing, anywhere. The muted official reaction (Obama spoke vaguely in support of the protestors, although criticised them for ‘demonizing’ the financial sector) says it all essentially; good effort, but you’re not powerful enough yet. I hope this commentary doesn’t sound too snidely. It is a simple truth that the Arab Spring is the far more important global social event of last year and defying evil theocratic oppression is always going to be a bigger deal than the spectacle of ‘Occupy’.