A Biography of the WLA

They Fought In The FieldsThey Fought In The Fields by Nicola Tyrer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book because my maternal grandmother was a Land Girl, although I don’t know as much as I’d like to about what she did. Like many of the women who volunteered to literally help feed the war effort, she came from a working class urban background and left school at fourteen. Most of these young women were working before they entered the Womens Land Army, in domestic service, in factories, as waitresses, as shop clerks. Tyrer often highlights how the WLA was structured on class lines, with a small middle/upper class administrative staff, and thousands (87,000 at its peak in 1943) of working class members. Farming was seen and paid as unskilled work, and Tyrer points out that the efforts of the WLA’s head Lady Denman to improve pay and conditions for members helped all agricultural workers.

Tyrer is a great admirer of Lady Denman, whom she describes as the member of a vanishing class, the philanthropic, Liberal gentry. She is less enamoured of Vita Sackville-West, who was heavily involved with the Land Army (this was news to me), but rather abused her position, for example to get Land Girls to pick raspberries and arum lillies for her friends’ dinner parties. Tyrer describes her as a snob, and she certainly comes across that way in the quotations here.

Tyrer leaves the reader in no doubt of her own opinions, but her judgements never have a personal voice; she presents them as the surely-everyone-in-their-right-mind-would-think-so view. She uses first-hand accounts both as brief chapters scattered through the book and as short quotations within her own text, forming a kind of evidenced research project. The material is occasionally sensitive: the reputation of WLA members as ‘promiscuous’ or ‘predatory’, words that made me worry about sexual assault on them. Tyrer includes some reports of creepy and persistent sexual harrassment from British male farm workers, and less frightening but still annoying harrassment from Italian prisoners of war. One woman reported that an Italian POW ‘jumped out of a hedge and kissed’ her.

Elsewhere, there are many stories of Italian PsOW, who were treated well under the Geneva convention (often better than Land Girls whose employment was poorly regulated despite Lady Denman’s efforts) giving underfed, overworked women dried fruit from their own rations, and otherwise being generous, kind and friendly – one woman reported that those she knew missed their families and made friends with the farmer’s young children.

Italians were just some of the foreigners the young woman of the WLA occasionally encountered in their work. American servicemen in particular had a reputation for promiscuity. There are some mentions of African American soldiers, including one rather striking recollection by a Land Girl of her ‘first encouter with the Colour Bar’ when she was asked for directions by a black serviceman, but did not know the area and replied “I’m sorry I can’t help you” and was misunderstood by the man who replied all forgiveness and generous tolerance toward the individual constrained by a system “I’m awfully sorry, will I have got you into trouble by stopping you?”. The woman was upset ‘to think I had hurt someone that much’. Other women mention drinking in bars with black USians even when proprietors and British soldiers frowned on it.

All in all, the Land Girls themselves are highly praised by this account of them. The frank sexism of the National Farmers Union, the lack of support from government, and often poor conditions in the job were inadequate obstacles to their determination and abilities. Tyrer says that ‘they made their opponents change sides’* since after the war the NFU, along with many individual farmers, praised them warmly and lobbied for the service to be maintained. Tyrer cleverly constructs the narrative with an emotional arc from uncertain and difficult beginnings, with tales of miserably inadequate food, cold, lack of sanitation, scornful employers and loneliness towards the front of the book, towards triumph at the end, where happier testimonials cluster: sociable hostel life, kind farmers and families, parties and dances, and above all love of the land.

*but I’m sad that she turns this into a dig at feminism, repeated in the introduction and late in the text when she mentions that many Land Girls, like my Nanna who settled down with a fellow farm labourer, left the service for marriage and babies. While some feminists have been guilty of criticising women for taking on the role of wife-and-mother, it’s a gross misunderstanding to suggest that all of us do! Feminists fight sexism, as the WLA did.

This edition includes some lovely, evocative photographs – only a few of them formally posed in class-photo style. Looking at the well-designed uniforms and the hardwood, simple yet elegant chairs in hostel dining rooms reminds me how beautiful every day things were before the era of mass production. These things would be incredibly costly now. The photos also document practices widespread before the large scale mechanisation of farming. WLA members gained heritage skills like thatching that are now extremely rare. The women look remarkably healthy – these powerful thighs, toned waists and doughty arms must belong to the ones eating hearty meals rather than those who survived on bread-and-jam. And their old fashioned curly hair reminds me of my Nanna and that the long & lank fashion of today is a recent trend.

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forms of imprisonment

AwakeningsAwakenings by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story is thrilling: the sleepy sickness epidemic that followed WWI left many people with profound Parkinsonian symptoms; some were hardly able to move, never spoke, seemed frozen in time for forty years. A large number of these patients were under Sacks’ care at Mount Carmel hopital in New York in 1969 when he decided to try giving them the new drug L-DOPA, and witnessed many of them coming suddenly, vividly to life. But this blurb summary is a gross simplification! Sacks is at pains even in the introductions to point out that L-DOPA is extremely unpredictable, producing different effects even in the same patient, and always leads to some ‘tribulations’.

Also, the case studies that form the dramatic heart of the book were less fascinating to me than Sacks’ writing around them. In a way, the case studies are richly personal: Sacks insists again and again on treating patients as people, that ‘nothing can be reduced to anything’ and that ‘if we do not listen to our patients we will never learn anything’. However, the clinical detail is extensive and given in terminology that takes time to get used to. When Sacks reflects on their implications, in contrast, he writes in expansive, lucid prose, linking the mysteries of Parkinsonism to quantum mechanics and to lyrical, existential poetry.

This is a wonderful book for writers, because, as often in Sacks’ work, it goes to the heart of what forms character, identity, personality. When he asserts that ‘style is the deepest thing in one’s being’, I am struck by the resonance with some of the most thought-provoking philosophy and criticism I have read. The succinct expression here is powerful, and it is fleshed out by meditations on the notion of health as musicality and free flow, of being as moving, which the ‘phantasmagoria’ of Parkinsonism most graphically disrupts and distorts.

A section on stage and screen interpretations of the original work is included. Sacks, initially concerned that any adaptation would be ‘unreal’ was delighted by Pinter’s response A Kind of Alaska: “I felt Pinter had given me as much as I gave him: I had given him a reality – and he had given me one back.”

Ultimately, Sacks eloquently calls for an existential medicine. Over and over he emphasises how deeply affected patients are by their effective imprisonment in a ‘Total Institution’ and describes how they respond to music, visitors, trips out, as well as to the physical and care environment, in extraordinary and radical ways. Awakenings allows us to glimpse deep truths about health and disease, and their integrity with personhood, that should transform the ways we think about them.

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Not your images, not your words

One Day I Will Write about This PlaceOne Day I Will Write about This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the memoir of a book addict, and Wainaina’s savour for language glows from the first. His descriptions dance, they sing, they jump, syncopated, a lively, twisting flow like swift water, throwing rainbows of unexpected images into the air. In a pressing, urgent present tense at all times, his tale is vibrant and always fresh, even when he describes lethargy and depression.

Language itself is his subject at times, as he shares how Kenyan people, with their many mother tongues, use Kiswahili to show respect, invoke fellowship, leverage solidarity and subtly feel out a situation. I can never experience this, so it’s wonderful to get a little taste of its richness through Wainaina’s showing.

Thinking about language in Kenya of course I think of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and he is here! Wainaina shows how the national figure and his ideas entered his awareness as a young, relatively privileged Kenyan. In
Decolonising the Mind
Ngugi wa Thiong’o mentioned that colonial & neo-colonial leaders create essentialist (I could perhaps say orientalising or ossifying) tribal identities and animosities which belie real conflicts of interest and obstacles to peace as well as the dynamic nature of all people, groups and relationships, and Wainaina makes the same point neatly through an anecdote. How tribal conflict came to the fore after Moi’s rule through the legacy of colonialism is integral to his biography and emerges clearly. His mother, from Uganda, linked him to events there and in Rwanda. I felt the arbitrariness of borders and the rich mixings of tribal/language groups.

Wainaina is well known for the essay he wrote sending up the way Africa is portrayed in Euro-American narratives and he returns to his disgust and mockery of the narrative of Africa as a poverty sticken disaster zone requiring urgent white saviour intervention (always blissfully free from any notion of how any kind of privation arose) at salient points in his text. He perhaps intended his memoir to contrast with that self-serving and disingenous story, but he doesn’t give it the time of day; he doesn’t answer it, just paints his own views of the places he visits. In his account, drab Nairobi contrasts vividly with stylish Lome, capital of Togo. Arid Kenya contrasts with lush Uganda, Maasailand is completely exotic and thrilling to him as a modern, urban young person. I was jolted by the frequent appearance of African American pop icons and other contemporary, global culture, showing that I have been drinking the colonial lemonade myself. On writing about Sudan on commission from an EU organisation which didn’t want to publish the book, because it didn’t say the right things, he had this to say:

I start to understand why so little good literature is produced in Kenya. The talent is wasted writing donor-funded edutainment and awareness-raising brochures for seven thousand dollars a job. Do not complicate things, and you will be paid very well.

Maybe that’s why he founded The Kwani Trust

I can’t end without mentioning how likeable I found the author. There’s nothing self-aggrandising about this memoir at all, and while it’s painful (and to me, familiar as I had a similar experience in high school) to read about his periods of withdrawal as a student, he always owns his economic privilege, and it’s heart-warming to read how his family’s gentleness and sensitivity (in strong contrast to the stereotype of authoritarian African parents) pulled him through. I cared about him a lot and felt all the bumps and all the highs. Thanks so much Binyavanga for taking me along for the ride xxx

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Looking back and forward

Hopes and ProspectsHopes and Prospects by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read Chomsky, I always wonder, fearfully, who I will turn to for the truth when he retires. When I read
Manufacturing Consent
when I was about 18, I was utterly astonished. This isn’t the story I’ve been told, I thought. This doesn’t resemble the story I’ve been told in any way! Where did he find all this out? Reading Hopes and Prospects reminded me that he didn’t get it anywhere exotic – just from various press sources and ‘the internal [government] record’ which anyone could in theory access.

This revelation shows how the way media operates hides events in plain sight.
similarly exposed the failure of the media to reflect the public interest, with fake-balanced debates and selective under & over reporting. Chomsky is at pains to show though, that the public isn’t so much uninformed as ignored by government. Republicans and Democrats are both ‘significantly to the right’ of most of the electorate, according to surveys he quotes.

Similarly, while the US (and UK) public are told that populations in countries formerly colonised or currently cast as enemies hate ‘us’ and our ostensibly liberal democratic values, while a cursory examination of data shows that these values are regarded sympathetically and these populations just want them to actually be upheld in practice, instead of disingenously professed by powers that behave with indiscriminate aggression militarily, wreck indigenous political structures at all levels, and engage in highly protectionist economic practices for long enough to gain an unassailable position and then insist on ‘free trade’ and ‘a level playing field’. A first principle of ‘free trade’ is freedom of movement of labour, but US immigration restrictions are legendarily harsh, for instance.

I really wish I was good at big-picture thinking and could keep more of Chomsky’s arguments and evidence in my head. When I try to repeat them, I always sound unpersuasive, perhaps because I mix in too much of my own radical leanings. There’s virtually no ideology here at all. Chomsky doesn’t attempt to make a socialist, anarchist or whatever case to condemn the actions of the US, UK and Israeli administrations and the narrow concentrations of power (financial institutions and multinationals) that control them; he generally restricts himself to pointing out that their actions directly conflict with those precepts and the demands they impose on others. Upholding the rights of ordinary people to self determination and decent lives everywhere is the basic precept, too obvious to state.

Terms like “democracy promotion” and “globalization” have doctrinal meanings exactly opposite to their literal ones. When the US “promotes democracy” it actually suppresses populations, installs dictators et cetera, in order to ensure its economic interests are served by brutal exploitation, sweeping power and resources into the hands of local and international elites. States that uphold democratic values in the non-doctrinal sense, and divest from corporate exploitation are harassed and presented as authoritarian in the media – Chomsky uses the examples of Bolivia and Venezuela, where small anti-government protests (generally by minorities of wealthy citizens) are hugely amplified by global attention.

Chomsky does recap a little bit from his earlier books on the history of US behaviour in Latin America particularly under Reagan to make his point, but in general he passes on with phrases like ‘no need to mention what happened there’ (a wry mood and mildly satirizing use of doctrinal phrases elicited several exclamations of ‘HAH!’ from me throughout), the lectures in Latin America focus on more positive things happening of late: resistance to US hegemony, economic dominance and attempts to undermine democracy in the region.

I always enjoy Chomsky’s defence of Iran. Here he repeatedly mentions that as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its right to develop non-weapons tech is enshrined in International law and protected from interference, yet it is continually harassed over any nuclear development, while non-signatory and US arms customer Israel can do as it likes. He explains why Iran would never use a nuclear weapon. However, seeking to acquire an arsenal makes perfect sense in Iran’s position: it’s demonstrably the only way to get the US off your back…

An important subject of the book is Obama, who arrived promising much, and has in Chomsky’s estimation delivered very little but more of the same old injustice when it comes to foreign policy, not least the increase of drone strikes. Headlines suggesting that he would be tough on Israel are belied by actions: the tradition of ignoring Palestinian offers of talks, respect of ceasefires, agreement to previous terms and treaties on the one hand, and Israeli international law and human rights violations on the other continues. Chomsky points out that the Israel and the US are not seeking a diplomatic solution at all (phrasing is instructive: political settlement is a ‘danger’ to be avoided), just trying to keep the ‘peace process’* in process long enough to annihilate any viable Palestinian territory.

*I think I’ve spotted another term which means its opposite in practice…

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Survival by love

The Farming of BonesThe Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I know what will happen,” he said. “You tell the story, and then it’s retold as they wish, written in words you do not understand, in a language that is theirs, and not yours.”

This is a story carried out of a genocide. It’s fiction loaded down heavily with the kind of truth you wish you didn’t have to believe – maybe that’s why the lyrical sentences are so full of images of sinking, falling and opening, of spaces and flesh pressed, distorted, cut.

There is nuance here. Our Haitian Black woman narrator is impromptu midwife to the White Dominican woman she serves, and the twins she delivers gather subtle and stark signs of racism & sexism around them in shapes of compromised love, complicated grief… I wanted to know what became of the children, and I know Danticat was making me feel with Amabelle there, while she was struggling with survival and through the primacy of other loyalties.

If Danticat allows us to imagine that Amabelle’s emotional ties are in tension across national and class boundaries, her focus is clearly on Amabelle’s own reality and the lives of the sugar cane workers. This narrative belongs to a servant and worker class of Haitians; even though its sweep is broad and generous, class and national solidarities are at its core. Shared knowings and defiant, deep valuing of each other among Anabelle’s people drive the cooperation that saves lives and the storytelling that saves memories.

Danticat teaches that memories are a mixed blessing. Most of them, in this book, are painful. But the sweet ones, just as necessary, are a saving grace…

Oh and as a love story, this is gorgeous.

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A Classic Re-read

OrientalismOrientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Obviously this is a must read, which has been much drawn on and critiqued by later post/anti-colonial writers. I have just read the copious notes I made when I read it in 2007 (sort of ironic that I read a westerner’s gloss rather than re-reading the original!?) and noted some points of particular interest…

John of Segovia proposed a conference with Islam designed to produce mass conversion ‘even if it were to last ten years it would be less expensive and damaging than war’

To me this is a perfect example of the assumption that in an ‘objective’ ‘rational’ comparison Islam/the Orient will be found inferior to Christianity/the West. It sounds absurd, yet the same attitude is reproduced constantly, including by mainstream feminists. I think non-Muslim/Arab/’Oriental’ folk should put the question to ourselves whenever considering or discussing Islam or the Middle East: ‘am I being John of Segovia?’

European Orientalism produced a very rich sophisticated body of knowledge (Said stresses at the outset that his text is not about comparing this construct to reality) that produced ideas – it is the corporate institution for dealing with the Middle East/Arab/Muslim world (henceforth, problematically, ‘the Orient’) – politically useful to European imperialist powers (henceforth, problematically, and including the USA, ‘the West’). Insofar as it studied Oriental texts, it interpreted them according to sweeping generalisations, never the human particular. The words of an ancient poet would be used as the foundation for foreign policy.

Visitors to the actual geographical Middle East were disappointed not to find the world described in classic orientalist texts, and interpreted this as the (further, because orientalist dogma starts from an assumption of faded glory) degeneration of the Orient! Confrontation with reality has not disrupted the othering construction of orientalism; everything is digested and processed by it.

For example, by 1955 the Orient described by 17th 18th century texts could not be recognised anywhere. Yet since one of the dogmas of orientalism is that the Orient cannot change, this new and strange place is out of order, full of pathological ‘dis-orientals’ and, I might cheekily offer, ‘rogue states’ which ‘we have lost’. National liberation movements shattered the image of passive, fatalistic subject populations, but they were replaced with the image of ‘extremists’ who were not true to their real passive fatalistic natures. Anticolonial movements are interpreted as insults to Western democracy.

H.A.R Gibb argued that Islam is fundamentally flawed, yet cannot change. Any attempt to change it is a betrayal.

Orientalism ignores class interests, political circumstances and economic factors. There is only the unchanging oriental character to consider.

To conquer the Orient is to liberate it, because ‘Arabs, especially Muslims know nothing about liberty & Islam is structurally favourable to fundamentalism’ (this is the argument made by new-atheist critics like Dawkins and Grayling)

Latent orientalism: the distillation of ideas about the Orient & orientals eg sensuality, femininity (Said points out that orientalism is a masculinist perspective), despotism, passivity, indifference, inaccuracy, backwardness, is distinguished from manifest orientalism: stated views about oriental history, society, literature, land and identifications with other philosophies. Any change in knowledge of orientalism takes place in the latter category, never deconstructing the former.

American orientalism is even more reductive, with non of the imaginative investment of European orientalism, but with the same cultural hostility and imperial projects. Arabic is studied for policy objectives.

The liberal veneer: ‘we’ study ‘others’ to get to know them, understand their cultures, so we allow them to represent themselves (within the confining space of orientalism)

Principle dogmas of orientalism:
1. The West is rational, developed, humane, superior while the Orient is underdeveloped, aberrant, inferior
2. Abstracts are always preferable to direct evidence since Orientals cannot be trusted
3. The Orient is uniform and unchanging, incapable of self definition, and the generalised and systematic vocabulary of orientalism used to describe it is entirely objective.
4. The Orient is to be feared, pacified by research and development, preferably occupied.

The central myth is the ‘arrested development of the semites’; Western power enables the reproduction of this myth.

Methodological failures of orientalism cannot be accounted for by saying the real Orient is different from orientalist portrayals or that orientalists, being Westerners, can have no inner sense of what the Orient is all about: Orientals are now educated in native lands in colonial founded underfunded universities with no good libraries and too many students. The USA is seen as the source of all learning, so students go there & learn orientalist dogma.

Said asks: How does one represent another culture? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture race/religion/civilization useful or doers it always get involved in self-congratulation or hostility & aggression? Construction of identity (never natural & stable) is bound up with power and powerlessness in each society. For example, in Shalimar the Clown Rushdie presents a complex and shifting picture of religious identity in Kashmir; Islam is complicated by context and is not at all the same everywhere. Cultures are so inter-related interdependent that unitary/simply delineated descriptions of their individuality are junk.

Scholars deny, suppress or distort the context of power that produces their systems of thought to maintain the fiction of scholarly disinterest (now we acknowledge and apologise for them, but proceed with our imperialism)

Western civilization is an ideological fiction, implying detached superiority of a handful of values & ideas meaningless outside the history of conquest immigration travel & mingling of peoples that gave western nations their present mixed identities. The USA for example is a palimpsest of different races & cultures sharing problematic histories of conquest, exterminations and major cultural & political achievements.

Said’s aim is not to (paraphrased:) dissipate difference – the constitutive role of national & cultural differences in relations between people can’t be denied – but to challenge the notion that difference implies hostility and the frozen, reified set of opposed essences & adversarial knowledge built out of these things. We need new way of conceiving the separations & conflicts that stimulated generations of hostility war & imperial control.

‘Animosities & inequalities represent not an eternal order, but a historical experience whose end may be at hand.’

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Critique on Critique on Critique

Against Interpretation and Other EssaysAgainst Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.

I ended up finding ‘Against Interpretation’ useful. Its central claim is that there is a kind of interpretation that is anti-art in that it diminishes the possibilities for appreciating/enjoying/experiencing the art rather than increasing them, which is what criticism (I would still say interpretation*) should (probably) do. I have no longer any anxiety on behalf of the author, but I still generally dislike the kind of interpretation that Sontag seems to be talking about; the kind that says one thing is another in a text and tyrannically insists on this translation. She argues that even if the interpretation that A Streetcar Named Desire is about the decline of Western civilization rather than this encounter between two interesting characters is ‘correct’ in the sense of being intended and implicit, this is precisely what is weak and ‘contrived’ about it. In my review of To the Lighthouse I felt the need to criticise both of the introductions, which I suppose is me fighting on behalf of the text or of my experience of the text. I evidently feel that something I want to remain open is being closed down when a psychoanalytic interpretation (for instance) is advanced.

However, I am eager to read interpretation and criticism – this is definitely part of my pleasure in the text (Sontag ends by saying ‘we need an erotics of art rather than a hermeneutics’), not only a way to get more pleasure out of it. Considering Zadie Smith’s introduction to Their Eyes were Watching God I can think of the text as a mountain, which has a nice easy path over it, and Smith’s introduction as a kit which contains a map to find the hidden caves and a torch to illuminate their beautiful interiors. So Smith helps me to get more out of reading Hurston, but her intro is art in itself (it is aesthetic; Sontag says the aesthetic is ‘that which needs no justification’). I’d say criticism/interpretation helps me rather than hinders/irritates me more than half of the time… I don’t think the value of the critic is so low

(((*I am very keen on the word ‘interpretation’. The specific meaning it has in museums (phenomenology!) for me from my background (my mum is a heritage educator and I volunteered with her often for many years) is probably a reason for this; when I go to an exhibition I talk about the interpretation – the British Museum have a very high standard of interpretation; if you visited the Ice Age Art exhibition you will remember how much interpretation there was, and how much was needed, to enable such a coherent, pungent (can I say that? I could smell blood and salt in that exhibition…) experience out of a small collection of tiny objects which, the interpretation text repeatedly admitted, WE LACK THE ABILITY TO DECODE in terms of what they ‘really’ meant to the people who made and used them. Conversely, in many museums stuff is heaped up in glass cases with labels like ‘brass, c.1500’. Unless an object has overwhelming aesthetic qualities, creative interpretation by people with learning and passion is a necessary bridge for most of us to experience more than a sort of obligatory, intimidated STUDIUM in its presence. Some people find the British Museum’s approach overbearing, but I disagree; I think it’s ableist and elitist and ethnocentric to insist that the objects should ‘speak for themselves’. For most of us, they will remain silent.)))

((I now have a better way to describe my resistance to The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Sontag describes Thomas Mann (who I haven’t read) hilariously as ‘overcooperative’ in that he inserts intimations of the correct interpretation into his texts. This is exactly what Kundera does that I dislike!))

The second essay ‘On Style’ is about the false dichotomy of form and content, and her prescription to critics to think more about the former, because our idea of content, especially as something hidden inside form or style is a hindrance. It makes us think of an art work as a statement somehow packaged. Sontag tries to explain why there is no distinction between ethics and aesthetics, but somehow I can’t get a handle on her treatment of this. Later on in another essay ‘One culture and the new sensibility’ she says most artists have abandoned the ‘Matthew Arnold idea of culture’, which is ‘art as the criticism of life… understood as the propounding of moral, social and political ideas’. In
Status Anxiety
Alain de Botton explains the view that Arnold sets out in Culture and Anarchy like this: “art as a protest against the state of things, an effort to correct our insights or to educate us to perceive beauty, to help us understand pain or to reignite our sensitivities, to nurture our capacity for empathy or to rebalance our moral perspective.” I’m not sure who is making mush here, because Sontag argues in ‘On Style’ that art can teach us to be more ethical because the mode of being needed to contemplate art is a useful rehearsal for the mode required for ethical behaviour, which is just a ‘form of acting’ or ‘code of acts’, and goes on to say in many of these essays that art ‘educates the feelings’, ‘nourishes’ us, ‘sends us out refreshed’. This seems close to de Botton’s notes on Arnold, to me at least. It suggests the difference is of degree and there is a sort of continuum between socialist realism at one end and Oscar Wilde at the other, but Sontag seems to be aiming for a more radical reassessment. I’m troubled by Sontag’s rejection of art-as-argument, as I’m not satisfied with her account of morality. It remains my obsession to see the political and ethical in everything. If someone can write that ‘being a feminist is passe’ then I can’t trust her.

I enjoyed her comments on the ‘arbitrary and unjustifiable’ in works of art. She argues that what is inevitable in a work of art is its style, an expression of the author’s will. Her main purpose in ‘On Style’ is, I think, to advise critics to find form in content rather than the converse. The rest of the book is mainly criticism of theatre, film and other works in which she apparently tests her own medicine. It sounds good, if you don’t mind being told flatly and frequently that some work is brilliant or vile… I have seen/read little of the material she reviews; I’m unhappy with her negative critique of an exception to that: James Baldwin, and I was unable to get through some of the literature she recommends that I sought out! However, her ‘Notes on “Camp”’ is rightly famous I think; it shows great sensitivity and acuity that she can delineate it so gracefully.

Writing in the sixties, she found nothing going on in literature. The novel is dead, she would have agreed. Innovations in form were the leading edge, and literature lagged. I wonder if she would say that now.

Despite reservations, I feel a sharp, refreshing breeze blowing on my face; Sontag opened a window.

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