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Splinters: December 2020 – short essays on the here & now

This month: KNOWING YOUR PLACE – thinking about some lines of Derek Mahon...

Post-Election Anxiety... Universal Anxiety...

The Oscar Wilding of Johnny Depp

Splinters collective
2 December 2020, 9.28am
Splinters
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Theo Inglis. All rights reserved.

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Cuba-Ireland mural - Shiels St, Belfast | Copyright © 2008 Extramural Activity

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KNOWING YOUR PLACE – thinking of some lines by Derek Mahon
by Leonie Rushforth

Derek Mahon, speaking of his arrival in Dublin in 1960 to attend Trinity College, said of the place he was born: “I had rumbled Belfast for the bigoted corrupt dump that it was and I was delighted to get out of it.”

That wasn’t the whole story, of course. Eight years later in the poem Spring in Belfast he reveals more about his feeling for the city that had formed him. This is its closing stanza:

One part of my mind must learn to know its place.
The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.

He begins by confessing to a divided mind in the form of a flat statement of fact. This is the first of many questions for the reader of the poem – why is this the case and an apparently accepted state of affairs? is this part of his mind the one still prepared to acknowledge Belfast as its place? or is it the one that has most successfully got away and has reparations to make? what about the other part? In the context of this strangeness and uncertainty, we move on in the line to see Mahon shaking out the grim expression knowing one’s place. That is, don’t get above yourself; don’t ask for more than is permitted; don’t question. The expression is all about power and submission to it, and as with all things to do with power, there’s the threat of violence behind it: know your place or there’ll be trouble. So we take in the class dimension of what Mahon is thinking about when he speaks about knowing Belfast; to know the city is to have to confront the structures and strictures of the powers governing it. And in this way Mahon brings the reader right up against the savage colonial history of Britain in Ireland. All this in one line.

But there’s a literal dimension here as well – the poet’s mind knows its city imperfectly and partially – there are things to learn about the place. Mahon was raised an only child in a Protestant household – he called it a quiet house. His father and his grandfather were employed at the Harland & Wolf shipyard, and as soon as he reached grammar school his friendships with Catholic children were discouraged. Knowing Belfast in any way at all was to know it as a desperately divided place and to be systematically cut off from a lot of it.

Divided places divide minds. It should be no surprise then to find Mahon identifies one part of his mind that must set about putting this ignorance right – and this is a different form of submission, not to those who tell us to know our place but to the hard realities of ordinary lives.

In the three lines that follow, he defines what this learning work might feel like and it’s very different from the pity he accuses himself of indulging in so far. It would not be enough though to abandon pity just to take up another version of keeping a safe distance, this time a sort of anthropological interest, even if it’s a compassionate one. Both the interest and the pity are described as casual, that is essentially undependable. The relation in these lines between should and exact bears some thinking about too, because the chronology is hard to follow. We move forwards to pity in the unfolding of the sentence and yet pity, in the logic of the grammar, is where the poet starts. The things that happen demand he relinquish the protection pity affords him and instead involve himself in a committed interest. Engagement in other words is the price exacted.

When fellow-poet from the North, Paul Muldoon, described Mahon as ‘the unlikely laureate of the Protestant working class of North Belfast’ he was right in both immediate and far-sighted ways.

Mahon lived in London for much of his life, returning to Ireland in 2003 – not to the North but to Kinsale, where he died in October this year. These were productive years for him and the last of 5 late collections was Washing Up (The Gallery Press).

The concluding poem in this collection, published soon after his death, is called Word to the Wise. Addressed to Michael D Higgins, the president of Ireland, a poet and a friend, it thanks him for his spirited and humane leadership at this critical time and looks forward to a great change. This is no giddy hope. The rhyming couplets progress hand in hand by way of clear-sighted whole-hearted statements like this one:

The answer, as you know yourself, is ‘simple
but not easy’; to change minds for example,
to get through to the venal and obtuse,
put manners on that shower in Leinster House,
devolve the ownership of the country to
the people of the country, not the few…
… an old idea long overdue

The gesture of solidarity across the Irish Sea to the as-yet undefeated Corbyn project suggests that transformed relations between Ireland and Britain were part of the change he felt sure was on its way, but his eyes are on Ireland first and foremost. He believes in the capacity of the working people of the Republic and the North to imagine ( because only the imagination can set us right ) a different future for themselves in which divisions, in minds and islands, are overcome, as he makes clear when he chooses another island for comparison and puts this question:

if the bold Cubans could do it, why not us?

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Post-election anxiety
by Christos Tombras

Debate.jpg
Debate. | Author's own image.

In the first anxious days that followed the American elections, Salon Magazine had an article by Chris Marshall, a senior Democratic strategist who feels justified to think that he has seen enough to be less than reassured by recent events. In fact, he was alarmed. People might think, he wrote, that Trump’s attempt to overturn the result of the election and seize a second term has failed. “Forget it”, they would say. “Can’t happen. Haven't you heard? Trump's losing every single frivolous lawsuit! They're all a joke.”

Marshall is not convinced. “Call me a pessimist”, he writes. “A compulsive doom-scroller. A nervous nelly. A buzzkiller. A realist. Whatever. After decades as a Democratic strategist, working at the center of numerous national and statewide campaigns, I've simply seen too much not to be traumatized with the permanent scars of PTSD (Politically Traumatic Stress Disorder).”

This joking reference, of course, is to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health condition thought to be caused by a traumatic experience. Described in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 ), PTSD is seen as a deviation from an imaginary “order”, that is, a statistically established stress-less “normality”.

One should question the features of this imaginary “normality”, but the concept feels highly pertinent when considering the damaging unpredictability of the current occupier of the White House. There is indeed something very disorderly, almost traumatic, in observing the actions, reactions and interactions of someone who does not seem to be very bothered by failures to meet the requirements of rational thinking, common sense, decency, principles – you name it.

So, this is the question that permeates everyone’s post-election anxiety: what if something goes wrong? What if they continue to refuse the facts? What if they insist that the election was “stolen”? What if they choose to ignore all evidence and stand by their delusion? What if they decide that they don’t want to play fair at all?

In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato presents a long discussion regarding the question of virtue, about what it is, and about whether it can be taught or not. It’s a playful and engaging dialogue, involving strong arguments by both a younger Socrates and his main interlocutor, the older Protagoras. It becomes more and more convoluted, and gradually the two interlocutors end up arguing for the opposite of what they started with. Socrates notices it and draws Protagoras’ attention to the fact. “The result of our discussion appears to me to be singular”, he says to him. “For if the argument had a human voice, that voice would be heard laughing at us and saying: 'Protagoras and Socrates, you are strange beings; there are you, Socrates, who were saying that virtue cannot be taught, contradicting yourself now by your attempt to prove that all things are knowledge […] Protagoras, on the other hand, who started by saying that it might be taught, is now eager to prove it to be anything rather than knowledge.’”

An argument with a human voice, laughing at the mere humans who try to explore a question… It’s quite innovative, you will agree. As if the argument existed somewhere independently, along with the conclusions following from it; as if the only thing that human beings can do is try to trace carefully the unique paths connecting premise to conclusion.

This has been the hope and promise of modernity, namely the belief in the inherent rationality of the world, as such, and also of the human intellect qua observer in this world. It is the basic premise of the Cartesian / Kantian / Hegelian tradition. In Descartes’s view, for example, rationality is a clear and self-evident corollary of thinking itself – the cogito. Kant claims that rationality and the possibility of knowledge stem seamlessly and self-evidently (“a-priori”) from “pure” reason alone. And Hegel takes this a step further, arguing that the Spirit (or Mind) cannot but reach, necessarily and unavoidably, the state of becoming pure knowledge.

In this tradition we are all rational, and, unless there are other objective reasons beyond our control, we have no choice but to be rational. Failure is caused by ignorance, sloppiness, or indifference. Or because we so choose. But we choose against our nature so to speak, and in principle we can see it.

It’s not only the tradition. Echoes of the same line of thinking can be discerned in the Marxist claim that traditional philosophy, history, and political economy are historically determined products of their time. And that’s because Marxist thought sees itself as “scientific” and objective, i.e., above history and any subjective (or class-determined) whims.

There is something that doesn’t fit. Let’s return to the American elections. You read that the majority of Republicans still believe that the election has been to a greater or lesser extent “rigged”. You observe that most of these people do not seem to be bothered by the lack of evidence. In fact, they seem to be emboldened by it. If there is no evidence, this can only mean that they, the “others”, have become so good at concealing it. If the popular vote shows such and such, this can only mean that elections lie, that people are not listened to, that the elites are winning. And so on and so forth.

How can we reconcile these observations with the belief (or hope) that human beings are unavoidably rational? How are we to explain the blind decisiveness of all those who when presented with solid evidence and clear facts turn their gaze elsewhere and proceed on their (self)harming path? Surely it cannot just be an issue of sloppiness or ignorance. That’s too arrogant to claim. Conveniently arrogant, one would say.

I have tried to explore these questions before (see for example here, here and here).

It’s clear. Something else is at play. But what?

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Universal Anxiety
by Iain Galbraith

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Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government on City Life, panel by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Siena, 1290 - 1348) | Wikicommons/Web Gallery of Art. Some rights reserved.

One evening in the early 1980s I responded to a friend's remark about the "arms race" by suggesting that it was simply not possible to think of nuclear war all of the time. My friend's rejoinder has stuck in my mind ever since: I do think of it all the time.

We were crossing a road in London, I remember, on our way to a local pub. We were talking about how that pub, as well as everything and everybody else we could see, might at any moment disappear in the flash of an atomic explosion. Rumour had it that a new kind of bomb was coming too, one that killed people but left buildings intact. Like so many other public houses in the UK, that pub did in fact disappear (the building has remained intact), while the local community it supported, and which supported it in turn, gradually adapted to the three-job, no-time-for-sleep (or talk) economy.

The reason I remember the exchange, however, may hinge less on our vision of disappearing cities (however realistic) than on the fact that nuclear Armageddon was on my friend's mind all the time. These words expressed a vulnerability I shared and which I think must have been universal, even if many people had no words for the scarring pressure bearing down on their everyday thoughts and feelings. Forty years before that conversation the chief source of anxiety had been war, too. Is there a similar anxiety forty years on? The answer may not be the most obvious one.

For purposes of comparison some context may be helpful. At the beginning of the 1980s, with no end to the Cold War and its accompanying proliferation of nuclear weapons in sight, and with the imminent deployment by NATO of a new generation of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles adding to tensions that were already acute, the fear of a nuclear conflagration that could wipe out life as we knew it was widespread. This was especially the case in Western and Eastern Europe, which were broadly reckoned to be the kill zone in the event of war. Under these circumstances, determination to prevent such a possibility becoming reality was paramount on the personal agendas of many millions of ordinary citizens. The peace movement became an impressive and popular force; demonstrations with a hundred thousand participants were not rare; the Krefeld Appeal in Germany carried four million signatures – a huge number if we remember that these names were handwritten. A "click" in those days was the sound of a dropping latch.

The danger of nuclear war is by no means a thing of the past, and yet even if our fears were not continuously focused on Covid-19, it is probably true to say that we might not worry about nuclear weapons every week, let alone all the time. Recently, in a period of dangerous tensions between the US and China, of advancing ecocide and systemic social inequality exacerbated by new mass unemployment, a time too in which human rights and the freedom of speech are under threat, it has been the state of the economy and the effetti del cattivo governo (as Ambrogio Lorenzetti called the "effects of bad government" in his allegorical painting), that have vied with Covid for our attention. The first of these concerns, essentially the question of how people, often with very limited resources at their disposal, are going to make ends meet, comes disguised by the "nuclear" metaphor of "economic fallout" (i.e. from Covid), while the second is frequently euphemised under the heading "management" (i.e. the government's mishandling of Covid-related contingencies and measures). Nothing, certainly not language, escapes the bug.

It would therefore seem obvious that Covid, given the immense suffering it has caused and economic headaches it may give us for some time to come, is the universal anxiety and scourge of the present times, equivalent in some way to "yesterday's" nuclear threat. Nonetheless there are considerable differences. Hopes based on a universally accessible vaccine and, even less likely under present "management", structural investment for long-term recovery, bring into partial view the prospect of a less uncertain future, an option not available in the 1941 or 1981 scenarios. By contrast, we do not have a quick-fix for the elephant in the room: the climate crisis. And even as hope rises and millions crave a return to the "before times", we everywhere notice the inequalities and injustices of the normality we wish to reclaim. Yes, science and pharmaceutical companies have combined resources to find a vaccine for an illness affecting many in the wealthiest countries. Meanwhile more than 200 million people, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, are infected every year by malaria, killing 800 children every day. According to WHO, Covid-related interruptions to treatment may lead to a doubling of this death rate.

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The Oscar Wilding of Johnny Depp
by Rosemary Bechler

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Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, Chocolat. | Screenshot. Official Trailer, (2000). YouTube.

"I know he is a devil, but he has something of the angel yet undefiled in him, which makes him so charming and agreeable that I must love him be he never so wicked.” Loveit, Etherege’s Man of Mode (1676).

I first thought of Oscar Wilding as a syndrome after a packed matinee performance of a stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the Cambridge Arts Theatre in the late 1970’s. The undisputed heroine of this version was Elizabeth Bennet’s mother, intent on marrying all her daughters off well. If there was not a standing ovation for the wealthiest property exchange secured in the closing scenes, there was escalating rowdy applause, and one other striking feature – the glorious Fitzwilliam Darcy and his noble friend, Bingley reduced to walk-on parts, a couple of limp-wristed dandies insufficiently grateful for their narrow deliverance from the decadent world of aristo privilege.

This intrigued me, since I was studying the villain-hero from Milton to Byron, with particular reference to Samuel Richardson’s immortal character, Lovelace. For me, the proud aristocrat, Darcy, was far closer to the two rich tributaries Richardson had combined in his villain’s portrait, the ‘archangel ruin’d, and the excess/Of glory obscured’ of Milton’s seducer Satan, and that Anglican Don Juan, the restoration rake, wit and poet at the court of Charles II, the Earl of Rochester. What millions of women have admired in such figures for hundreds of years is their capacity to love women for themselves, either disreputably in the plural, or singly as precursors of the great Romantic lovers – in both cases with an excess going far beyond the calculations and constraints of bourgeois property exchange, or patriarchal law and order.

So here was a fall indeed! Previously I had been amused by the lengths to which male literary critics seemed willing to go to diminish the Rochesters, Lovelaces and Byrons in their readers’ eyes. But now I began to notice the considerable impact on the whole tradition of what I can only call a bourgeois revenge.

It was there from the outset, of course, the Spanish hellfire reserved for Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan, and immortalised in the title of Mozart’s opera, Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, though the effect is somewhat undermined after so much glorious music by the vindictive little closing fugue that restores order though not much else to nearly everyone who survives; there too, in Rochester’s deathbed renunciation of libertinism and conversion to Anglican Christianity turned into a hugely popular pamphlet of the time by his mother and her chaplain, Gilbert Burnet. Nor does it end there. Fast forward to the ruin that Charlotte Bronte was willing to inflict on her Rochester, Emily on her Heathcliff, or the thrashing to within an inch of his life that Eugene Wrayburn undergoes for Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, the terrible remorse of a stricken Eugene Onegin, or de Winter of the soul endured by the aristocratic hero (and adoring heroine) of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

***

Something remarkable happens when we get to Lord Byron. As Childe Harold’s fiction – ‘What Exile from himself can flee?’– converts into Byronic fact, this punishment trope morphs from literature into life. Which is obeying which? We, and Byron, can’t be sure. The same unstable amalgam informs the plan for forthcoming cantos of Don Juan he sent to John Murray in 1821:

“I meant to take him on the tour of Europe… and to make him finish as Anarchasis Cloots in the French Revolution… to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for divorce in England, and a Sentimental Werther-faced man in Germany, so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of these countries, and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé, as he grew older, as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest.”

There is a wilful quality to these destinies, but it is a wilfulness extending far beyond the tortured protagonists tragically coopted into their own falls. The great Byronic heroes of the Hollywood screen have been particularly prone to this. Think of Marlon Brando, the nonpareil among these fallen Lucifers, closely followed by a rebel hero appropriately christened at birth James Byron Dean. Add in the damaged beauty of fellow Actors’ Studio heart-throb, Montgomery Clift.

Johnny Depp is surely the most curious of them all. On at least two occasions Depp signed up unerringly for the reactionary narratives most out to get Don Juan. Don Juan deMarco (1994) takes as its basic premise the ‘Don Juan complex’ – a miserable twentieth century theory which argues that these seeming paragons of masculinity only conceal an arrested psychosexual development. By way of compensation, DeMarco’s Byronic flashbacks rekindle the marriage of none other than Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway, (you can almost hear Byron growling, but what could be more bourgeois than that?) Then in 2004, Depp allowed himself to play Rochester in the film adaptation of that extended act of bourgeois revenge which was Stephen Jeffreys’ stage play, The Libertine (1994). Here all the obsessions with lechery and debauchery have their venereal field day. It is as if Depp is determined to get his punishment in first, so keenly does this Rochester go to his untimely death. This could only have ended in disaster.

Yet, for all the wreckage, we will still remember Gilbert Grape as a “shimmering knight”, and the perfectly egalitarian reciprocity of innocence and knowingness almost worthy of "Là ci darem la mano", in Depp’s dance with Juliette Binoche in Chocolat. No, whatever kind of ritual Oscar Wilding is, it cannot erase the dazzling early promise of all these beautiful men.

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