Monthly Archives: June 2017

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jeremy Corbyn and the Irony of History

Last week, the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom saw an unexpected on-stage appearance by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn recited the closing lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy: Rise, like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number!/ Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you:/ Ye are many—they are few!

As this video shows, the Glastonbury crowd received 19th-century poetry rather well, giving Corbyn his own football chant in return. Yesterday, an article in the New Statesman pointed out that by quoting Shelley, Corbyn was tapping into a longstanding tradition of Left politics. It quoted the poet Michael Rosen, who said:

“When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions… We’re making a claim on our authenticity… just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

And:

“Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Apart from pointing out how Shelley’s lines have become Corbyn’s de facto political slogan, the New Statesman article quotes a number of instances where the poem has been used before – at Tianmen Square, Tahrir Square, and by former Labour Party leader Michael Foot. All those instances, however, are of political movements that were defeated without ever coming remotely close to power. Corbyn’s labour party, on the other hand, forced a hung Parliament in the recently concluded British general election, leading to several policy climbdowns from the ruling Conservative Party, and is widely accepted to have infused an enthusiasm for politics among young people that has rarely been seen before.

If is here that the irony of a successful political leader making Shelley his standard-bearer becomes interesting, because both in his time and after, Shelley – who was passionate about politics and about protest – was the embodiment of the failed and ineffective rebel. In his lifetime, he protested, leafletted and wrote poems about revolution, but accomplished nothing of significance. Mathew Arnold called him “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” His ill-fated phrase, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of this world“, achieved such notoriety that it was parodied relentlessly by modernist poets in the mid-20th century. And more than anything else, Shelley was one of the centrepieces of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, a savage critique of youth, lyric poetry, and of revolution:

And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who like Jaromil had a girlish face and looked younger than his age, ran through the streets of Dublin, he ran on and on because he knew that life was elsewhere. And Rimbaud, too, kept running endlessly, to Stuttgart, to Milan, to Marseilles, to Aden, to Harar, and then back to Marseilles, but by then he had only one leg, and it is hard to run on one leg.”

And, in a remarkable long passage:

The processions had already passed the reviewing stand in Wenceslas Square, improvised bands had appeared on the street corners, and blue-shirted young people were starting to dance. Everyone was fraternizing here with both friends and strangers, but Percy Shelley is unhappy, the poet Shelley is alone.

He’s been in Dublin for several weeks, he’s passed out hundreds of leaflets, the police already know him well, but he hasn’t succeeded in befriending a single Irish person. Life is elsewhere, or it is nowhere.

If only there were barricades and the sound of gunfire! Jaromil thinks that formal processions are merely ephemeral imitations of great revolutionary demonstrations, that they lack substance, that they slip through your fingers. 

And suddenly he imagines the girl imprisoned in the cashier’s cage, and he is assailed by a horrible longing; he sees himself breaking the store window with a hammer, pushing away the women shoppers, opening the cashier’s cage, and carrying off the liberated dark-haired girl under the amazed eye of the gawking onlookers.

And then he imagines that they are walking side by side through crowded streets, lovingly pressed against each other. And all at once the dance whirling around them is no longer a dance but barricades yet again, we are in 1848, and in 1870, and in 1945, and we are in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and these yet again are the eternal crowds crossing through history, leaping from one barricade to another, and he leaps with them, holding the beloved woman by the hand…”

Kundera’s Shelley (and Mathew Arnold’s Shelley, and the modernist poets’ Shelley) is the dreamer, the idealist, and the lyricist, who longs to bring about revolution with the stroke of a pen, but instead only succeeds in wandering around his own, self-constructed hall of mirrors. Instead of taking the world as he finds it, Shelley dreams up his world and writes it, but finds the hard edge of reality coming up against his imagination, and inevitably – to paraphrase Charles Segal – the intransigence of the reality prevails over the plasticity of language. As Kay Wye wrote mockingly:

The Unacknowledged Legislator of the world/ Was heating his morning coffee/ With a sheaf of his own poems./ It is natural remarked a fellow Legislator/ Who hopefully dropped in/ That the product of intense passion/ Should go up in visible combustion!”

And yet, after all that, two hundred years later, it is Shelley and his verse that is on the banner of a left-wing, avowedly socialist political movement that has come closer than any other of its kind (in recent history) to obtaining political power – and may yet obtain it.

Such is the irony – or the revenge – of history.

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Round-up: Machado de Assis and Jennifer Makumbi

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small WinnerThis novel is dedicated to “the first worm that gnawed at my flesh.” That is not a metaphor: Epitaph of a Small Winner is the fictional memoir of Braz Cubas, a late-19th century wealthy Brazilian man, and is written (literally) from beyond the grave: a posthumous memoir, so to say. That sets the tone for some truly dazzling flights of fancy, presaged by the following warning on page 10:

“The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. Se we shall get to it. However, I must advise him that this book is written leisurely, with the leisureliness of a man no longer troubled by the flight of time; that it is a work supinely philosophical, but of a philosophy wanting in uniformity, now austere, now playful, a thing that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and that is at once more than pastime and less than preachment.”  

Braz Cubas takes us through his misspent youth at the University of Coimbra (“I was a harebrained scholar, superficial, tumultuous, and capricious, fond of adventures of all kinds, engaging in practical romanticism and theoretical liberalism, with complete faith in dark eyes and written constitutions…“), his early-adult melancholy at the passing of his mother (“I believe that it was then that the flower of melancholy in me began to open, this yellow, lonely, morbid flower with its subtle and inebriating perfume…”), early failures in love, and then dedicates most of the memoir to a tumultuous and caustically adulterous affair with the wife of an ambitious minor politician. The narrative is fragmented, meandering, often self-referential and full of all kinds of digressions, but sustained by a lightness of tone and a conspicuous refusal to take anything – life, love, death, politics, the world – too seriously.

Beneath the lightness of tone, however, lies an unsparing, almost savage critique of social institutions, human vanity, and human conceit(s). Sometimes, this rises to the surface in an offhand, blink-or-you’ll miss it manner (“…but if you have a profound and perspicacious mind (and I strongly suspect that you will not deny this)…”), while at other times it takes the form of a lengthier digression, which might be straight out of The Devil’s Dictionary:

“I like epitaphs; among civilized people they are an expression of a secret and pious egoism that leads men to try and rescue form death at least a shred of the soul that has passed on, with the expectation that the same will be done for them.”

Or:

“As his manner was very sharp, he had enemies who accused him of barbarity. The only fact alleged to support this charge was that he frequently committed slaves to the dungeon and that they were always dripping blood when released; but, apart from the fact that he did this only to fugitives and incorrigibles, one must remember that, as he had long been engaged in smuggling slaves into the country, he had become accustomed to long-established methods of treatment that were somewhat harsher than those practiced in the regular slave trade, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s basic character something that is obviously the result of a social pattern.”

There is a particularly acute deconstruction of male vanity, which has all the markings of a proto-feminist critique (“… but the man, considering himself the irresistible cause of the [adulterous] affair and the vanquisher of the other man, becomes rightfully proud…”), and moments of sudden, serious depth, that stand out because of the contrast with the rest of the novel (“at dusk one seeks in vain the fresh exhalations of the morning…”).

In its epigrammatic quick-wittedness, Epitaph of a Small Winner is reminiscent of passages from Assis’ contemporary, Oscar Wilde; in its jocular narrator making light of the world, it anticipates some of Vargas Llosa’s comic novels, such as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; and in its uncanny ability to draw a vast sweep in space and time simply by recounting individual events and stories, there are obvious comparisons with Garbiel Garcia Marquez. It is not difficult to see why Epitaph of a Small Winner is accepted as a classic of Brazilian literature.

(NYT review; the book is available on Amazon).

Jennifer Matumbi, Kintu 

The form of Kintu is familiar to readers of postcolonial fiction of a certain kind: the story of a nation, told through the travails of a single extended family through the generations. In terms of its story, however, Kintu is unique. Anchored around a senseless, violent death on a road in the Ugandan countryside, Kintu spans the pre-colonial kingdom of Buganda, the era of colonialism, Idi Amin’s wars, and Uganda’s transition into the 21st century. There is a sprawling cast of characters – all part of an extended family descended from a half-historical, half-legendary figure called Kintu (“Kintu” is, in fact, a central character in Bugandan creation myth), whose single misdeed many centuries ago brought down a curse that continues to dog the family. Teachers, evangelists, incestuous twins, a military leader, and many others – their lives and paths intersect, separate, entwine, separate again, and finally come together in a haunting denouement at the end of the novel. There is a smattering of magic as well, vaguely reminiscent of The Famished Road, but only vaguely.

In the Introduction to Kintu, Aaron Bady writes that Makumbi “vowed to tell the story of Uganda with colonialism placed in perspective: not to say that the colonial encounter wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t the only thing that was.” Nonetheless, for me, some of the most striking passages from the book have to do with colonialism. For instance:

“After independence, Uganda – a European artifact – was still forming as a country rather than as a kingdom in the mind of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nontehless, most of them felt that “Uganda” should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures, and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabaka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecreation of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.”

Even more striking is a piece of imagery developed by a teacher, lately returned from the colonial metropolis (a familiar figure in postcolonial literature), in a piece he is writing for the local magazine:

Buganda, unlike the rest of Africa, was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was the plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house… Though the African was too weak to get up, he still said to the European, “I don’t like what you are doing, my friend. Please get out of my house.” But the European replied, “I am only trying to help, brother. You are still too weak and drowsy to look after your house. I will take charge in the meantime. When you’re fully recovered, I promise you will work and run twice as fast as I do… But the African body rejected the European body parts. Africa says that they are incompatible. The surgeons say that Africa discharged itself too soon from hospital – that is why it is hemorrhaging. It needs a lot more continual blood and water pumped up intravenously. The surgeons say, “Nonsense, we did the same to India, see how fast it’s running.”

And perhaps, most effective of all, the rawness of this:

“God became an idea. If there was a God then he was a racist. In anger, Miisi walked away from religion.”

(Africa in Words review; Jennifer Makumbi interview; the book is available on Amazon)

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Filed under Jennifer Matumbi, Machado de Assis, Uganda