Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Poetic Justice

Within a few days of Tony Cliff's death, Julie Burchill had proclaimed him a self-hating Jew. Paul Foot appeared to have got off scot-free until the calumnious Mr Kamm decided to puncture the warmth with his customary vitriol. I suggested some days ago that Paul was appreciative of the interface between politics and culture, between poetry and revolution , insisting, like Christopher Hill or even Christopher Hitchens (see particularly his brilliant collection of essays, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere ), on the transformative power of the written word. It is precisely this aspect of Paul's output, among others, that comes under scrutiny from the Kammster. I shall be concerned mostly with these, since anyone unfamiliar either with Paul Foot, or the romantic poets he so loved, could be led astray by Kamm's tendentious adumbrations.

Wordsworth vs Oliver Letwin

I want first of all to note that before today's obituary, (just published in time for the funeral, with perhaps the hope of burying the reputation with the body), Kamm had taken issue with a column by Paul Foot in The Guardian, accusing him of "affectations" for having used a verse from Wordsworth's Prelude to make a point against Oliver Letwin's illiberal asylum policy. Here is the relevent passage from Foot:

[Oliver Letwin's] fatuous speech about schools coincided with his call to dump asylum seekers on a faraway island, he knows not where. Where did he get that idea? It is unlikely that a hypocritical snob such as Mr Letwin has read any Wordsworth, so, in an attempt to bring him down to earth, I offer this valuable advice from Wordsworth's poem on the French Revolution:

Not in utopia -

subterranean fields -

Or some secreted island,

heaven knows where!

But in the very world,

which is the world

Of all of us -

the place where in the end

We find our happiness -

or not at all.

Kamm smells the blood of a Trotskyist. He hunts. And comes up with this:

The lines Foot quotes (which are from The Prelude) are not 'on the French Revolution', but on 'The French Revolution - As It Appeared To Enthusiasts At Its Commencement' (emphasis added). The difference is important both poetically and historically. Wordsworth, having been an early supporter of the French Revolution reverted quickly to the Burkean critique of it. He even gives in The Prelude (in the 1850, not the 1805, edition) an urgent and remarkably accurate account of Burke's philosophy of society:

"I see him – old, but vigorous in age,
Stand like an oak
While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems built on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
Of institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by custom; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart Theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born…."

If Foot – the author of a worthless tract on Shelley - knows this, then he's distorting the historical record in his appropriation of Wordsworth's lines for his own ideological ends. If doesn't know it, then he doesn't know Wordsworth - and he thus might aptly be termed a hypocritical snob.
Might he indeed? The only way that Kamm's rebuke could be convincing would be if Foot were intending to imply that Wordsworth had never resiled from his revolutionary ideals. Failing that elementary condition, all other considerations are moot. On the other hand, there is the possibility that the lines were to be taken not literally, but as ironic reflections on the naivete of his earlier beliefs. That would certainly seem to be implied by the title of the poem. Yet, Wordsworth's political transformation was a prolonged and contradictory affair, and is generally described as spanning the decade 1800-10, whereupon he evinced the staunchest conservatism. The poem, later to be included in Book XI of The Prelude was written in 1804. It was written two years after his visit to France (to see the woman he had earlier knocked up) in which he evoked the sterile misery of Napoleonic France, yet affirmed hope:

And now, sole register that these things were,
Two solitary greetings have I heard,
"Good-morrow, Citizen!" a hollow word,
As if a dead man spake it! Yet despair
Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare. (COMPOSED NEAR CALAIS, ON THE ROAD LEADING TO ARDRES, AUGUST 7, 1802)
Like his friend Coleridge, Wordsworth kept the faith for as long as he could, but soon grew disillusioned with the French revolution, and with revolution in general. The poem including Foot's cited lines reflect a certain amount of longing for the early enthusiasm of revolution, and are illumined with the authentic hope of a not-yet-spurned radicalism. In this sense, the poem's tension lives in Wordsworth's broken, radical heart. It is shot through with pathos; it nurtures a yearning for a fate devoutly to be wished. To reduce it to a simple repudiation of one's past allegiances, is hack criticism at its worst. I mean to say, in the clearest possible terms, that Kamm has both misconceived his point and misconstrued Wordsworth's lines.

I myself prefer Bertrand Russel on Wordsworth's political progress: "In his youth Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period he was called a 'bad' man. Then he became 'good', abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry."

Red Shelley, Gold Star

The meat of the matter, however, is the treatment given Foot's Red Shelley. For I wish to suggest here, as adamantly as it can be suggested, that Kamm has not read the book. True, he may have skimmed through a few pages while in the University library some decades ago, but he hasn't read it. Mark his first strike:

Red Shelley may rank as the worst book published on a literary subject since the war. There is a tradition of the man of letters illuminating our understanding of literature through exposition of his own insights (think of Chesterton on Browning and Dickens). Foot's work belongs instead to the tradition of the dilettante determined to wrench his literary enthusiasms to his own image. It emulates the misplaced ingenuity of Churchill's minister Duff Cooper in writing Sergeant Shakespeare, an attempt to prove from internal evidence that Shakespeare must have had extensive military experience. Foot's Shelley is "a man with revolutionary ideas" that by a remarkable coincidence turn out to be Paul Foot's ideas.
It may be "the worst book published on a literary subject since the war", but until Kamm has read every book on a literary subject since the war (why that date?) he won't know, and neither will anyone else. One thing I am fairly certain of, however, is that Kamm doesn't know Foot from shinola. Paul Foot never imputed to Shelley the ideas of revolutionary socialism, much less the Marxist theory of exploitation and the Leninist theory of imperialism. His mission, as he had it, was to rescue Shelley's radicalism, his rootedness in the legacy of the French revolution, from the editors and editrices who produced Works of Shelley which did not include Queen Mab, The Mask of Anarchy or The Revolt of Islam. So, why does Kamm think that Foot is recruiting Shelley for the SWP (we have enough dead people in the party already I would have thought)? Here is the excerpt on which Kamm bases his judgement:

Shelley wanted the truth about repression and exploitation to go ringing through each heart and brain, so that each heart and brain would unite in action to end that repression and exploitation. So, particulanly in his later poems, he concentrated all his mastery of language, all his genius with rhyme and rhythm into translating the ideas of the revolution to the masses.
After 160 years he survives for us not as a lyric poet but as one of the most eloquent agitators of all time. That is why we must read him, learn him, teach him to our children. He will help us to communicate our contempt for the corporate despotism under which we live and our faith in the revolutionary potential of the multitude.
Note first of all that this excerpt is not from Red Shelley, but from a 1975 article on Shelley. Not a single quotation from Red Shelley appears in the whole of Kamm's argument. Now, let's hear Kamm's refutation:

To say this is a misreading of Shelly is to understate the case. Foot's wider incomprehension is of poetry itself. In his political prose, Shelly explicitly rejected Foot's "ideas of the revolution". He believed in social reform by peaceful means. In his Declaration of Rights he wrote:

No man has a right to disturb the public peace by personally resisting the execution of a law, however bad. He ought to acquiesce, using at the same time the utmost powers of his reason to promote its repeal.
The "revolution" of which Paul speaks is, of course, not the socialist revolution but the French revolution. The "ideas of the revolution" are those of equality, liberty and human solidarity. They are the ideas of one who hated oppression and exploitation. On the specific question of the rights and wrongs of revolutionary violence, it is peculiar that Kamm should hang his argument this particular stipulation, since Shelley had other thoughts on the merits of revolution - discussed by Foot in Red Shelley, but oddly undiscussed by Kamm. Indeed, in these very passages, Paul Foot notes precisely the contradiction between Shelley's reformism and his increasingly revolutionary conclusions. I quote:

In the way of all the appeals for reform, all the demands for caution, there remained one insurmountable obstacle: the refusal of the people with power and property to give them up - and their willingness, if necessary, to defend them by force. Shelley describes this obstacle in one graphic sentence: "for so dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then, nor now, nor ever, left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood." Or, from the other point of view: "the labouring classes, when they cannot get good for their labour, are impelled to take it by force". (Foot, Red Shelly, p 190)
In this resides the contradiction. Shelley understood the danger of revolution, but also the omnipresent obstacles in the way of reform. Later, in Fragments on Reform, Shelley is inclined to blur the edges between the two:

"Call it reform or revolution, as you will, a change must take place; one of the consequences of which will be, the wresting of political power from those who are at present the depositories of it." (Quoted, Ibid, p 194).
Foot devotes several chapters to illuminating this tension at the heart of Shelley's poetics and politics, in fact, and it is hard to see how it could have escaped Kamm's scrutiny. But he continues, anyway:

Prometheus Unbound and The Revolt of Islam both stress a moral revolution in concert with a change in the temporal order. Prometheus Unbound expresses a liberal politics of forgiveness, not revolution, and an awareness of the destructiveness of revolt. With these words Prometheus repents of the curse that he had called down on Jupiter:

It doth repent me: words are quick and vain;/ Grief for a while is blind, and so was mine./ I wish no living thing to suffer pain.

Foot's exposition of Shelley's poetical worth is as philistine in its way as the right-wing populism that decries experimental art. The value of poetry lies not in "translating ideas to the masses" but in creating worlds of imaginative experience for the reader and allowing him to explore them. Certainly poetry and other forms of literature have the power to shape our external world and influence our ideas of how that world should be ordered. But literature makes us at home in the world by explicating how things feel - the life of the mind and the emotions - as well as by explaining how the world is.
Socialists of all kinds will be grateful to Kamm for having explained the real virtue of poetry. That has nothing to do with Foot, of course, since Foot never denies it. His interest in the role of culture in creating political hegemony, or at least in irrupting the consensus, is not incompatible with a view of art as essentially to do with creating an imaginary, an alternative experience and, sometimes, simply diversion. Literature, after all, must first revolutionise consciousness before it can revolutionise society.

Nevertheless, although Foot is acutely aware of the reformist inclinations which temper the revolutionary passions of The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, there is at least the potential that what Kamm has written of the latter is a response to Foot's argument. I don't know if it is, because he makes no reference to it. Foot argues that it is in Prometheus Unbound that Shelley resolves the contradiction in his consciousness between his desire for peace and his desire for revolutionary change.

I'll outline the general argument for curious readers. Demogorgon, the "mighty darkness" ensconced in his throne, hidden in a cave, is the seat of power. Asia and Panthea have sought him out with the aim of rescuing Prometheus, who is tied to a stone, starved and defeated. Demogorgon (literally, "people-monster") may owe its name to the kind of political literature Shelley took in. One paper was called Gorgon, while another was called Medusa, and it is the former which his Tory friend Thomas Peacock may have sent Shelley from England while he was writing Prometheus Unbound. At any rate, it is the people-monster which Asia provokes into action through her cunning and impassioned argument. He explodes, the cave - deep within a mountain - erupts in volcanic fury. Two chariots emerge from the "cloven rocks", one representing violence, civil war, and the possibility of renewed tyranny; the other, democracy, security and peace. Demogorgon races off in the first to confront Jupiter. Jupiter, seeing that he isn't about to win this fight, begs to be judged by an unchained Prometheus. But there is no mercy - Jupiter is doomed, and it isn't because Demogorgon turned up bearing petitions and protest songs. In Act III, Jupiter descends into the void, dragging Demogorgon with him:

Detested prodigy!
Even thus beneath the deep Titanian prisons
I trample thee! Thou lingerest?
Mercy! mercy!
No pity, no release, no respite! Oh,
That thou wouldst make mine enemy my judge,
Even where he hangs, seared by my long revenge,
On Caucasus! he would not doom me thus.
Gentle, and just, and dreadless, is he not
The monarch of the world? What then art thou?
No refuge! no appeal!
Sink with me then,
We two will sink on the wide waves of ruin,
Even as a vulture and a snake outspent
Drop, twisted in inextricable fight,
Into a shoreless sea! Let hell unlock
Its mounded oceans of tempestuous fire,
And whelm on them into the bottomless void
This desolated world, and thee, and me,
The conqueror and the conquered, and the wreck
Of that for which they combated!
Ai, Ai!
The elements obey me not. I sink
Dizzily down, ever, forever, down.
And, like a cloud, mine enemy above
Darkens my fall with victory! Ai, Ai!
What remains is peace, security, freedom. The second chariot.

Now, the relevance of the lines Oliver cites (from Act I) is precisely that such an attitude would not have done away with Jupiter, nor have freed Prometheus from his rock. The conclusion of the poem is that the people-monster brings swift, merciless justice to the oppressor, topples him and thus frees Prometheus. In the process, of course, the people-monster ceases to exist - and that is more or less as it should be. As media campaigns have consistently demonstrated, there is indeed a Gorgon, a monster without being a myth, which is rather unfair. The alternative explanation for Demogorgon - that he represents necessity, and that necessity finally does for the tyranny and liberates the oppressed - will not rescue Oliver either. Such a reading invites complacent determinism, not liberal tolerance. And the end of it all is still that the people-monster had to rise up: there could be no reform without revolution.

I hope I haven't been obtuse about this. Kamm hasn't read a great deal of Foot's work, least of all that which he is most dismissive of. The rest of his criticisms are shallow, and rely on exegesis of intellectually reputable authors rather than arguments of his own. One could waste a lot of time quibbling about Kamm's judgement of Foot's political writings (which expends even less energy in the way of research than his clumsy and ill-informed poetical meditations), but only the converts are likely to be persuaded by his ruminations. The truth is, Kamm's literary failure is a political failure. It is because he doesn't understand the inconsistencies, the wavering, the undercurrents of Shelley's political outlook that he fails as a literary critic. And it is because he doesn't understand Foot's book, hasn't even read it, that his criticisms so dismally backfire.

And those are inferences and not insults. Foot's reputation remains intact; Kamm's is drenched in blood from head to foot. May it never recover.