Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (p. 272)
I just had A Moment reading this passage at the end of this book’s third part, following a young and disillusioned Communist in the ruins of Berlin at the war’s end in 1945. It feels narcissistic in the extreme to ‘get’ anything from such a situation, so vastly removed from anything I have directly experienced (the closest I can imagine today is a young ‘rebel’ in the rubble of a Syrian city). Although isn’t that the point of reading literature? Is there a difference between reading a personal story and drawing personal conclusions, and doing the same on a much grander political scale?
I remember when I first read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon in my mid-teens- or rather, I recall the lasting impressions of bleakness and psychological tension; while grappling with historical ideas of expediency and revolutionary terror. I read it again each year after that, then chose the reception of it and the surrounding novels as my MA thesis topic. Aside from Koestler’s many personal flaws, it’s hard to subject the philosophy of what was essentially a polemical if brilliant novel to that much scrutiny (and wade through Merleau-Pontyian critiques that nevertheless seemed to propose the same Machiavellian worldview) without losing some of the intensity of that basic connection. Yet having studied inter-war Europe the previous year, and the project of modernity as a whole as part of the taught MA, it also opened it out to a wider affinity for mid-20th century Europe as a period, and the particular story of Communism within that.
It also helped that the modern-day period between 2008 and 2011 was, if not exactly cataclysmic, certainly possessed of an unexpected bleakness and uncertainty compared to the world as it was when I first picked up Koestler. There was that sense in reading about the 1930s that the decadent, settled capitalism plunged into political crisis was an eerie parallel for the contemporary Eurocrisis, even if no war seems imminent and fascist jackboots are not (yet) on the street. It’s a problem I’ve always had with history - how to express the connections with prior events without falling into blind and naive patterns of progress and continuity, not to mention our obscured understanding of both past and present. Sometimes it just feels like history serves no other or better purpose than just to provide an interpretation for our existence as humans.
So it’s hard not to feel that ‘I have the right to want to live, even through the decline of Europe' has a genuine, not ahistorical relevance for today even if the contexts are, comparatively, a stretch. From the basic humanism of Darkness at Noon there is something more to take from the period that says something about how we want to live not only as some kind of timeless individuals but also as a historically contingent society. And Unforgiving Years feels very much like the next stage in my understanding of that.
(to be continued…)
Nicholas Rombes, ‘Callaghan, James, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1)’ in A Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982
I was drafting a post of Leatherface’s ‘Winning’ (“roundabouts and swings aren’t some of my favourite things”) in response to the death of the primary proponent of the Thatcherite ideology, but I was trying to find where I’d discussed this piece in Nicholas Rombes’ superb book on the cultural history of punk - in which he riffs on a journalistic howler:
"In a 2002 essay in The New York Times, Ed Ward wrote that when “the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, draped on his microphone, intoned, ‘No Future,’ it was the cry of youth coming out of school to discover that there were no jobs in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and refusing to accept that as reality.” At the end of the article there was this correction: “An article last Sunday about the legacy of the Clash and other punk rock bands in the 1970’s referred incorrectly to the social climate from which the Sex Pistols emerged. It was not the Britain of Margaret Thatcher: she became Prime Minister in 1979, and the Sex Pistols disbanded in 1978.”
The association of two Labour and Democrat leaders (Callaghan and Carter) with the birth of punk’s rebellion against society isn’t often discussed, and the more self-consciously political punk and hardcore of the Thatcher and Reagan years tends to supersede it. But if you want to be true to the historical context, it has to be addressed - and in doing so, potentially finding a deeper meaning. This was the post I wrote before about Leatherface, Thatcher, Rombes and the left-wing history of punk (the uselessness of Tumblr’s search function meant I only just found it again now).
So my problem with Retromania as far as I can tell is that I am pretty invested in the following two beliefs:
i. that ‘pop music’ (using the term to cover a whole swathe of musics dating from lets fairly arbitrarily say the 45 revolutions per minute gramophone record coming on to the market in 1949) is in some pretty fundamental senses the creature of capitalism; that its craving for novelty and its frequent-to-constant recapitulation and reanimation of its own earlier forms are both aspects of this;
ii. that pop music (and various allied musics that it becomes harder to call for certain pop or not pop) frequently throws up interesting spaces in which we glimpse some kind of temporary escape from the popular-culture-under-capitalism churn-of-new-product logic of (i.) seems to be negated, in which art happens, in which social possibilities and utopian hopes are glimpsed, let’s say.
Now I think Reynolds would probably agree with these. But as of two-thirds of the way through the book, every piece of evidence he introduces to flesh out his thesis — that recapitulation/reanimation has reached some (critical mass/saturation point/singularity) where the new ceases to have the power to matter — just seems further evidence against it; e.g. in the history-of-punk-as-revivalism chapter he notes that Kaye’s sleevenotes for Nuggets refer to that effort as archaeological as early as 1972.
Anyway: the feeling I can’t shirk is that the book’s argument boils down to something like: the glimpses of social possibility and utopian hope you get these days just aren’t as good as the ones we had when Simon Reynolds were a lad: i.e., that the book is at best a symptom of itself.
I can’t help feeling that this whole thing is the anxiety of influence on a grand scale, and on critics. Given that a large part of the argument is about the political value (or lack thereof) of art in modern society, I’m having a hard time caring about the vitality of pop in a diseased world. A plague on all your genres, etc. Perhaps this discussion about the lack of novelty in popular music is just an echo of concerns about diminishing productivity gains in Western capitalism - i.e., a symptom of an irretrievably broken system. Excuse me while I drown in hardcore punk.
The mention of Nuggets and punk-as-revivalism reminds me of what I wrote - perhaps in happier times - about that Radiators’ retro album:
"But the real fun is in the miniature Nuggets-like quality of the rest of the album, from excellent band names (Eire Apparent) and predictable song titles (“Yes, I Need Someone”), and sounds expanding to folk and psychedelia, to some thrilling pop hooks. Throughout it’s possible to recognise large elements of the Radiators’ own sound, but depending on the vocals and the style of the cover, it can be sometimes hard to remember that it is all just the one band playing the songs. Or sometimes, bizarrely, to remember that this is music that existed in its own time and place and isn’t totally the reimaginings of contemporary punks - not to deny the adherence in spirit to and difference of the styles used, but hearing this music mostly as a blank slate, the Radiators definitely place their own modern (or at least post-‘77, which is not very new after all) stamp on it.
For example, the atypical “stone solid Mod groove” of showband The Blue Aces (a central theme of the album’s historical revisionism is the distinction between the popular history of 60s, “in which the conventional wisdom habitually depicts the secular pulpit of Gay Byrne’s television show set against a soundtrack of Showband Scene mania”, and the underground of Beat Clubs - although one of my parents describes it as more of a straightforward rural-urban divide between the showbands and the tennis pavilions) is given a take that “acknowledges its kinship with the spirit of the punk bands of a decade later”; but which sounds to me very much like Rancid’s early 90s album Let’s Go. Of course, some bands are always arch-revivalists, but it’s fascinating to hear everything connected on a long line and collapsed together into one asynchronous celebration of a past.”
Kill Yr Innovators, just like you do if you see the Buddha walking on the road…