Monday, 10 April 2017
Heap of Broken Images
The triggering of Article 50 last week was widely spoken of as an "historical event", an example of that common doxological trope that positions national events involving soi-disant important dignitaries as "history in the making" and the events and actions of ordinary people as mere un-newsworthy flux ( I'm reminded of the line from In the Cave of Suicession: "It was not a day that changed his life but it was a day in the change of his life".)
One of the least egalitarian men in Britain, Jacob Rees-Mogg, compounded this fallacy by working himself into such a lather on March 29th that he actually believed that comparing Teresa May to Elizabeth 1 ("a modern-day Gloriana") represented a meaningful analogy and invoking Sir Francis Drake (and by metonymic extension the Spanish Armada, in the same week that other Tories had waxed gung-ho about fighting to keep Gibraltar from post-Brexit Spanish control) was something other than public school-boy wooden-sabre-rattling of a particularly embarrassing kind.
Although at the current rate of ill-planning, lack of foresight and high-handed ineptitude in diplomacy (as though when against all logic you choose to divorce someone you get to dictate all the terms and settlements) Brexit may never actually come to pass, March 29th will be come to be remembered as momentous for all the wrong reasons. It's the lack of a sense of historical context among Euro-sceptics which is so damning, leaving them blind to the importance of us remaining part of that European (and world) culture whose influence has given us almost all that is valuable and enduring in what passes for own cultural heritage. The essence of our traditions - the legacy not only of being a small, mercantile island but also of being the most voracious colonial expansionists of all time - is that they are largely an engrained palimpsest of other borrowings and plunderings, rather like Barthes' image of the text as textile, inwoven from other intertexts. What would we have left - in literature, art, music, cuisine - if we were really to remove all the elements we haven't over many centuries imitated, absorbed or pillaged from other cultures? Surely it would amount to very little: the World According to Jeremy Clarkson, the Wurzels' Greatest Hits and the fry-up breakfast, perhaps?
And yet it's one of the abiding strategies of not just the political Right but of liberal humanism in the arts to promote a vision of British history and tradition that manages to subsume influences from extraneous sources as though they were both nationalised and naturalised. In his fascinating study The Origins of Modernism (1994), Stan Smith explores how Eliot, Pound and Yeats all participated in this rhetorical process within their poetry, often at odds with the iconoclastic vigour of their engagements with language and form.
Especially relevant here is Smith's identification of what Eliot saw as the crisis overtaking Europe after the First World War as seminal to the thematic currents of The Waste Land, showing how even at this early stage Eliot's ideological stance was rear-guard and xenophobe:
"What The Waste Land laments is the loss of that cultural-political homogeneity which Eliot was to advocate in his lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933, , published as After Strange Gods. Eliot's desiderata here consciously spell out the implications of 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' and they identify precisely what is absent from the modern waste land: 'at least some recollection of a "tradition" such as the influx of foreign populations has almost effaced'; 'the re-establishment of a native culture only possible for a people less industrialised and less invaded by foreign races'.
Like Eliot's notional period prior to "dissociation of sensibility", was there ever really a time of "cultural-political homogeneity" to harp back to, any more than the immigration-free, closed-bordered Albion many Brexiteers deludedly pine for? In its stark, anxious vision of the fracturing of European culture and history, fragments of which the macaronic text "shores up against its ruin" - another palimpsest of borrowings -, perhaps The Waste Land will ironically come to seem one of the prescient poems of our times:
"The poem speaks not of reconstruction and restoration but of disintegration and decay, emerging from that moment in which time and space, history and geography, were rewritten and redrawn at Versailles, and post-war frontiers fabricated new and factitious 'organic wholes' and instant national traditions out of Europe's heap of broken images".