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How The Wasteland Speaks to us in the Wake of a Pandemic

Posted on August 10, 2022 by Connell Guides | 0 comments

10th August, 2022

I can connect nothing with nothing: How The Wasteland speaks to us in the wake of a pandemic

Elsie Hayward

Student writer

If Not, Not, 1975, Ronald Brooks Kitaj

Photography by Antonia Reeve

© R. B. Kitaj Estate

T.S Eliot’s modernist masterpiece The Wasteland was written in the aftermath of a devastating world war. The very fabric of it seems traumatised, being as it is ‘a heap of broken images’, or a series of disconnected, disembodied voices. In the fragmentary feel of the poem, we experience the fragmentary state of the traumatised mind, where snatches of thoughts refuse to make sense together. Yet this is more than just a reference to literal shell-shock - we are being painted a picture of a traumatised society. As Derek Traversi writes in his book on Eliot, The Wasteland is a comment on ‘the state of a civilisation’, although its vehicle is individual scenes and voices. There is nothing else like The Wasteland. It is an announcement in itself that things are not as they were, that the old rules do not apply, the old conventions cannot adequately express the way things are now. We cannot see the world in the same way. Does any of that sound a little like where we are now, in the centenary year of its publication?


If we can think our way back to the start of the first lockdown, it was Spring; around April- time, in fact. It was also one of the most beautiful Springs I’ve known and I remember this making me somehow uncomfortable. It does, after all, feel inappropriate to be ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land’, or watching nature brazenly come into bloom while we are surrounded by death. How many of us literally did this - tended plants in our gardens while the world was in upheaval, focusing on one little piece of renewal while knowing so much of the rest of the world is ‘dead land’? Perhaps this is the key to one of Eliot’s most puzzled-over lines; the answer to why ‘April is the cruellest month’. ‘Memory and desire’ seems like a formula for hope, where we carry the happiness and comfort we knew and long to know it again. This could be cruel in a world of uncertainty, where we do not know how or if we get out of this, or even if the people in charge do.


Although The Wasteland is a desolate landscape, we feel a connection to it and its rhythms. After all, it is still governed by nature; there is still Spring after Winter, and haven’t we all felt more aware of these changes, and taken a little comfort in their unchanging cycle? Even, that is, if our perceptions and receptions of them are jumbled - if we are ‘warmed’ by Winter like hibernating creatures, and ‘surprised’ to see Summer again, which is so often the most anticipated season. I know I have wondered something along the lines of ‘what branches grow out of this stony rubbish’, and, aside from more literally speaking a lot of people’s vegetable patches, there have been so many different answers; so many different visions of a society rebuilt. We’ve been promised countless lessons, silver-linings, ways that we will do things better: get our priorities straight, be more mindful, chuck out less pollution, work less, love each other more, listen to the birds. I don’t know where Eliot leaves us on this, but I suppose there is an inherent hopefulness in fishing, even if ‘London Bridge is falling down’ just behind, like in a particularly destructive bombing raid.


I think we’ve all had to think more about death over the last couple of years than we have before. It was certainly on Eliot’s mind too, and as we’re watching the ‘crowd’ of dead that ‘flowed’ over London Bridge, like blood from an unstaunchable wound, it’s hard not to be reminded of a constantly increasing Covid death toll. To make matters worse, we overhear someone ask, ‘the corpse you planted last year in your garden, has it begun to sprout?’, which is an uncomfortably literal reminder of the circle of life, as well as a kind of shaming for continuing in the face of the death around us. We can’t ignore the part death plays in the workings of everything anymore. We aren’t sure, but the ‘third who walks always beside you’ may well be the grim reaper, ‘gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded’, a quiet but constant presence. In The Wasteland, nature is against us, just as it is when it throws a virus our way. In the poem, there is attack from the elements, in the form of ‘burning burning burning burning’, and ‘Death by Water’. Both of these are levelling, humbling - we are reminded that the drowned Phlebas ‘was once as handsome and tall as you’. When it comes to suffering, to vulnerability to nature’s nasty tricks, perhaps we are all in it together.

 

Part of TS Eliot, 1938, Wyndham Lewis.

Photograph: The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust/Bridgeman Images


The Wasteland is not a place characterised by human connection. I’m not sure how well we know how to handle it any more either, as out of practice as we’ve generally been. There is Lil and her husband Albert, separated like many couples have been while he’s away with the army, but their reunion will be an uneasy one. According to their nosy friend at least, their relationship has been reduced to something shallow and superficial, where Albert tells his wife ‘I can’t bear to look at you’ because of the state of her teeth. We haven’t been doing so much looking at each other in recent times perhaps, but we’ve been doing a lot more looking at glossy TV ads and pictures on the internet. Of course, there’s also the awful encounter between the typist and the clerk, which we can now see quite clearly as a depiction of rape, with ‘caresses…undesired’. However, it’s more likely that Eliot was commenting on the way he saw sex being emptied of true meaning, or even love, setting it unromantically in the moment where ‘the meal is ended, she is bored and tired’. Once the transaction is complete, he has no business to stay, so ‘gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit’. Especially now, after several lockdowns, it seems much easier to look for a partner online, and, digital- age love stories aside, this can often lead to something more throw-away, or mechanical. For couples, keeping intimacy following either far too much time together or nowhere near enough must also be a challenge.


Eliot also understands our claustrophobia. You can feel the suffocating restriction of the ‘room enclosed ‘ around the woman at the start The Game of Chess, with the ‘smoke’ and the ‘strange synthetic perfumes’, and the relief of ‘the air that freshened from the window’. Trapped and as good as alone, we also feel her anxiety conveyed in the fragmentary speech that follows, and probably relate to her confession ‘my nerves are bad tonight’. Most moving is her desperate reaching for connection, companionship, comfort; things of which many of us have been starved. She demands ‘speak to me…what are you thinking of’, aching to know that someone is there beside her, living this with her, but her reply, ‘I think we are in the rat’s alley’, is no comfort at all. Then, at the very end of the poem, there is the image of us ‘each in his prison, thinking of the key’, and few of us are now unfamiliar to the sensation of our surroundings becoming a prison to us. Eerily, this is then followed by ‘your heart would have responded gaily, when invited, beating obedient to controlling hands’. Even if we all know lockdowns were necessary, and for the best, there was surprisingly little protest against such a major curtailment of our freedoms. Never have we felt so keenly those ‘controlling hands’, and, I’d like to think mainly because of our care for others, we were indeed ‘obedient’. But maybe this is nothing to how clearly Eliot foresees a city emptied of signs of human life, where ‘the river bears no empty bottles, sandwich wrappers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends or other testimony of summer nights’. And just to confirm that this isn’t merely a great city clean-up, and a blessing for the environment, there is ‘the rattle of bones’. Death is still hanging around.

 

By Elsie Hayward

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The case for George Orwell

Posted on September 14, 2021 by Rachel Roderick | 0 comments

Hello,

Barely a week goes by these days without some pundit citing George Orwell, and with good reason. Among the unhappy effects of 9/11 has been the explosion of the surveillance state; private companies like Google have scarcely been restrained by governments in their hoovering up of our personal data, while governments themselves have become ever more intrusive in our lives. Meanwhile, fuelled by fashionable doctrines such as critical race theory, and by the increasingly tortuous debate over gender, public discourse has become ever fuller of the kind of empty jargon and ideological abstractions Orwell abhorred. He may have got his date wrong when he named his futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he was certainly on to something. See below.

All good wishes,  

Jon Connell

Editor-in-chief

The case for George Orwell

 
 

Granger/Shutterstock

How credible is his vision of the world?

Why does Orwell matter?
He’s the independent radical who saw through communist lies during the Spanish Civil War and opened our eyes to how totalitarian regimes tick. He also racked up some serious sales: Nineteen Eighty-Four has shifted more than 30 million copies and shoots up Amazon’s bestseller list whenever the US does anything mildly undemocratic. Orwell was “a libertarian before the word had gained currency”, wrote Christopher Hitchens, who also credited him with coining the phrase “Cold War”. “The three great subjects of the 20th century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism,” said Hitchens – and Orwell got all three right.

What was he most right about?
Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell bashed out his “wretched book” – 4,000 words a day, seven days a week – on the barren Scottish island of Jura in 1948, smoking his tuberculosis-scarred lungs into oblivion. “It’s a ghastly mess now,” he moaned to a friend, “a good idea ruined.” He died in 1950, aged 46, yet that ruined idea became his most influential work thanks to its omnipresent totalitarian, Big Brother; children who spy on their parents; telescreens in every home; three “superstates” locked in perpetual war; and the total destruction of culture. “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive,” Orwell wrote – but he thought it could.

Are we living in Nineteen Eighty-Four?
The pandemic has certainly put the author’s name on everyone’s lips. “In Orwellian Britain, lockdown is perpetual and sickness is health,” said Tim Stanley in the Telegraph back in June. If that was stretching it a bit, there’s undoubtedly something Orwellian about China. President Xi Jinping wants to construct an all-seeing digital system of social control, policed by algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time. Eight of the 10 most surveilled cities in the world are in China. But third on the list is London.

Was Orwell worried about China?
No. Big Brother, “black-haired, black-moustachio’d, full of power and mysterious calm”, was a stand-in for Stalin. Orwell was no Americanophile, either. Convinced that capitalism was doomed, he could only imagine the US becoming some sort of totalitarian regime. In the Partisan Review in 1947, Orwell said he’d rather be bombed back to the Bronze Age than live in a stalemate between the two atrophying atomic states. But it was the horrors of communism that really kept him up at night. “Totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences,” he wrote of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Wasn’t Orwell a bit of a leftie himself?
Orwell hated class – he was born Eric Blair in British India in 1903, then won scholarships to two English boarding schools, St Cyprian’s and Eton. But little Eric hated being posh, slacked off at Eton and joined the imperial police in Burma rather than applying for university. He used his pen name largely to graft a new identity, wore the same beaten-up tweed jacket and vaguely French moustache, and kept a goat in his backyard. He even spent four years living as a tramp to churn out his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London – then went to war. He spent the first half of 1937 fighting with the loyalists in Spain, was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper, then witnessed the brutal communist purges of the other revolutionary parties in the Republican alliance.

What would he have made of today’s discourse?
He would not have been impressed, says the American commentator Andrew Sullivan. One of Orwell’s mantras was: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful.” He’d have hated phrases such as “systemic racism”, “racial inequity”, “lived experience” and “heteronormativity”. He argued for originality, simplicity, brevity, active verbs, everyday language and “decency” – as opposed to repetition, complexity, length and endless jargon. A mass of ideological abstractions, in Orwell’s words, “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details”.

So was Orwell a regular Nostradamus?
He didn’t get everything right, says novelist Robert Harris. He was wrong, for example, about religion. “What makes your version [of the future] spurious to me is the disappearance of the church,” Evelyn Waugh wrote to him after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in July 1948. Waugh considered religion “inextinguishable”. Certainly, the idea that oil supplies might be threatened by fundamentalist Islam “lies far outside the materialist logic” of the novel, says Harris.

Did he miss anything else?
More than governments, it’s the overreach of big companies that has changed the 21st century. Facebook and Google weren’t on Orwell’s radar (although he was way ahead of his time with the telescreen). Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says: “Rather than an intimate Big Brother that uses murder and terror to possess each soul from the inside out, these digital networks are a Big Other: impersonal systems trained to monitor and shape our actions remotely, unimpeded by law.”

What was the year 1984 actually like?
Not so bad. Instead of Ingsoc Party members’ uniform blue overalls, we had leggings, jean jackets and parachute pants. Rather than the telescreen, we had the Apple Macintosh personal computer. The year’s biggest event was the Los Angeles Olympics (not, fortunately, the Party’s Hate Week). If pulpy novels were produced by machines in the Ministry of Truth, they lost out to The Hunt for Red October and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But Orwell urged us to practise “constant criticism”, warning that any “immunity” to totalitarianism must not be taken for granted. And now, more than 70 years later, his prophetic vision chills us to our jegging-clad, iPhone-toting bones.

The legacy of 9/11

The 9/11 attacks ushered in a new era of surveillance, says Jacob Siegel in UnHerd. Before 2001 the US government had tried to regulate the internet and protect users’ privacy. That came to an “abrupt end” when it began amassing vast amounts of data “to detect patterns identified with criminals and terrorists”. An age of “total information” had begun.

The “true heirs” to the government’s efforts are companies such as Google and Facebook, which lure people in with free services in order to extract their user data. As Shoshana Zuboff says in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “the elective affinity between public intelligence agencies and the fledgling surveillance capitalist Google blossomed in the heat of emergency to produce a unique historical deformity” – surveillance everywhere, all of the time.

 

Taken with consent from The Knowledge, now available on the website www.theknowledge.com 

To Kill a Mockingbird, containing outdated views on race.

Posted on August 04, 2021 by Jolyon Connell | 0 comments

Above - Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1962. 

Earlier this month, the head of English at James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh decided that his department should no longer be teaching Harper Lee’s seminal novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, because it contains outdated views on race and promotes a “white saviour narrative”. Sir Geoff Palmer, the Chancellor of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, and Scotland’s first black professor, was quick to say how silly this was. Don’t bin To Kill a Mockingbird, he said: “keep it, teach it, explain it.” And if we do bin it, where does this binning stop. Is Othello next?

 

I’m with the professor. One of the main reasons we study classic literature after all, is because it offers a window on the past: how people thought, what their world was like, why they acted as they did. Great novels bring the past alive in a way history books never can and give us insights we’ll never get from philosophers. As our guide to Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel shows, it is (though it’s much more than this too) a searingly vivid portrait of racism in America’s Deep South in the 1930s. And let’s not forget: Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who risks everything to defend the African American Tom Robinson, fails in his attempt to prove Robinson’s innocence. Just as he almost certainly would have failed in real life. 

 

The head of English at James Gillespie’s doesn’t like the fact that the N-word is used more than 40 times in the novel. But, again, this is perfectly realistic. Does he think the children he teaches have zero imagination and can’t understand that Harper Lee is not condoning this, but condemning it? And isn’t the point of teaching to explain points like this? 

 

Nearly half a century ago, in 1975, the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, took issue with Joseph Conrad’s short, great anti-colonialist novel, Heart of Darkness, asserting that Conrad was a “bloody racist” whose black characters were dehumanised and degraded. Few postcolonial writers shared Achebe’s view. As they were not slow to point out, given that this novel was written in 1900, the heyday of Victorian imperialism, Heart of Darkness, for its time, was amazingly progressive in its attitudes and full of uncomfortable truths which resonate strongly today. It was then, and still is, a novel which has become almost synonymous with anti-racism and anti-colonialism, and rightly so.

 

There’s a simple point at issue here, which is that it’s ridiculous to keep judging the past by the standards of the present. As the narrator of The Go Between says, the past is a different country, “they do things differently there”. English teachers who can’t understand this, and who start ditching books and plays because they contain outdated attitudes, and don’t exactly chime with our modern sensibilities, really ought to be doing something else. 

Written by Jolyon Connell

 

 

Bridgerton

Posted on February 19, 2021 by Rachel Roderick | 0 comments

There are plenty of reasons to be happy about the stunning success of Netflix’s lavish and rollicking new period drama, Bridgerton. It’s cheered us all up in lockdown. And it’s reminded us of Jane Austen’s genius. For Bridgerton, of course, is loosely based on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Without her it would never have come into being.

Bridgerton is so saucy it would have Austen “reaching for the smelling salts”, said the Daily Mail. For this new drama is so much sexier than anything she could have imagined.

Sorry, but that’s just nonsense. For the idea that Austen is a passionless writer we have to blame, first and foremost, the later 19th century novelist and author of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. Bronte, who was undoubtedly jealous of Austen, famously wrote that “she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.”

The truth is the opposite. The point, as we’ve explained in The Connell Guide to Pride and Prejudice, is that sex was not a subject that an author in the early 19th century could openly discuss, but in her portrayal of Mr Darcy Austen comes as near to presenting sexual infatuation as she could within the conventions of the time. Go back to the novel and see for yourself. Darcy is utterly obsessed with Elizabeth; it’s there in the witty dialogue between them, in the way he’s always staring at her; in the narrator’s ironic, economical commentary.

Charlotte Bronte’s remark, then, seems almost wilfully perverse. Edward Neill, in The Politics of Jane Austen, gets much nearer to the truth when he calls Pride and Prejudice “almost indecently erotic”.

Bridgerton is huge fun but it’s not Austen and, to be fair, doesn’t pretend to be. But its writers recognise something which Andrew Davies also recognised when he wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s adaptation version of Pride and Prejudice: that the Regency world was full of buttoned-up passion. The famous plunge into the pool by ColinFirth as Darcy is not in the book but the series-makers responded to something that is there, a passion that the character only partially expresses in words.

In a way, then, it was harder for Austen to write about passion – but there were compensations. The writer Ferdinand Mount has shrewdly pointed out that novelists found it easier to write compelling stories when society was more rigid and more formal – when money and class barriers were exceptionally hard to overcome, when everyone had to behave in a restrained and self-sacrificing way. He calls those restraints “romanitas” and asks: “Is it possible that writers actually needed ‘romanitas’ as a great flawed project to grate against, as something that generated tragedies and ironies that were worth dealing with, and that without romanitas life seems to have less to it”?

He’s right. The endless appetite for costume dramas set in the 19th century, like Bridgerton, hinges partly perhaps on the wonderful clothes and sets. But it’s also because most of the truly great novels were written back then, in the world Mount describes.  

Homeschool for grown-ups Churchill - The Times 7th April 2020

Posted on August 17, 2020 by Rachel Roderick | 0 comments

Homeschool for grown-ups World War II - The Times 6th April 2020

Posted on August 17, 2020 by Rachel Roderick | 0 comments

Homeschool for grown-ups How to write well - The Times 2nd April 2020

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