Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Helots

Watching the gay porn film 300 a few days ago reminded me of the word "helot," the name for the Messenian people who were exploited by the Spartans as virtual slaves in ancient Greece. In the Frank Capra film Meet John Doe, Walter Brennan played a hobo that goes by the name Colonel who accompanies Willoughby, the character played by Gary Cooper, throughout his misadventures. He is a wisecracking, curmudgeonly old man who is proud of his poverty and even supplies his philosophy of life in a speech that can be found here. "The world's been shaved by a drunken barber," is a statement that held plenty of relevance in 1940.

The speech as written is as follows:

Hey, Doc, look. Look, Doc. Gimme
that again, will yuh? Who's gonna
get him?

The heelots!

Who are they?

Listen, sucker, yuh ever been broke?

Sure. Mostly often.

All right. You're walking along—not
a nickel in your jeans—free as the
wind—nobody bothers you—hundreds
of people pass yuh by in every
line of business—shoes, hats,
automobiles, radio, furniture,
everything. They're all nice,
lovable people, and they let you
alone. Is that right?
Then you get hold of some dough,
and what happens?
All those nice, sweet, lovable
people become heelots. A lotta
They begin creeping up on you—trying
to sell you something. They've got
long claws and they get a strangle-
hold on you—and you squirm—and
duck and holler—and you try to
push 'em away—but you haven't got
a chance—they've got you! First
thing you know, you own things. A
car, for instance.
Now your whole life is messed up
with more stuff—license fees—and
number plates—and gas and oil—and
taxes and insurance—
and identification cards—and
letters—and bills—and flat tires—and
dents—and traffic tickets and
motorcycle cops and court rooms—and
lawyers—and fines—
And a million and one other things.
And what happens? You're not the
free and happy guy you used to be.
You gotta have money to pay for
all those things—so you go after
what the other feller's got—
And there you are—you're a heelot

Sunday, August 29, 2010

George Orwell and 'Animal Farm'

George Orwell knew well that Stalinist Russia had little to do with socialism as he understood it. And yet many socialist thinkers in the 1930s were extolling the Soviet Union as a socialist model. Stalin's interference in the Spanish Civil War, which effectively divided the various forces and parties of the Left to such an extent that it nullified their power to stop Franco's Falangists, was witnessed first hand by Orwell.(1) Stalin's show trials of the remaining Bolzheviks and his eventual signing of the Non Aggression Pact with Hitler in 1939 was further incontrovertible proof that the 1917 Revolution had been hijacked in Russia.

But there remained a resistance among socialist intellectuals in England to face the facts, and Russia's joining of the alliance against Hitler in 1941 (after Hitler launched "Operation Barbarossa") made it difficult to criticize Stalin openly. As Orwell mentions in the preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm below, he intended to write something like it out immediately upon returning from Spain. He didn't write the novel until 1943-44. The Penguin edition of Animal Farm contains an appendix that I include in the endnotes which explains the history of the Ukrainian edition.(3)

(Dwight Macdonald asked Orwell if his criticism of the revolution in Animal Farm applied only to the October 1917 revolution. As Peter Davison, in "A Note on the Text" in the Penguin edition, states, "Orwell replied that though Animal Farm was ‘primarily a satire on the Russian Revolution’ it was intended to have a wider application. That kind of revolution, which he defined as ‘violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people’, could only lead to a change of masters. He went on: ‘I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.'")

Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm [March 1947]

I have been asked to write a preface to the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm. I am aware that I write for readers about whom I know nothing, but also that they too have probably never had the slightest opportunity to know anything about me.

In this preface they will most likely expect me to say something of how Animal Farm originated but first I would like to say something about myself and the experiences by which I arrived at my political position.

I was born in India in 1903. My father was an official in the English administration there, and my family was one of those ordinary middle-class families of soldiers, clergymen, government officials, teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc. I was educated at Eton, the most costly and snobbish of the English Public Schools.[2] But I had only got in there by means of a scholarship; otherwise my father could not have afforded to send me to a school of this type.

Shortly after I left school (I wasn't quite twenty years old then) I went to Burma and joined the Indian Imperial Police. This was an armed police, a sort of gendarmerie very similar to the Spanish Guardia Civil or the Garde Mobile in France. I stayed five years in the service. It did not suit me and made me hate imperialism, although at that time nationalist feelings in Burma were not very marked, and relations between the English and the Burmese were not particularly unfriendly. When on leave in England in 1927, I resigned from the service and decided to become a writer: at first without any especial success. In 1928-9 I lived in Paris and wrote short stories and novels that nobody would print (I have since destroyed them all). In the following years I lived mostly from hand to mouth, and went hungry on several occasions. It was only from 1934 onwards that I was able to live on what I earned from my writing. In the meantime I sometimes lived for months on end amongst the poor and half-criminal elements who inhabit the worst parts of the poorer quarters, or take to the streets, begging and stealing. At that time I associated with them through lack of money, but later then-way of life interested me very much for its own sake. I spent many months (more systematically this time) studying the conditions of the miners in the north of England. Up to 1930 I did not on the whole look upon myself as a Socialist. In fact I had as yet no clearly defined political views. I became pro-Socialist more out of disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed and neglected than out of any theoretical admiration for a planned society.

In 1936 I got married. In almost the same week the civil war broke out in Spain. My wife and I both wanted to go to Spain and fight for the Spanish Government. We were ready in six months, as soon as I had finished the book I was writing. In Spain I spent almost six months on the Aragon front until, at Huesca, a Fascist sniper shot me through the throat.

In the early stages of the war foreigners were on the whole unaware of the inner struggles between the various political parties supporting the Government. Through a series of accidents I joined not the International Brigade like the majority of foreigners, but the POUM militia — i.e. the Spanish Trotskyists.

So in the middle of 1937, when the Communists gained control (or partial control) of the Spanish Government and began to hunt down the Trotskyists, we both found ourselves amongst the victims. We were very lucky to get out of Spain alive, and not even to have been arrested once. Many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared.

These man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them. In Spain as well as in Russia the nature of the accusations (namely, conspiracy with the Facists) was the same and as far as Spain was concerned I had every reason to believe that the accusations were false. To experience all this was a valuable object lesson: it taught me how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.

My wife and I both saw innocent people being thrown into prison merely because they were suspected of unorthodoxy. Yet on our return to England we found numerous sensible and well-informed observers believing the most fantastic accounts of conspiracy, treachery and sabotage which the press reported from the Moscow trials.

And so I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.

And here I must pause to describe my attitude to the Soviet régime.

I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.

But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class. Moreover, the workers and intelligentsia in a country like England cannot understand mat the USSR of today is altogether different from what it was in 1917. It is partly that they do not want to understand (i.e. they want to believe that, somewhere, a really Socialist country does actually exist), and partly that, being accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life, totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.

Yet one must remember that England is not completely democratic. It is also a capitalist country with great class privileges and (even now, after a war that has tended to equalise everybody) with great differences in wealth. But nevertheless it is a country in which people have lived together for several hundred years without major conflict, in which the laws are relatively just and official news and statistics can almost invariably be believed, and, last but not least, in which to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger. In such an atmosphere the man in the street has no real understanding of things like concentration camps, mass deportations, arrests without trial, press censorship, etc. Everything he reads about a country like the USSR is automatically translated into English terms, and he quite innocently accepts the lies of totalitarian propaganda. Up to 1939, and even later, the majority of English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi régime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet régime, they arc still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion.

This has caused great harm to the Socialist movement in England, and had serious consequences for English foreign policy. Indeed, in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.

And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.

On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages. However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.

I proceeded to analyse Marx's theory from the animals’ point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans. From this point of departure, it was not difficult to elaborate the story. I did not write it out till 1943, for I was always engaged on other work which gave me no time; and in the end I included some events, for example the Teheran Conference, which were taking place while I was writing. Thus the main outlines of the story were in my mind over a period of six years before it was actually written.

I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure. But I should like to emphasise two points: first, that although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they arc dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story. The second point has been missed by most critics, possibly because I did not emphasise it sufficiently. A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn't far wrong.

I don't know what more I need add. If anyone is interested in personal details, I should add that I am a widower with a son almost three years old, that by profession I am a writer, and that since the beginning of the war I have worked mainly as a journalist.

The periodical to which I contribute most regularly is Tribune, a socio-political weekly which represents, generally speaking, the left wing of the Labour Party. The following of my books might most interest the ordinary reader (should any reader of this translation find copies of them): Burmese Days (a story about Burma), Homage to Catalonia (arising from my experiences in the Spanish Civil War), and Critical Essays (essays mainly about contemporary popular English literature and instructive more from the sociological than from the literary point of view).

(1)See Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.
(2)Orwell's note: "These are not public ‘national schools’, but something quite the opposite: exclusive and expensive residential secondary schools, scattered far apart. Until recently they admitted almost no one but the sons of rich aristocratic families. It was the dream of nouveau riche bankers of the nineteenth century to push their sons into a Public School. At such schools the greatest stress is laid on sport, which forms, so to speak, a lordly, tough and gentlemanly outlook. Among these schools, Eton is particularly famous. Wellington is reported to have said that the victory of Waterloo was decided on the playing fields of Eton. It is not so very long ago that an overwhelming majority of the people who in one way or another ruled England came from the Public School."
(3) "The Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm was intended for Ukrainians living in the camps for Displaced Persons in Germany under British and American administration after World War II. These, as indicated in a letter from the man who organised the translation and distribution, Ihor Szewczenko [Igor Shevchenko], were people who supported the October Revolution and who were determined to defend what had been won, but who had turned against ‘the counter-revolutionary Bonapartism of Stalin’ and the ‘Russian nationalistic exploitation of the Ukrainian people’. They were simple people, peasants and workers, some half-educated, but all of whom read eagerly. For these people he asked Orwell to write a special introduction. The English original has been lost and the version reproduced here is a recasting back into English of the Ukrainian version. Orwell insisted that he receive no royalties for this edition, nor for other translations intended for those too poor to buy them (e.g., editions in Persian and Telugu). Orwell himself paid the production costs of a Russian-language edition printed on thin paper, which was intended for soldiers and others behind the Iron Curtain.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some Thoughts On the 'N' Epithet

When I was growing up in the sixties, the phraseology used among hippies was prevalent, even in the Deep South where I lived. In particular, the use of the word man, as in "what time is it, man?" was ubiquitous. But growing up white meant that I didn't know the origin of the term until many years later. I learned that it first came to be used by beatniks in the fifties, who had adopted it from black jazz musicians (along with marijuana), who had been using it since the days of Jim Crow in the South. Black men called one another man because whites were calling them boy. It was their way of stating, if only to one another, that they were men.

While the vast majority of white folks in America have been thoroughly briefed about avoiding the use of the word nigger (to which I will refer in future as the "n" epithet), some of them obviously have not. Laura Schlesinger is only the latest casualty, but only because she was finally held accountable for saying something that was not only stupid but offensive.

She wanted to know why, she claimed, black people can get away with using the epithet but white people cannot. The use of the 'n' epithet among black people has an origin and function that is similar to that of the term man. By making the word commonplace, by bandying it about as Richard Pryor did and as nearly every black comic and rap artist has done ever since, blacks have taken the word away from whites, who would only use it to offend, and neutralize its power to offend, making it harmless or even affectionate.

Some white observers, puzzled that a slur should be used by the very people it was supposed to offend, wonder why whites still can't say it. Chris Rock, who waded into the controversy himself with his comedy album, Bring the Pain in 1996, tried to explain it to an NPR interviewer by likening it to calling someone else's kid stupid. If a parent called his kid stupid, the kid would understand what he meant, or didn't mean. If someone else called the kid stupid, in whatever sense, it would be wrong.

Dr. Schlesinger remarked that some people are "sensitive" about the 'n' epithet, implying that she is not. I suspect that the loss of revenue from her radio show will increase her sensitivity to the subject.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Miles from Home

Most of my jazz-loving friends (all three of them) never had much use for Miles Davis. His "cool" minimalist trumpet - which did the opposite of trumpet - seemed counter-intuitive after the bustle and intensity of Parker and Gillespie, whom Davis had adopted as his musical tutors when he quit Julliard. But he had a galvanizing impact on the jazz of the fifties and sixties, forming the greatest ensembles, whose players (Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock) went on to form great bands of their own.

Despite his brilliance and his fame, he suffered the same racist limitations of segregated America just like every other black man. Like many jazz artists, he found refuge in Europe where such racism did not exist. He composed music for a French film (Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows), and had a short, passionate affair with actress Juliette Gréco. He found European audiences more knowledgeable about jazz, but he knew that he had to go home, if only because that was where his music was most alive. His courage in doing this, and in kicking his heroin addiction a short time later all by himself, is incalculable.

In 1962, Davis was interviewed by Alex Haley for Playboy. Haley asked him, "Do you, in your position as a famous Negro, meet prejudice?"

Davis: I told you, someway or other, every Negro meets it, I don't care who he is! . . .

Haley: Have you always been so sensitive about being a Negro?

Davis: About the first thing I can remember as a little boy was a white man running me down a street hollering "Nigger! Nigger!"

Late in his life Davis gave Jet magazine a glimpse of the what he had learned from a lifetime as a black man in America: "If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I'd spend it choking a white man. I'd do it nice and slow." (1) What people experience can't always be controlled. How they respond to it can. Without for a moment questioning the experience of Davis, there were other ways to respond to it.

In another Jet interview in 1995,(2) jazz singer Joe Williams, then 76, spoke his own mind about race prejudice: "A friend of mine once said that hate is too important an emotion to waste on someone you don't like."

(1) Jet, 25 March 1985.
(2) Article reporting Williams's death, here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Queen

One of the most remarkable aspects of the excellent Stephen Frears film The Queen is its quite fearless look at the dreadful Diana cult among the British public (represented by Frears as a conglomerate of celebrity-slavering boobs) and how lightly Elizabeth II had to tread around the dead body of that privileged cow who became such a media darling at the expense of everything the Royals stood for. Few people seem to remember what a royal pain Diana became in her last years and how she manipulated the media to humiliate her husband and to promote an image of herself as the victim of some kind of smear campaign orchestrated by the Queen.

As "Lady Di," Diana was flaunting herself and evidently enjoying the life she'd been denied by being recruited into supplying the monarchy with heirs (which is the only duty that she performed well) whilst simultaneously thumbing her nose at them in total disregard for the position in which she was putting her own sons.

Diana must have been a tasty bit of tail for crusty old Charles, but after everything she put him through, like dragging him to rock concerts, being betrayed by her in her outrageous tabloid interviews, and dying practically in the lap of a millionaire playboy, he must still be wondering if she was worth it, and if she just might have got exactly what she deserved.
A coincidence that was either overlooked or misinterpreted by the media was the death, just six days later, of Mother Teresa, who was nearly as big a fraud as Diana. Of course, the press played up their similarities in saintliness, which merely emphasized how little they understood either of them. If there was any real resemblance between them it was the extent to which they were both driven by vanity.

Stephen Frears has become the best British film director since Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Dresser). But he did it with one-off films like My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and Dirty Pretty Things. (Unlike Yates, his American films are largely forgettable.) He also directed two films, Gumshoe and The Hit which, while being ultimately silly, remain guilty pleasures for me. With The Queen, he handles his big budget (for a British film) well, and manages to do his subject justice. While I felt no more affection for the woman than I did before I saw The Queen, it made me feel sorry for her having to endure Diana.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Church Going

Despite his quixotic conservatism, which made him love jazz but hate be-bop, Philip Larkin was not religious, but it inspired a nostalgia deep enough for him to write a beautiful elegy for "Church Going".

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Public Enemies

What little I know, or care to know, about John Dillinger, former "public enemy number one," gives me a pretty good idea that he was a loathsome man. That he should be played by Johnny Depp, Hollywood's number one heart throb, in the film Public Enemies is just another example of the loathsomeness of American film.

Michael Mann's films (Heat, Collateral), with the exception of The Insider, are virtually a testimonial to Montherlant's old assessment of the American film: "A perfect technique in the service of cretinism." The technique of Public Enemies, however, is far from perfect. It is hampered by the stupid craze (largely created by Mann) for hand held camerawork. Shot on digital video, it has the look and spatial feel of television. No attempt whatever is made to convey the period, except for bad haircuts and tinny music. It is all costumery and Thompson submachine guns.

One of the things I enjoyed about Brian di Palma's The Untouchables was its portrayal of Al Capone as a murderous pig. Every film portrayal of Dillinger has attempted to portray him as a typical anti-hero, sympathetic to the public for his "daring" exploits and ability to elude the cops (including the G-Men of the Bureau of Investigation). Christian Bale, as Melvin Purvis, wasted his time in a totally lacklustre role. There are a few suggestions in the film that Purvis was pressured by J. Edgar Hoover into some of his more brutal actions. An end title informs us that Purvis resigned from the Bureau in 1935, and died "by his own hand" in 1960. So much for the intervening twenty-five years.

Much is made of Dillinger watching the Clark Cable-William Powell movie Manhattan Melodrama shortly before he was killed outside the theater. There is also a rather forced attempt to suggest a resemblance between Myrna Loy and Marion Cotillard, who plays Eveline "Billie" Frechette, at least in the eyes of Dillinger. Only in one of Dillinger's sick dreams could Cotillard look like Myrna Loy. And Mann couldn't even resist the clearly overwhelming urge in filmmakers to shoot climactic scenes in slow motion, as if Dillinger's death were some sort of historic event.

It's not surprising that this film, which might have stood alongside Bonnie and Clyde, only showed people what a dead genre the gangster film is. Public Enemies resembles Bugsy in its concentration on the relationship between Dillinger and Frechette. It isn't nearly as awful as Bugsy, but I am sure several more budding public enemies have seen Public Enemies and have thrilled to its glorification of murder.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. Matthew 6:3

What the man in the passage above was talking about is that people shouldn't give (charity) the same way they invariably give it nowadays - publicly and proudly. One shouldn't derive satisfaction from it. It should be done without thinking of its effect on oneself, on one's goodness or on one's chances for salvation.

It was announced this week that Warren Buffett, the oracle of Omaha, and a consortium of forty other billionaires are committed to giving more than half of their personal fortunes to "charity." Of course, many of them have insisted on bequeathing theirs. Pardon my cynicism, but unless these men are worrying about the reception they will get at the pearly gates, what do they hope to accomplish?

Do they believe that a last act of philanthropy can make up for a lifetime of selfishness - what Adam Smith called "personal gain"? Does anyone still believe that one man should be in control - should be allowed to control - so much money? The fact is there would be no need for charity if we had an economy that made such rapacious, insane acquisitiveness as Buffett & Co. have practiced all their lives impossible.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Upon watching the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (a strange title even for a Bond film), I was both impressed at how completely the worn out old franchise has been overhauled and depressed by how thoroughly it has killed Bond himself. I did not see Casino Royale, the film that introduced Daniel Craig as the new Bond, the sixth actor to play the part. He is the blondest and easily the ugliest of the six, but he can act, which some others could not, and he is the most physical Bond since Sean Connery. When Craig gets into a fight, you believe it when he wins. Only Connery could do that before now.

I have expressed my preference, such as it is, for the original Bond elsewhere. I must admit to having some residual, misplaced affection for the Bond franchise. Partly because it is almost as old as I am, and perhaps because it has not been permitted to grow old. But just like a woman who is getting on in years and who gets one too many facelifts and wears a ton of makeup, James Bond is showing his age in subtler, more disturbing ways.

Some of the old characters are still there, like M, played lately (since 1995) by Judy Dench. But many of the other characters, which managed to keep Bond safely in Movieland, are gone. Ian Fleming, who died in 1964, would probably not recognize the people in Quantum. Having died long before the end of the Cold War, it is easy to see Bond as a relic of that era, even if Fleming's bad guys were usually madmen without a country, wanting to rule the world or destroy it (or both).

One of the film's set pieces takes place in a particularly ugly modern amphitheater during a typically stupid updated staging of Tosca. The killings onstage mirror the killings offstage, as Bond tries to corner the chief bad guy (played smoothly by the accomplished French actor, Mathieu Amalric). The trouble is, it was at times difficult to tell them apart, what with the players in the opera using automatic weapons. It gets even messier when Bond drops an adversary (who is actually an MI6 agent) off the roof just as Tosca is throwing herself off the castle battlements (which are left entirely to our imaginations by the minimalist staging). There is an irony here that the clever Bond script writer (Paul Haggis) overlooked: removed from its context, the opera's director was trusting that Tosca would retain its coherence in a "relevant" new setting, just as the creators of Quantum trust that Bond continues to make sense after fifty years.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Swimmer part seven

The ocean's emptiness appals the swimmer, but only because it can supply nothing for his own survival. He cannot entertain flabby polemic about dolphins. His is the mind of a man lost in the sea. Yet even as he struggles to save himself he is hollowed out by despair. What is it that he is saving? The thought corrodes his every intention. In this wide salt world which he treads he is nothing, has nothing but a face mask and a pair of trunks. Until one loses everything it is never clear what it was one had. Now, in a bleak inner glimpse, he finds he has dissolved. The landscape of his own past, his private history, seems to have vanished, leaving only a sense of attrition. As he glances down through the water his body dwindles whitely like a distant peg and sheds a small discolored puff of urine which briefly unravels itself in thready convections like those of lime juice being diluted. Nothing but ocean. His entire body is dissolving, too. He only ever existed as three tenths and that fraction is melting into water.

However, this 30 percent contains an animal which does not want to die. A passive animal, maybe, but still perversely convinced that help will turn up as if by more than mere chance. Sooner or later someone surely has to pass within hailing distance of the psychic beacon he must have become, broadcasting his distress signal on all frequencies. He squints at the sun. Now that he no longer wants it to be stuck vertically at noon, it seems reluctant to move at all. Night with its hope of fishermen is still many hours away.

The swimmer tells himself he need not bank only on them. He has been overlooking all the other sorts of boat which continually cross these waters. Besides tattered interisland launches there are all the craft which used to fetch up on "Tiwarik": friendly gunrunners, wanderers from the south with their faces wrapped against the sun, poverty-stricken vagabonds neither peaceable not violent but chance-takers of more or less competence. Any of them might spot him from miles away with a vulture's quick eye for a weakening beast. He tries to imagine into being a huge arch of cloud letters in the sky: REWARD!, and underneath a gigantic arrow pointing straight down whose tip balances on his sunburned head. It is a message aimed impartially at any of the seagoing mavericks who still inhabit this last corner of the ocean.

So hard does he will it that he soon thinks he hears, above the infuriatingly loud slop of wavelets, the faintest putter of an engine.

James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

¿Dónde está la Revolución?

Visitors to Venezuela have, for the past decade at least, commented on the fervor of Hugo Chávez supporters routinely - and spontaneously - demonstrating their love for their president and their enthusiasm for Venezuela's "revolución." There's only one problem with their demonstrations and enthusiasm: there was no revolution in Venezuela. There was an election.

Most people like to compare Venezuela with Cuba, and Chávez to Fidel Castro. Hugo Chávez may be an staunch admirer of Castro, but he is essentially the opposite of him. Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998. And re-elected in 2000 and in 2006. Castro led a band of guerrillas in a violent takeover of Cuba in 1959 - a genuine and bloody revolution. What Chávez's success has demonstrated is that there are two kinds of Socialism: revolutionary Socialism and democratic Socialism. Many of Socialism's enemies may disbelieve in and deny that there is any such thing as democratic Socialism, but they are demonstrably wrong.

Legislating Socialist reforms in a democracy, especially one with a former oligarchical class structure, is not exactly like changing horses in mid-stream. It's more like changing the course of the stream itself. Unlike a revolution, which sweeps old regimes and their policies away in one violent upheaval, legislative reforms take a painfully long time to take effect. Chávez's enemies like to point out that his reforms aren't working, but this is not the fault of Socialism, but of democracy. In fact, Leftist reforms in a democracy are always disappointing because they take so long to have any impact. People, who are naturally apathetic and conservative (even George Orwell knew this), grow impatient with reforms and want to change governments before they can come to fruition.

Add to this the opposition from practically every other democratic country in the world that would be delighted to see Socialism fail one more time, even at the expense of people's livelihoods and the welfare of their families. I became a Socialist the moment I learned, in 2002, that virtually everything I have been led to believe about Socialism was a lie. The reasons behind all these lies are simple enough to comprehend. For the better part of forty years, Americans had to accustom themselves to the prospect that a nominally Socialist state, Soviet Russia, wanted to blow them all to smithereens.

But another reason for the lies I was told about Socialism is that too many people stood to lose too much if it were to come to pass. It is never the average Joes who want nothing more than to live a decent life and provide for their families that makes Capitalism such a "free-for-all in which the worst man wins."* It's the real Capitalists, the people who want impossibly more than they could ever need, the IMF and the World Bank, who have made Capitalism such an inequitous and unjust system. They are the people that Hugo Chávez is fighting against. There was an attempted coup in 2002, which threatened democracy itself, which was organized and led by members of the former ruling class. After briefly removing Chávez from power, the coup was defeated.

Venezuela is a small, poor country. Its oil resources have made it seem more important than it is. If Socialism is not allowed at least a chance to work properly by its internal and external enemies, the fault will not be Chávez's or Socialism's, but ours.
*George Orwell's words.