Another strange week. All the usual duties need doing: teaching, admin, washing and cooking, but pushing from the background to the foreground are the signs of a state and an establishment falling apart under the weight of its denial and self-contradictions. Yesterday I found myself checking in seminar coffee breaks whether the UK still had a government, whether Trump had exploded as inconvenient election results trickled in, whether California (where I have relatives) was still an inferno.
So it was with a considerable degree of irony that yesterday's class was on Allen Ginsberg's Howl, a poem that starts with 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness / starving hysterical naked…'. As the students pointed out, the madness isn't necessarily that of the best minds (who are his Beat friends but also his mother, repeatedly confined to mental hospitals): it could be the collective madness of a polity and culture at war with itself. This reading really works: in part II we meet Moloch, the god to whom babies are sacrificed and who represents American industrial-military society. We had a really good discussion of the Jewish roots of the anaphoric form Ginberg uses (the repeated clauses starting with 'who'), which led us discussing RD Laing's anti-psychiatry and Basaglia's work to close down all Italian residential psychiatric hospitals (see John Foot's excellent book) and to me playing Leonard Cohen's 'Who By Fire', based on the Day of Atonement prayer, and the influence of Zen Buddhism on the proto-hippies in San Francisco and New York.
We talked about yoga (which at least one student practises) and how Howl eschews teleological meaning and progress in favour of revelation through repetition and revelation, echoing Blake and Dickinson, and ended up talking about the relationship of meaning to form, and the twin poles of what Nietszche's Appollonian and Dionysian attitudes towards personal engagement with society – Apollo represents logical, thoughtful engagement, whereas Dionysius favours emotion and irrationality. In Howl, Moloch is the perverted end-state of Appollonian culture in which the madhouse awaits all dissenters, reminiscent of the argument that the Enlightenment led to the gates of Auschwitz, whereas the bath-houses, sex in the bushes and the pursuit of pleasure are the ecstatic rejection of the system and any attempts to reform it.
Obviously we couldn't just talk about this stuff: a lecture about underlying theories would be the Molochian approach to the poem. Instead, I treated the students to a range of musical and artistic experiences that explored the same ground to make the point that form is culturally loaded. We looked at Jackson Pollock's abstract expressionism in comparison to the Soviet realism from earlier weeks, while not forgetting that the CIA fostered abstraction and avant-garde art forms as part of the Cold War rivalry (see Hugh Wilford's The Mighty Wurlitzer and Frances Stonor Saunders's Who Paid The Piper: the CIA and the Cultural Cold War for more details). In musical terms, I started off gently with Ginsberg reading Howl:
'Wichita Vortex Sutra' over Philip Glass's piece of the same name:
Then we dodged back to pre-modernism by playing a little of Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending as a (beautiful) example of art that provided solace rather than confrontation.
After that we went straight to the avant-garde and classical music's attempt to reflect and examine modernity: in particular, minimalism's affinity for Eastern Buddhist forms merged with the Jewish inheritance of composers like Steve Reich:
I was really interested in the students' reactions to Come Out: they're immersed in a culture of samples and loops, but Come Out is an early and particularly uncompromising version of it. The initial reaction was horror: it's so relentless. A couple of students who looked it up on their phones got the point of it, but there wasn't the time to get fully immersed in the piece. Incidentally, I have wondered whether the starkest minimalism is a male thing: a friend of mine cried when I played another Reich piece a few years ago. For her the repetition produced a form of claustrophobia. I find it soothing and hypnotic: I'm drawn to the same kind of rock/pop music: kosmische or Krautrock, and the music of bands like Stereolab. Curiously, I don't get much out of techno, which came from similar roots: the inanity of the vocals stop me from falling into the groove (and no, I'm way too old to pop a couple of yokes to get there chemically). I did play them The Orb's famous 'Little Fluffy Clouds', which sampled Reich's Electric Counterpoint, apparently to the composer's bemused delight.
However, the point of minimalism is that while it's partly about rejecting the European avant-garde's atonalism (I happen to like that stuff too), it's about meaning through the absence of teleological (goal-oriented structures), hence the composers' fascination with Jewish and Buddhist religious practises. I played them Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as an example of the classical world engaging with the horrors of the twentieth-century rather than providing comfort:
That wasn't their favourite piece, but that's the point: it's horrific. By this point in the class I was getting cocky, so threw in unannounced a performance of John Cage's 4'33".
This was fun: the video helped because it set up the expectation of something happening: man at a piano wearing full classical rig. At first there was silence. Then some giggling. A few people spoke, to me and to others, and there were plenty of noises off: phones buzzing, passing traffic, coughing and twitching. I ran it for the whole 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and then we talked about form: that Cage had reduced it to a performer and a space of time, redefining what music is by playing on audience expectations. There was some thrifty economic humour ('you paid to see that? How much was the ticket'?) but they really got the point. Finally, we went back to the Ginsberg poem to discuss sex as an anti-political act, pausing to consider the misogyny inherent in the stanza about the 'three shrews'.
After last week's heated, and very necessary, discussion of structural and personal racism, the class was almost relaxing. There were no deep divides on matters of sexuality to be seen, so the poem's targets and structure were sufficiently distant from the students' immediate lives to be safe topics, which is a mark of progress I guess, considering that Howl was once banned for obscenity. I hope the students got more out of it other than marvelling at my musical tastes, but time will tell. We had our course committee the day before and several people said how sad they were that this module was coming to an end. I am too, but economic austerity has sadly led to educational and intellectual austerity.
As to the rest of the week: I had the pleasure of going up to Keele University to see the Women of Keele Educate (WOKE, geddit?) host Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, who was very impressive personally, politically and intellectually. There was another of my regular punishment beatings from the dentist, and a little bit of reading: I finished TC Boyle's environmental bildungsroman A Friend of the Earth which though a bit lumpy seemed all too sad and prophetic after twenty years since publication: while the central protagonist comes to term with failure, his fury at environmentalist leaders' slow corruption from activists to gradualists really chimed with recent history. It was a pleasure to whip through the latest collection of Steve Bell's scabrous Guardian cartoons, The Corbyn Resurrection, and I read the final volume of Dave Hutchinson's Europe quartet, Europe at Dawn. The series is semi-fantasy examinations of the nature of states and nations: there's a semi-fantasy premise in which a slightly-future Europe has dissolved into ever-more fissiparous city-states, ethnically-exclusive enclaves and various other polities, requiring a clandestine organisation called Les Coureurs des Bois to negotiate borders and laws in constant flux. Meanwhile, a posh South-western family has in the nineteenth-century learned to make pocket universes, and founded a Community which preserves a kind of 1930s white English rural society in all its poorly-nourished, paranoid glory and develops the ability to hold Europe to ransom. If you're thinking there's a hint of Brexitty satire in there, you'd be right. Anyway, I like them very much: the series has all the qualities of the best SF or fantasy, being both politically thought-provoking and page-turning. I've now started Declan Kiberd's magisterial Inventing Ireland and Andrew Tate's Apocalyptic Fiction, which should keep me going for a while.
Enjoy your weekend. I'll be mournfully watching Ireland almost-but-not-quite beat New Zealand.