Posts Tagged ‘the bourgeois novel’

“If in the Ring mythic violence and legal contract are confounded, this not only confirms an intuition about the origins of legality, it also articulates the experience of the lawlessness of a society dominated in the name of law by contract and property.

The opacity and omnipotence of the social process is then celebrated as a metaphysical mystery by the individual who becomes conscious of it and yet ranges himself on the side of its dominant forces. Wagner has devised the ritual of permanent catastrophe.

Each listener has the feeling that it belongs to him alone, that it is a communication from his long-forgotten childhood, and from this shared déjà vu the phantasmagoria of the collective is constructed. Nowhere is Wagner more mythological than in the modernity of such pleasures.”

– Theodor Adorno,
In Search of Wagner.
London: Verso, 2009. pp. 108-109

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“Wagner showed himself to be bourgeois through and through in his conviction that poetic depth is synonymous with the omission of historical specificity. His image of the universally human requires the dismantling of what he supposes to be relative and contingent in favour of the idea of an unvarying human nature. What is actually substantial appears to him as a residue. He therefore finds himself reduced to a stratum of subject-matter that acknowledges neither history nor the supernatural nor even the natural, but which lies beyond all such categories. Essence is drawn into an omnisignificant immanence; the immanent is held in thrall by symbol. This stratum, where all is undifferentiated, is that of myth. Its sign is ambiguity; its twilight is a standing invitation to merge irreconcilables—the positivistic with the metaphysical — because it firmly rejects both the transcendental and the factual.”

– Theodor Adorno,
In Search of Wagner.
London: Verso, 2009. pp. 104.            

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“One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world.

In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-Semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we’re desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again. In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.”

– Adam Roberts, “From Wagner to Tolkien.A Mechanical Art. August 1, 2018.

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“A contradiction of all autonomous art is the concealment of the labor that went into it, but in high capitalism, with the complete hegemony of exchange-value and with the contradictions arising out of that hegemony, autonomous art becomes both problematic and programmatic at the same time. This is the objective explanation for what is generally thought of in psychological terms as Wagner’s mendacity. To make works of art into magical objects means that men worship their own labour because they are unable to recognize it as such. … The work of art endorses the sentiment normally denied by ideology: work is degrading.”

– Theodor Adorno,
In Search of Wagner.
London: Verso, 2009. p. 72.                

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“Wagner not only took up the bourgeois profession of conductor, he was also the first composer to write conductor’s music in the grand style. This is not said with the intention of echoing the threadbare reproaches of unoriginality, of with the design of unduly emphasising mere orchestral skill—something that pales by the side of Wagner’s overwhelming art of instrumentation. What it alludes to is the fact that his music is conceived in terms of the gesture of striking a blow and that the whole idea of beating is fundamental to it.

Compared to Viennese classicism, Wagner’s music reckons with people who listen to it from a great distance, much as Impressionist paintings require to be viewed from a greater distance than earlier paintings. To listen from a greater distance also means listening less attentively. The audience of these giant works lasting many hours is thought of an unable to concentrate—something not unconnected with the fatigue of the citizen in his leisure time.“

– Theodor Adorno,
In Search of Wagner.
London: Verso, 2009. pp.


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“[Georgette] Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change—no more than has the world of Bertie Wooster and his friends in the Drones Club to that of the early 20th century. Hopefully, few people would confuse the world of Bertie Wooster with historical reality. However, because of her thorough research on the Regency’s current events, topography, literature and, especially, the lifestyle of the upper class, Heyer’s depiction of the Regency UK is frequently held up as a standard of accuracy to emulate.

The American Regency romance writer Maggie Mackeever, for example, admits that Heyer’s Regency world never existed, but urges novice writers to “Immerse yourself in Georgette Heyer … Lots of people have written about Regency England since, but no one has done it as well. Read until you have the era fixed clearly in your head. Then sit down and start to write your own story.”

Heyer’s Regency population consists of the aristocracy and gentry, their devoted retainers, some vulgar, socially aspiring merchants, a handful of comic rogues, and a backdrop of contented peasants. That is hardly representative of the United Kingdom in that era. Heyer’s readers are encouraged to imagine themselves to be one of the 1.5 percent of the population comprising the gentry; or even as a member of one of the families of the approximately 300 titled men out of a population of maybe 9,000,000.

Of course, historically aware readers distinguish between “Heyer’s Regency England” and historical reality. However, many others do appear to believe that they can learn about history through the Regency romances. This article is typical. The poster discusses Heyer’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in the least “fluffy” of her “Regencies,” An Infamous Army, oblivious to the fact that Heyer’s emphasis is almost entirely on the officer class.

This obsessive focus on this tiny upper class goes arm in arm, unsurprisingly, with a strong status quo bias. Heyer’s untamed heroines and wild heroes are all rebellious and wild within a very narrow range, before they are reincorporated into society.

One example of this ‘conservative resolution’ is her 1959 novel The Unknown Ajax. Lord Darracott’s heirs have died suddenly and accidentally. His relatives are appalled to learn that as a result, his grandson through a misalliance with “a weaver’s daughter” is next in line to the title.

This grandson is Major Hugo Darracott, veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a seemingly uncultured giant with a broad Yorkshire accent. He has no valet and dresses unfashionably. Lord Darracott wishes to civilize him and marry him to the heroine Anthea, who is appalled.

Hugo horrifies the family by reminiscing about being “transported” and living in a hovel with a mud floor—only to reveal that he is referring to his army experiences. Later, he admits that his mother was in fact the heiress to a wealthy mill owner, while he attended the prestigious Harrow School. He confesses to Anthea that he adopted that Yorkshire dialect to tease. He promises to show Anthea’s younger brother Richmond all of the manufacturing processes. In this era, mills employed children as young as five in appalling conditions, but the humane Hugo seems unperturbed by this detail.

Heyer here does a clever sleight of hand: Hugo appears to threaten the status quo, but his true attraction is that he does not trouble class hierarchy at all. When a blacksmith from a family with “subversive” ideas—depicted as wholly contemptible—forces his way into the mansion, in what is presumably meant to be a parody of revolutionary uprising, it is Hugo who throws out his “filthy carcase.” Anthea and all the family are finally won over when Hugo saves Richmond from the law when he is shot in a smuggling venture. Here, he is shown to have a greater respect for the law than his grandfather, who has turned a blind eye to local smuggling.

Heyer’s aristocratic bias, and that of many of the Regency romances written in emulation of her style, is thrown into sharp relief by Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn. A 2013 revisiting of Pride and Prejudice—from the point of view of the servants—Longbourn depicts the hard facts of their lives, the bedrock on which the gracious living of Austen’s characters depends.

Baker’s heroine, Sarah, like Hugo in The Unknown Ajax, comes from a “family of weavers.” That family’s fate is tellingly different from that of Hugo’s relatives. Beggared when their village is destroyed through enforced enclosure of the land, they have to put Sarah in the workhouse, later to be sent to work as a housemaid.

The life of unrelenting toil of the servants is brilliantly depicted. Much of it is sordid drudgery. Unlike Heyer’s heroines—whom Heyer herself commented “Lived only from the waist up” —the females in Baker’s novel menstruate, entailing unsavory washing. The family’s chamber pots have to be emptied. In the daily round of unceasing labour, a few moments of stolen happiness are a delight.

In Heyer’s novels, the ugly aspects of life in the Regency UK—poverty, disease, filth and feces in the streets; public torture and death, massively high infant mortality and the low status of women—are ignored. With the exception of some ridiculous subversives, everyone is content with his or her lot. Injustice and misery are rarely portrayed, and when they are, they can be put right by some charitable works.

Heyer’s fans heatedly defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?”

– Lucinda Elliott, “The Regency Romance Hoax.Public Books, December 6, 2017.

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