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Gerard Manley Hopkins: sadness and wonder

GerardManleyHopkinsGerard Manley Hopkins has been heavily psychoanalysed since his death. Much of this seems to lie on a biographical reading of his poems, in particular the so-called Sonnets of Desolation written in the mid-1880s.They are certainly bleak:

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace/my parting, sword and strife.

England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I weár-
Y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word

Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
   –
To seem the stranger

There are occasions in his life that present a clear basis for melancholy – his repression of his own homosexuality at university; his alienation from his parents after his conversion to Catholicism and his entering the priesthood; his religious alienation from the material world; and his possible unrequited love for his classmate Digby Mackworth Dolben, with whom he later corresponded and wrote The Beginning of the End for, a poem designated ‘must never be printed’ by his posthumous editor. Whether or not he was rendered a depressive by these events, or as he has been labelled in modern times, a sufferer of bi-polar disorder, is an endless debate. Personally, I find ascribing subjective notions of recently defined illnesses to dead artists fairly boring, especially when they rely on biographical readings of their work.

Clearly, Hopkins certainly had any number of reasons to be depressed – whether he was or not is another matter – but by far the most interesting aspect of his ‘inner being’ is the apparently intense struggle he waged throughout his life to reconcile his conception of himself as a poet with that of a serious religious man.

The fight began with his conversion to Catholicism in 1866. Upon entering the Jesuits, he began to feel that his interest in poetry was antithetical to a serious religious life. He eventually changed his mind after reading Duns Scotus, one of the ‘Big Three’ Medieval religious philosophers along with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. He accepted Scotus’ argument that God exists only as an unknowable infinity, whereas the being of everything else is finite and that only the being of these ‘other things’ can be knowable by man. After reading this, Hopkins became convinced of the impossibility of finding a perfect replica of God’s beauty in nature, and began writing again and recording the natural world. However, he didn’t read Duns Scotus until 1872. He hadn’t written a word of poetry since 1866, and had burned everything he ever written up to that date.

Feelings of ambivalence towards and continuous rejection of his own poetry seem to have dogged him throughout his life, reinforced by the fact that he remained mostly unpublished during his lifetime. Later, the acceptance by a Jesuit publication of his The Wreck of the Deutschland, but its later non-publication, particularly hurt him.

In his final years, the old contradiction returned, and he underwent another crisis, coming to believe that the egotism required by an artist in seeking an audience violated his religious vows of humility, and decided not to publish anything. Later, he came to believe that a poet required an audience for criticism and encouragement. This contradiction led him to feel that he had failed both as a poet and as a priest. He died of typhoid fever in 1889, aged 44.

Hopkins produced some of the most experimental poetry of his age, completely contravening established norms. For that, and his experimental use of language – in particular, he taught himself Old English – he is often considered a proto-modernist. It is a shame he is not considered alongside Rimbaud for his revolutionary effect on poetry, who was equally violent in his shaking up of the symbolist movement and French poetry in general. As the inner life of artists can often overshadow their poetry, so can their private lives. The sexy, tragic libertinism of Rimbaud is far more attractive to a modern audience than that of Hopkins’ quiet priest.

But whatever remains, the graceful wonder for the natural world displayed in his poems is amazing:

I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;

A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quite utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
   –
Moonrise

His last words were “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”

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Emanuel Litvinoff and the nature of TS Eliot’s antisemitism

Emanuel LitvinoffIt completely passed me by that Emanuel Litvinoff had died in 2011.

Unfortunately for a writer who wrote many plays, novels and poems, he seems to be mostly remembered for his incredible poem To T.S. Eliot, an attack on Eliot’s antisemitism, which he amazingly read out in front of Eliot himself at the ICA in 1951. Previously an admirer, he was horrified when poems such as Gerontion and Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar were reprinted in 1948 in his Selected Poems. There is little doubt of the antisemitic content of these poems; they are downright nasty:

“And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner [of my building] / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.”
– Gerontion

“The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”
Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar

It’s always a shame when a writer is remembered primarily for something he probably wishes he had never had to write in the first place. Especially so since most of his novels seem to be now out of print. His memoir of Jewish East End life, Journeys Through a Small Planet has a Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ll be making sure to get my hands on.

Looking at the history of Eliot’s antisemitism and political/religious trajectory is interesting in itself. There is no doubt that Eliot was a reactionary in the Tory tradition. You could call him a ‘very English’ reactionary, but I generally hate the self-mythologising ‘very English’ label the English like to apply to anything that paints us in a good light. A Very English Civil war, a Very English General Strike, blah.

Of course, Eliot was not English, but he was desperate to firmly root himself in English society, especially upper-class society. The most obvious expression of this is certainly his conversion from the Unitarianism of his childhood to Anglicanism, identifying not only as a member of the Church of England but as an Anglo-Catholic. Then in its heyday, Anglo-Catholicism is a branch of the Anglican church that retained the most Catholic aspects of worship from the Elizabethan Settlement; sacraments, incense, veneration of Mary, confession, and even Latin Mass in some instances. Traditionally, it disdains the Protestant, or ‘low church’, aspects of the Church of England, and sees itself as part of the continuous church founded by the early Christians. Unsurprisingly, many of the original adherents to Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th century, known as the Oxford Movement, converted to Catholicism itself, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, who continued to write poetry as a Jesuit priest. Many High Church Anglicans in recent years have also converted, unhappy with the modest attempts at liberalisation in the CofE.

Devotional image of Charles I, from the Eikon BasilikeHigh Church Anglicanism has always been the embodiment of the traditional English establishment, and none more so than in Eliot’s time, when the aristocracy still existed as a viable economic class. Toryism, the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism and the precursor to modern conservatism, growing out of the Royalist faction of the Civil War, was clearly where Eliot found himself most at home. He stated that he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion”. As if to amplify his reactionary politico-religious credentials, he was a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society that venerates Charles I.

The essence of the modernism that Eliot portrayed in The Waste Land, that general unease associated with complete collapse of absolutes and the assumed survival of the political and social order, led him to embrace a totally pre-modern form of conservatism. The royalism of the Cavalier and Jacobite tradition, the religious conservatism, and in the vein of all European reactionaries since the French Revolution, the suspicion of materialism, capitalism, liberalism, and democracy. Eliot’s radicalism was one of traditional, authoritarian, paternalistic hierarchies.

In this embrace of the political and religious tastes of the inter-war aristocratic classes, it would almost be surprising if somebody like Emanuel Litvinoff had not had to write a poem denouncing Eliot for his antisemitism, which was hardly a rarity among the pre-war aristocracy.

The British Union of Fascists had many prominent aristocratic patrons, and was flocked to by the sons of Earls and Barons, although many eventually were turned off by the ‘unseemly’ violence endemic at their meetings. David Redesdale, father of the Mitfords, was notorious for his antisemitic views. While sections of the aristocracy were actively sympathetic to fascism, in particular Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the anti-democratic, traditionalist, religious absolutes of High Toryism often expressed themselves in casual, or not so casual, antisemitism during the inter-war years.*

TS EliotThere have been defences of Eliot, which are as predictable as nightfall when any great artist turns out to have held unfavorable opinions, or to have done something that might make them a flawed human being. Terry Eagleton counters this very well:

“Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation [as a poet] is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours.”

Despite having felt ‘nervous’ when he saw Eliot enter, Litvinoff finished reading his poem at the ICA in 1951.

So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.
To T.S. Eliot

Eliot reportedly said afterwards, “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”

Having dispatched Eliot, Litvinoff later led high-profile campaigns against official antisemitism in Soviet Russia and, expressing the universality of his belief in human dignity, his last novel, Falls the Shadow, written during the 1982 Lebanon War, was set in contemporary Israel and is critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Like many obituaries and short biographies of Litvinoff, this post has ended up saying more about Eliot than him. When I’ve got a hold of Journeys From a Small Planet I’ll write something for the man himself.

*check out European Aristocracies and the Radical Right, 1918-1939, by Karina Urbach.

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The Making of the English Working Class, and Lord Byron hugs a Luddite

I’ve recently been re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. For this book, ‘magesterial’, ‘dazzling’, ‘sheds lights on an overlooked period of our history’ and all the other dull clichés are for once apt. If these terms didn’t make me cringe so much I would employ all of them to describe what was Thompson’s ‘magnum opus’.

If anything, ‘often overlooked’ would be a startling understatement in this instance. The book covers the years 1780 to 1832, and examines the political agitation of those victims of history; the artisans and craftsmen who would soon find themselves made obsolete by the factory system, consumed by the black cloud of the industrial revolution, thrown to the urban slums and joining the mass of the newly emerging industrial proletariat. In the preface, Thompson describes his wish to:

‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’

These years truly were the ‘making’ of the new working class; the decline of a predominantly rural economy of artisan trade to one of mass industrialisation, urbanisation, slums and wage labour. The gates of Merrie England had been broken down by Adam Smith and the enemies of this outdated mercantilism of craftsmen, and the masses were being led towards the sooty heights of Cottonopolis and the workhouse.

There is little overlooked about the Industrial Revolution itself, it was covered heavily when I was at school, and seems to feature to a significant(ish) degree in the collective memory of the nation. We think of child labour, we see the slums, the words of Dickens, Brunel’s bridges, the counterbalance of the Romantics, Turner’s ominously blurred steam trains drifting through as yet unspoiled pastures.

Thompson’s focus, the ‘overlooked history’, is purely on those on the front line of these great changes, their political consciousness, aspirations and responses to what he calls, ‘these times of acute social disturbance’. He describes the activities of the followers of Jacobinism in England, reformers and revolutionaries who saw hope for salvation in the radicalism of the French Revolution, many of whom later prayed for a French invasion of Britain that would topple their own ancien regime. He describes the struggle for the vote, the growth of trade unionism among artisans, highly secretive and illegal, a mysterious picture conjured of masked craftsmen meeting nightly in wooded clearings, taking part in oaths and initiation rituals, drilling with pikes for the coming “‘levelution.”

The London Corresponding Society, the radical weavers of Spitalfields, Nottinghamshire, and Lancashire, the revolutionary journalists of Republican, Cap of Liberty, and Medusa are all brought back to the life. Radicals and demagogues, certainly popular men or devils, depending on who you spoke to, in their own time, are all but forgotten now. From speakers and campaigners like William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, to doomed conspirators like Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the Cato Street Conspiracy, and Jeremiah Brandreth, the unemployed stocking maker and ‘Nottingham Captain’, who led an ill-fated attempt to occupy the city in 1817. Compared with later popular history that was preserved at length by the socialist movement, the world Thompson describes is a labyrinth of riots, uprisings, conspiracy, insurrection, hanging and treason.

The Making of the English Working Class is a wealth of forgotten history, and the history of English radicalism is almost certainly forgotten, not being one that sits well with the still adored myth of the passive, stiff upper lipped, ‘free-born Englishman’. Two incidents described and analysed at length in the book exemplify this national amnesia, and both have current relevance.

The first is the obvious example of the Luddites, the radical handloom weavers of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Threatened by the introduction of the automated looms of factory production that would render their trade somewhat obsolete, they rioted, smashed factory looms, and torched mills from 1811-1813. Many were executed, and hundreds were transported to the colonies. In our current understanding of the word ‘Luddite’, the radical political factor has been completely removed. Thompson is at pains to differentiate between our meaning of Luddite; a derogatory term for someone who is anti-technology, and this leading to a false idea of the weavers’ motivations; and what a Luddite was, an artisan making a futile attempt to protect his livelihood. Luddism also contributed to the agrarian riots of 1830, discarded in the popular imagination, known as the Swing Riots, which occurred in the southern counties and were one of the largest popular uprisings in the history of England.

The true meaning of Luddism is all the more surprising considering the appearance of a national celebrity in its midst. In 1812, after several years swanning and inseminating his way across the continent, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and made three speeches in defense of the rioters, and against the introduction of the Malicious Damage Act of 1812, that made frame-breaking a capital offense. Byron was one of the few parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, if not the only, and the law was passed. He never entered the House again, but instead devoted his pen to the cause of Radicalism for years to come, penning his Song For The Luddites, The Landlords’ Interest, and Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats. This was an episode where politics and literature truly crossed paths; as this monster of Romanticism, that enemy of the Industrial Revolution and mechanisation, found common cause with the riotous victim of the age, the unemployed weaver.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron both namechecked the 1832 Reform Act when they took power last year, pledging their tinkering with civil liberties law would resemble such a momentous event. Thompson does a wonderful job of exposing the fallacy of the idea of a historical ‘British democracy’ in describing the often violent and widespread campaign for male suffrage that led to the election of radical MPs and the passage of the Reform Act. Far from being a benevolent gift from the Commons to the people, the Reform Act was prefigured by decades of relentless agitation by reformers, the bloody highlight of which was the Peterloo Massacre, a massive meeting of radicals in Manchester that ended at the hands of charging cavalry. For all the habits of the modern politician to describe our democracy as ‘historical’, ‘great’ or ‘longstanding’, it takes only a cursory glance at Thompson’s work to remember that full suffrage was not granted to women and most men until 1918. In the true manner of reform granted by the state after popular agitation, the final legislated product promised little, the Reform Act still leaving the vast majority of men (six out of seven, it is believed), without the vote.

While lucidly describing these forgotten episodes of our history, Thompson also reveals the fallacy of many modern myths about the docile nature of England and its people. The book ends at the point of 1832, a watershed where artisan radicalism gave way to mass factory trade unionism and the beginnings of the socialist movement. In describing this transition of radical politics from one phase to another, Thompson mirrors the world of radicalism he found himself in as a leading light of the New Left, that crossroads between the Communist Party and its subservience to the Soviet Union, and anti-Soviet socialism.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the people of Budapest rose against their Communist rulers, proved the breaking point for many socialist intellectuals. Like the Dreyfus case, which proved a litmus test for a person’s politics for decades afterwards, the subsequent Soviet suppression of the uprising, and a person’s reaction to it, would reveal whether or not they were of a pro-Soviet persuasion. Thousands around the world abandoned their respective Communist parties in the face of the bloodbath in Budapest.

Many left the Communist Party of Great Britain, and EP Thompson was one of the first out the door, unlike our other ‘great’ socialist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who has experienced a recent renaissance of sorts, who issued some fairly unflattering articles in support of the Soviet authorities, albeit, ‘with a heavy heart’. Thompson remained a socialist and criticised the Labour governments of the post-war period from a left-wing perspective, and was a major figure in CND, becoming partly famous for speaking passionately about nuclear weapons to Glastonbury crowds in the 1980s. His speeches in favour of nuclear disarmament, and against all too easily embarked upon wars must have resembled Byron’s impassioned speeches supporting the Luddites in the House of Lords. Through the jeers and shouting, he condemned the lawmakers who sat beside him;

‘When a proposal is made to emancipate or relieve, you deliberate for years, you temporize and tamper with the minds of men; but a death-bill must be passed off-hand, without a thought of the consequences’

It was the last time Byron would sit in Parliament, and like those frame-breakers and radicals who could find no redress through the laws of the land, Byron would contain his political activity to his poetry, mirroring Thompson’s overall argument, that the most radical reform can never be bestowed by parliaments.

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Summer With Monika: Pre-sixties youth revolt in a changing Europe

Summer With Monika, directed by Ingmar Bergman, tells the story of two Stockholm teenagers, Harry and Monika, who fall in love and agree to escape from the drudgery of their lives by running away from home and living a nomadic existence sailing around a series of deserted islands. It takes the form of a classic runaway film, with a pair of young lovers fleeing from the responsibilities of adulthood, but also reveals a truth about life in post-war Europe, and the prospect of changes to come.

Monika ostensibly runs away from home to escape the oppression of her family life. She lives with her violent and alcoholic father, her mother, and her loud and mischievous younger brothers. Their apartment is cramped, the children all sleep in cots in the kitchen, and their poverty is emphasised by the excitement generated when the father can afford to bring home ‘a bottle’ one evening.

When Monika first meets Harry, it is in the setting of a workman’s cafe near to their respective workplaces. Later, see see Monika sexually harrassed by her workmates; she is the subject of lewd jokes, and several times she is touched inappropriately, leading her to break down in tears. Harry, working nearby, also has a hard time at work, and seems to despise his boss and the general drudgery of his life. He is also subjected to bullying at the hands of a cruel foreman. When Monika and Harry first meet, they both fantasise about escaping from the drudgery of their lives, signified in their boredom and harrassment at work, and the oppressive nature of Monika’s family life.

Later, after her father hits her, Monika runs away from home and arrives at Harry’s apartment, suitcase in hand. Fearing the watchful gaze of his visiting aunt, Harry sets them both up in the cabin of his father’s boat. Monika quits her job, and the next day Harry does the same after an arguement with the bullying foreman. They both meet back at the boat, and Harry says,

‘Remember what you said about travel? Well, to hell with the others now. Let them slave away, what do we care.’ To which Monika answers, ‘I’d like to kill all those who want to hold us back and make us crawl.’

They agree to leave, and sail away on the boat to begin a summer of roaming adventures, sailing to and living on various deserted islands in the seas around Stockholm. They have run away from the world of work, obligations, and have chosen to disengage with society. It is here that we see Summer With Monika in its curious historical epoch. Made in 1953, and, strangely for a country that remained neutral during the war, Summer With Monika presents an almost perfect vision of the post-war melancholy and malaise of Europe, personified in its two main protagonists. Stuck between the old world of war and ideology of the first half of the 20th century, and the ‘new world’ of individualism, consumerism and uprooted social attitudes of the 1960s, we see both the history of the old world and the future of the new.

Their decision to flee the world is a basically individualist one; they are alienated from society (work, family, their own poverty) but instead of attempting to change these conditions, they merely commit themselves to voluntary exile to live a life of blissful isolation. They invert their alienation from the world and completely disengage from it. This attitude shows us the future; that it has been a hallmark of alienated Western youths in the latter half of the 20th century to form subcultures to try to create a world separate from society itself. Harry and Monika’s breaking away to live their own nomadic existence resembles most easily one of the central concepts of the hippie movement, which would have been in full flow only fifteen years later. But while hippies disengaged from society and travelled, or founded rural communes, it was usually framed in the language of a vague spirituality. Their reasons were given as esoteric or metaphysical, as manifested in the slogans to ‘find yourself, and ‘return to the Earth’. An interesting, if unintended indication of the new freedoms and changing social mores of the 60s can be seen in the controversy surrounding Summer With Monika on its release, namely its frank depictions of sexuality and nudity. Controversial at the time, the depictions of nudity would probably not have raised an eyebrow a decade later.

Harry and Monika’s motivations are different, and strikingly materialist; they have left their lives in Stockholm because they experienced poverty, the daily drudgery of their lives at work, and the fraught problems of family life. Here we see the past; the base problems that the ideological battles that pre-war Europe sought to resolve. In 1953, most of Europe was still rebuilding and coming to terms with the legacy of the war, and being pulled East or West in defense of opposing geo-political interests in the burgeoning Cold War. Whatever idealism had existed in the socialist movement of the first half of the century was gone, buried by the Stalin years and the transformation of European Communist parties into mere proxies for the Soviet state. It is easy to see, in a hypothetical Summer With Monika made twenty years earlier, Harry and Monika’s complaints against society and their own poverty being absorbed by the socialist and trade union movement, which formed a strong Europe-wide opposition for working-class people throughout the first decades of the century. Or for the more dramatically inclined, an action film where our protagonists join cells of a leftist terrorist group, a Swedish Narodnaya Volya.

Like many who now look back on Europe in the 1950s, Summer With Monika, feels like a film trapped in the remains of the past and the seeds of the future. Harry and Monika’s alienation from society is purely material, but lacking the ideology of the pre-war era, they cannot confront them, but instead choose the path of escape to lead a nomadic existence, something more suited to the esoteric motivations of post-war youth subcultures. These subcultures, whose opposition to society was clear (and remains to be), saw that attempts to change society were useless, and, lacking the language in a post-ideological world to express this frustration, merely formed their own socieities outside of it, often based around things like music or fashion, with corresponding values.

Harry and Monika’s response is individualist and non-political, and if the film were made in later decades we could imagine them becoming hippies, or punks, or a member of any other pyriad of subcultures in Western Europe. As it is, Harry and Monika exist in a kind of time warp that reveals the changing world of Europe in the 20th century, one that could never return to the past, and had only a bright, brave future to march towards, leaving Monika to wander somewhere between a picket line and a muddy field of bongo enthusiasts.

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Shakespeare and conspiracy: the prospect of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

“What if I told you…that Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” plainly states Derek Jacobi at the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare film, Anonymous. Shakespeare has made surprisingly few appearances on film, the last being 1998’s Shakespeare in Love,  a sort of Notting Hill-era Britcom with codpieces. It is, therefore, a shame Anonymous is not a film about Shakespeare, but takes as its subject the most peculiar aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy, the conspiracy theory that ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write the plays attributed to him.

The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ movement, as it is known, dates back to the mid-19th century, and the reasons behind the claims that somebody else wrote the plays are numerous. They frequently rely on reading the plays as autobiography, denial of evidence, and bizarre codes and ciphers believed to be hidden in the plays themselves, as well as a good dose of snobbery towards Shakespeare’s background. For a comprehensive debunking of the anti-Stratfordian myth, it is worth reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will, or alternatively simply viewing the surprisingly clear Wikipedia page.

As for the candidates themselves, there are currently over fifty contenders, including Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, King James, and Elizabeth I. No less eclectic are their supporters over the years, who count among their ranks Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, and Sigmund Freud.

Two prominent contemporary figures in the anti-Stratfordian camp are Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who, in 2007, issued a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ that features the signatures of several high-profile doubters, as an attempt to rally the anti-Stratfordian cause. In recent years the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy has gained greater mainstream interest:  the fact that Rylance even served as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre between 1995-2005 reflects this. Jacobi and Rylance will both appear in Anonymous, and director Roland Emmerich’s signature featured on the 2007 declaration.

While favoured candidates for an alternative author swap positions fairly regularly, the current frontrunner is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an aristocrat, adventurer, playwright, and literary patron. Anonymous intends to fight his corner – with a few embellishments, namely that de Vere was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, and had an incestuous relationship with her. Even in anti-Stratfordian ranks, this is a fringe theory, and one often met with derision.

By showcasing this dramatic and controversial theory, Anonymous could prove to be an own goal for the anti-Stratfordian camp. Oliver Stone’s JFK , released in 1991, is the daddy of conspiracy cinema. It succeeded in cementing the idea of a conspiracy in the public mind; following its release, more people were convinced of a cover-up and the US government even reviewed their records of the assassination. Its success lay in the simplicity of the plot, and the fact that it followed established and prominent theories of the Kennedy assassination, the ‘magic bullet’, the ‘second gunman’ etc. Could it be that Emmerich’s desire for blockbuster success via the most controversial and bizarre plot possible has overridden the anti-Stratfordian desire to maintain an image of legitimacy? Anonymous runs a serious risk of exposing them to ridicule.

In fact, the choice of such a bizarre theory seems so poorly considered that an intriguing, and just as unlikely, conspiracy of its own could be considered. What if Roland Emmerich is in fact a Shakespeare supporter,  is deep undercover in the enemy camp, and has gone to the trouble of shooting a multi-million dollar film that contends that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but with the most preposterous storyline possible – all as some kind of cunning ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the anti-Stratfordians. But, like the conspiracies themselves, this is an unreasonable theory based on zero evidence.

Belief in conspiracy theory in the modern world is widespread, a 2003 poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe in a JFK cover-up, a 2006 poll found that nearly half of all Britons believe the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, and we have only to look at recent conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama’s citizenship to see that the appetite for conspiracy remains strong. Not to mention the images of ‘Da Vinci Code tours’ that appeared in the wake of the book’s popularity, ferrying hundreds of Dan Brown enthusiasts around the Vatican to conduct their own examinations of the Sistine Chapel for hidden codes.

It is difficult to understand the current widespread appeal of conspiracy theories. In explaining his opposition to the Shakespeare conspiracies in Contested Will, James Shapiro writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story…I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.” This can seem a strong statement to make in our tolerant age, in which giving a fair hearing to every argument is highly placed. It is also a refreshing indictment of the very postmodern notion of treating every opinion as equally valid, often rejecting any notion of objective truth, even when such truth is provable.

In an extreme example, the devastating consequencies of this policy were made clear in the UK media’s reporting of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scientific paper that made the link in 1998 was widely discredited by the medical community as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’, and the scientific consensus is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, yet, in its mission to present both sides of the arguement equally, the media rejected the possibility of objective truth and carried on reporting the link as either possible, factual, or at least as important as the other arguement, leading many parents to deny their children the vaccine and thus leaving them exposed to potentially harmful infections.

Recourse to conspiracy theory can also be an act of desperation, or a response of collective hysteria to a profound event for which ready explainations are not forthcoming. They can also be interpreted as a response to what the anthropologist George Marcus termed a ‘crisis of representation’, or the widespread disengagement and disillusionment from political structures in Western society. Here, a direct connection is made between the disappearance of meta-narratives – ‘grand explanatory schemes’ – or the decline of ideology in an postmodern and post-political age (the idea that politics no longer offers positive ideas to improve the world, but merely sound administration through crisis, of which we are almost always in a permenant state of), and the need to seek answers elsewhere, often in conspiracy. The crisis of bureaucratic democracy becomes a crisis of truth. It is an outlet for frustration, where the majority no longer sees any real ‘choice’ in the political process, to quote Slavoj Žižek,

‘The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, i.e. to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fred Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”‘

Compared to these grand speculations, the world of the Shakespeare question is an almost insignificant one, but suspicion of Shakespeare has followed the general trend of more widespread acceptance of conspiracies, and the alternative theories have recently gained a degree of respectability. At the beginning of the trailer for Anonymous, when we see his ‘Shakespeare never wrote a single word’ speech, Jacobi is not hunched beside a fire in the back room of some dingy pub, but in a packed and professional looking auditorium, minus any kind of tin foil headgear. It is indicative that having once been a mark of eccentricity, the debate has become respectable, and despite the ridiculous storyline, Anonymous has the opportunity to re-energise the debate. And it intends to do this aggressively: in a press conference last year, Rhys Ifans, who will play Edward de Vere, mentioned that the character of Shakespeare will be presented as an ‘illiterate drunk’, a reference to the more snobbish aspect of the conspiracies: that Shakespeare was too poorly educated and un-gentlemanly to have written the plays. The inclusion of the incestuous royal relationship storyline could be a coup for Shakespeare loyalists,  but the real test of the film’s success will be whether it legitimises questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, or marks a return to the days of the tin foil hat.

A shortened version of this post appears at blogcritics.org – http://blogcritics.org/video/article/shakespeare-and-conspiracy-the-prospect-of/

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