Seeking a 'different reality principle'
The Rotten Elements is perhaps most remarkable for the sheer dourness of the prose in which Upward tells his all-too-familiar story of dissent and bureaucratic excommunication. The man who helped to bring surrealism into British literature with the wild stories of his youth fills this novel of his middle age with plodding compound sentences and banal imagery. He deliberately avoids sensationalising his story, passing over several opportunities to stage dramatic confrontations. Upward refuses to simplify or even summarise the controversies in his novel, and is thus forced to subject readers to page after page of explanation of the minutiae of Communist Party politics. Scenery is avoided: almost all of the action – I use that word guardedly – of the novel takes place in meeting rooms and shabby working class homes. (Upward does allow his characters a visit to the seaside near the end of the book, when all the important events in his narrative have already occurred.)
Like Orwell’s 1984, which shares some of its targets, The Rotten Elements can be read today as a portrait of the run-down, austere Britain of the years immediately after World War Two. Rationing remained in force, rubble still lay in the streets, and nobody could have anticipated the long economic boom that lay ahead. For many readers, though, The Rotten Elements symbolises the damage that Edward Upward’s political commitments did to his writing. The swirling fantasies that had inspired Auden and Isherwood in the 1920s and ‘30s had been replaced by a dour, didactic realism, as the apolitical public school aesthete had given way to the convinced Marxist.
And yet The Rotten Elements and The Spiral Ascent did not mark the end of Upward’s development as a writer. In a series of novellas and short stories published in the 1980s and ‘90s Upward brought the two previous phases of his career together to create a very English instantiation of magical realism. Late Upward stories like ‘An Unmentionable Man’ and ‘The Coming Day’ are characterised by carefully controlled but nevertheless unnerving transitions from almost naïve political tubthumping to intricately described fantasy:
Mary often daydreamed of a future in which all discrimination against women was brought to an end. When her three children were grown up and had left home she felt she had the time and the duty to do something to help the cause of women's 'liberation'. She found several local women who were willing to co-operate with her in arranging public meetings. Their heroine was Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Andrew was entirely in favour of Mary's work, but he thought he'd better not show this, because some patients if he did might suspect him of caring a bit less for them than for politics.
And what about Clem Marsden? Did he still say wars would go on till most humans were extinct? Yes, but his wife found out he was daydreaming of being in a space vehicle travelling far faster than light and arriving outside the supposedly finite 'universe' at a place where life existed in a physical form much less disadvantaged than the human body, and where he would be far happier than he ever could have been on earth.
At the age of 103, Upward has outlived famous friends like Auden, Isherwood, and Spender, and it is beginning to look like his work might outlive some of their productions, too. Where The Spiral Ascent was ignored by most critics, the late stories have garnered considerable attention, most it favourable.
Perhaps more significantly, a gang of Bolshie young British writers have set up an online journal and blog named after Upward’s most austere novel. The co-founder of the journal, who goes by the name 'the poet duster' (what does his mother call him?), explains the connection:
I started reading Edward Upward in 1997. He wrote a book called The rotten elements. Bits of him are in us, but probably more me. He’s still alive in a nursing home. The Guardian wrote nice things about him being friends with Isherwood and Auden but they don’t know. The ‘rotten elements’ were the pus, the canker in the Communist Party 1950s-style. They sat in meetings and said the wrong things. They asked too many damn questions. They fucked it up. Upward had tried. Cauterised himself. Fred West patio over surrealist corpse. Zhdanov jelly-tot for kiddies. Joined the Communist Party to escape from suicide because couldn’t write but ends up with nervous breakdown from Communist Party that wouldn’t let him write. So if you want threads for us, you can find them here in abundance. The rotten elements live to write another day while it all hangs in the balance as the left puts another gang of surrealists on the gibbet. I went to a Communist Party meeting last week. I said the words “Jimmy Saville will be fucked”. Peck my eyes out now.
I'm not sure I understand all that, but I think the title of the journal is appropriate: like Upward, the proprietors of The Rotten Elements are asking important questions about the relationship between politics and art. The journal’s homepage poses the question: ‘Art and revolutionary politics – married, single, or divorced?’, and asks each visitor to provide an answer, ‘in the form of a critique, a poem, a play, a story, photoshopped, a rant, a film, sound paintings…’
In a recent article for The Rotten Elements, Lawrence Palmer ventures his own answer to the question by discussing Land and Freedom, Ken Loach’s 1995 film about the experiences of British fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Parker’s article, which was also published in a recent issue of the Weekly Worker, argues that Loach produced a historically accurate film that works strongly on viewers’ emotions, but which lacks intellectual depth:
[W]hen I get down to analyse exactly why I like this film, I find that it appeals to my emotions. In other words, its reception primarily revolves around a spontaneous reaction...Land and freedom is...a film that brilliantly constructs a series of spontaneous outbursts of emotion - reaching through its characters and on to its audience - beneath a surface veneer of revolutionary politics. As indicated above, this either (cynically) suggests that Loach (just re-elected onto Respect’s national council) and scriptwriter Jim Allen know the contemporary left rather well and are feeding it what it wants to see; or, more probably, that Loach’s art is the product of this background.
Incidentally, no one is suggesting that anger, emotion and gut feeling are not important in changing the world. But if they are an overriding motive for action, they become abstract, brittle and burnt-out (as with the Socialist Workers Party, which has to cope with this lack of intellect by cynically inventing its own and others’ self-righteous ‘anger’ at whatever the government is doing this week). Emotion only truly becomes a force when it is riddled with pertinent questions.
Reading these words we may recognise the same dilemma that Edward Upward tried to face up to in The Rotten Elements. We might perhaps see Upward’s novel and Loach’s film as offering opposite – and oppositely flawed – solutions to the problem of how to bring the difficult and dense world of political analysis and debate into artforms which have traditionally relied on dramatic action and sensual detail for their success. To put it more bluntly: how can one make a film or write a book about politics without either patronising or boring the audience?
Of course, the increase in apathy and decline in the sophistication and scope of even bourgeois political discourse since the end of the Cold War makes the task of politically committed artists like Upward, Loach, and Parker even harder, because it means that audiences will have even less interest in ‘political lectures’. In a review of The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Loach’s recent movie about the Anglo-Irish and Irish Civil wars, the New Zealand Herald’s Peter Calder takes Loach to task for putting too little emotion into his art. Calder bemoaned what he considered an excess of political detail in the film, picking out a scene where characters thrash out their political differences in a meeting room as a low point of the film. For Parker, a similar scene was a high point of Land and Freedom:
The difference with this passage is that it is one of the few parts of the film that is intellectually compelling, as we hear the arguments for and against collectivisation - it basically boils down to the issue of whether the protagonists are for or against revolution. The decision for collectivisation carries the viewer, because Loach makes us feel that it is the outcome of a living process, a debate, where difficulties have been looked squarely in the face. Yes, the actors are impassioned in the debate, but this passion feeds off their intellectual coherence and vice versa.
It seems to me that both Lawrence Parker and the Edward Upward of The Rotten Elements have been victims of an unrealistic conception of the relationship between art and politics. Both seek the fusion of the discourse of politics and the discourse of art, without asking whether that fusion is either possible or desirable in the world they inhabit.
In The Aesthetic Dimension, his last and best book, Herbert Marcuse argued that the fusion of politics and art was a fool's game, and a dangerous one at that. Marcuse inveighs against any form of 'socialist' realism, insisting that art should always be out of sync with reality, because it showed up the gap that exists between our real lives and the lives we can imagine living. This gap is the place where a critique of reality, including the reality of capitalist society, can begin:
art is 'art for art's sake' inasmuch as the aesthetic form reveals tabooed and repressed dimensions of reality: aspects of liberation. The poetry of Mallarme is an extreme example; his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures - a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle.
Or, as EP Thompson was known to say, 'a poster and a painting are two different things'. A lot of the writing in The Rotten Elements seems to rely on 'a different reality principle'. With its lower case fetish and fast unpunctuated lines, the poetry of Anne Eade recalls the work of earlier Brit scribblers like Tom Raworth and Bob Cobbing, but activists and hapless postgraduate students unfamiliar with avant-garde lit will be able to identify snatches of the sacred texts of Marx and Lenin:
thought a war machine minces inorganic state
act rushes empty secret distinct intuition
apercus cluster hollows force split from within
rational kernel from mystical shells
mothers teat forms a kind of crime whoosh
watch out fucking cynic statement
as he dies bomb barges in take the mask off
can’t hear you surgeon operates on private advantage
slum drives optimistic imperialism eclipse of reason
basically on our side that is all
we should expect explosive young men
recruit powder kegs exploding fellows
who follow demolition experts
empires twinned prophylactic
tears tiers of vivid excess cognition
between you & me today utter instant
fuck nose trumpet in ear wakes up daddy
as he rolls off mummy
brain picked fundamental multinational entry
into national back waters
the cut & thrust ripped up cordoned off
hairy arsed hybrid overload
motherload rimes polonium life
One problem with Marcuse's argument against realism is the way that it can be used to give automatic 'progressive' credentials to any artwork with a radical style or a fantastic setting. I think that some of the defences of the Lord of the Rings that have been discussed here recently make this mistake.
In the stories of his old age, Edward Upward seems to be searching for a balance between fantasy and realism. The juxtaposition of political polemic with outrageous fantasy discomforts the reader, and perhaps keeps Upward out of the pigeonholes that imprison more orthodox writers. The politics in Upward's late stories are there as part of the text - as an ingredient in the composition - rather than as some interpolated party political broadcast. In their different ways, both Upward's flights of imagination and his Marxist lectures must elude the comprehension of most of his potential readers. Placed alongside one another, though, they 'charge' each other, in the way that two individually incomprehensible lines in a poem can somehow resonate with one another, without exactly making sense. Ask Mallarme or Anne Eade how it happens.