1844 AND 1902, OR BETWEEN ENGELS AND LONDON: WHAT GOOD IS CAPITALISM?

NOTE: This post was written on 26 July

Preparing for my Victorian Literature subject next semester –in particular for Oliver Twist– I read back-to-back Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (published 1845 in German, 1887 in English) and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1902). Each is a fascinating account of the stay of the author (complete with proletarian disguise in London’s case) among ‘the other half’ as Jacob Riis would put it, or the other ‘nation’ in Benjamin Disraeli’s lexicon. I’ll grant that I have not read these books just to better understand what Dickens fictionalised in Oliver Twist (1838) and then again far more bleakly in Hard Times (1854), but to find some kind of spurious comfort in the idea that rich Victorian Britain failed worse than current poor Spain in protecting her weakest.

Reading Engels’ thorough account of the misery brought about by the first tides of the Industrial Revolution I have a feeling not dissimilar from what I felt when reading Roger Casement’s Congo Diary (1902) and comparing it to Heart of Darkness (1897): I’m quite annoyed that not even the best Victorian fiction was up to the task of representing the horrific reality of the poorest, whether in central England or Africa. It irks me that in Oliver Twist Dickens can so rely on a shameless sentimental plot to save the angelic Oliver from a worse-than-death fate. Likewise, it irks me that Conrad’s prose poem focuses on Kurtz rather than on his victims. Then I pause to think that Dickens, not Engels, has left us the most vivid portrait of the tyrannical abuse that the workhouse system heaped on the poor. Again likewise, Conrad, not Casement gave us the most crushing portrait of colonialist greed. Yet, and this is a big yet, for a moment I’m tempted to simply drop Dickens and teach Engels –not to worry, I’ll just use Engels’ criticism of the workhouse as a bitter side dish.

Jack London was roughly the same age as Engels (around 25) when he reported on the horrors of the East End, where tomorrow the 2012 Olympic Games will finally allow the Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, to chuck out the proles and make room for gentrification. Engels and London, both foreigners curious about the richest empire of their time, found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer squalor they met. Engels was writing at a time when children could still be employed up to 10 hours a day (there was no state-sponsored primary education until 1871); he wonders how far the degradation of human life will go in an England subjected to periodical economic crisis. London visited his namesake city almost 60 years later, at the time of Edward VII’s coronation, to report on the effect of that terrible squalor on subsequent generations. He stresses that this is a prosperous time for Britain; still, the systematic abuse that Engels described prevails with little improvement.

Surely I’m not the first reader to be upset by London’s last chapter, in which he wonders whether “Civilization [has] bettered the lot of man”. He compares the Inuit folk of Alaska, a “very primitive people” who are “healthy, and strong, and happy” except at times of occasional famine with the citizens of London’s East End. His conclusion is that whereas the Inuit suffer only in “bad times” East Enders “suffer from a chronic condition of starvation.” He notes that “each babe (…) is born in debt to the sum of $110. This is because of an artifice called the National Debt,” which rings a bell here in Spain. London is sharp: “Since Civilization has failed to give the average Englishman food and shelter equal to that enjoyed by the Inuit, the question arises: Has Civilization increased the producing power of the average man? If it has not increased man’s producing power, then Civilization cannot stand.”

Indeed, it doesn’t –just replace ‘Civilization’ for ‘Capitalism’ and you’ll see how 110 years later, although the extreme squalor is gone from the streets of Western Europe (at least, I assume so), the same truth stands: not even the richest countries in the world, whether the United States or China, can prevent their poorest citizens from suffering much –indeed, they don’t care. Here in Spain we were satisfied, believing we had managed to strike a happy medium but, sadly, this has proved as delusional as the idea that Victorian Britain got ‘Civilization’ right.

READING ROGER CASEMENT AT LAST! (AND QUESTIONING LITERATURE)

I first mentioned Roger Casement here in relation to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (see entry for 12-XII) and, later, in my review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del Celta (2-I), a novel based on his tragic life. In the meantime, I have spent 60 euros of public money to purchase for the UAB library a copy of The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement’s Congo Report and 1903 Diary (edited by S.Ó. Síocháin and Michael O’Sullivan, University College Dublin Press, 2003). Amazingly, nobody has uploaded the report onto the net, I can’t explain why as copyright laws no longer apply, although, tellingly, the available edition of this official British report is Irish (remember? Casement, himself Irish, was executed for helping the Irish to rebel). Anyway, I have finally read the report and I worry now that Heart of Darkness is for ever spoiled for me.
The report is a straightforward narrative of Casement’s own journey into the heart of darkness that King Leopold’s personal Congo was in 1903. Basically, Casement repeated the journey he’d already taken in 1887 (Conrad was in Congo in 1890) in order to better appreciate the contrast between Congo as it was before the arrival of the white man and Congo under the impact of his depredations. The results of this comparison are devastating, basically due to the imposition by private companies of harsh food and rubber quotas (for the budding bicycle and car tyre industries) on villages punished with unbelievable violence, and with the Government’s full consent, if these were not met. Ivory, which is central to Conrad’s story as we know, is hardly ever mentioned whereas, unlike what happens in Conrad’s text, the natives are indeed mentioned by name and so are the places they inhabit. We know through Casement of the atrocities they report to him and I remain personally haunted by the chief who breaks down and cries, as he tells Casement life is no longer worth living for him and his people.
I am well aware that Casement reports what he’s told and we don’t hear the actual voices of the terrorised native population for they are completely disempowered, having to resource to this committed, disgusted white man to vent their grievances. Yet, reading the report, one is also fully aware that the stance Casement took was a matter of human rights, as he, like many contemporary NGOs attacked, mainly, the illegality of what was being perpetrated in Congo as a way to free the native population from terror. At one point he recalls how in his first visit the Congolese natives would flock to meet any white person who happened to pass their village when in 1903 they often fled in terror at his own approach.
Suddenly, after reading the report, Conrad’s tale appears to be not only very silly (more in the line of King Solomon’s Mines than of anything else) but also irresponsible. No wonder Chinua Achebe was angry. Now I understand. I have always thought that, given the all-pervading racism of his time, Conrad’s Congo needed be the primitive, exotic place it is while his own racism appeared to be quite moderate. Reading now Casement I stand corrected, as his report shows that many white persons were then already capable of a degree of human sympathy that we are still struggling to achieve (think Iraq and Afghanistan). And it shows, above all, how easy it is to build empathy for the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves if this is what the writer intends.
We get nothing at all like this from Conrad and I can only say that Literature, or at least Conrad, fails in this miserably. Next time I teach Heart of Darkness, I’ll make sure students also read Casement. If I ever teach it again…

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA’S EL SUEÑO DEL CELTA: CONSIDERING WHAT THE NOBEL PRIZE MEANS

First posting of the new year: happy 2011!

I don’t wish to turn this blog into a space for reviewing but, as happens, I’ve been reading Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del celta (2010) and I do feel the need to vent my deep disappointment.

You may recall from a recent post that I recommended this book –I hesitate to call it novel– as it deals with the fascinating Roger Casement, an Irishman who became a fervent patriot only after witnessing the outrages of colonialism in Congo and Peru. Being Peruvian and, allegedly, an excellent literary writer, Vargas Llosa seemed highly qualified to recall Casement’s story for the benefit of the Spanish-speaking world, where this heroic Irishman is not known. The fact that Llosa is also a conservative, right-wing failed politician and a well-known opponent of nationalism should have warned me that he was a less than ideal choice. Yet, the problem with El sueño del celta is not just its wavering gender and political ideology but, mainly, its flat, insipid writing.

Of course, reading Vargas Llosa’s account of Casement’s sad life so soon after reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness highlights even more Llosa’s limitations as a writer –at least in this particular book, which is my first by him. The atrocities, yes, are more accurately described and the visual impact of what horrified both Conrad and Casement is higher; Conrad’s novella is irritatingly vague and too timid in comparison to what actually traumatised him and indeed a clear case of the limitations of literary representation (yes, he did know and this is what Heart is mainly about). Yet, the beauty of its nightmarish prose is unsurpassable and I suspect that knowing he could by no means match it, Llosa went for the simplest possible Spanish. So bad, believe me, that at points he seems to be translating from English and characters are said to be ‘perdiendo su sanidad’ instead of their ‘cordura.’ Repetitions of events abound as if Llosa felt too lazy to edit them out while characters come and go with little depth of characterisation, as Llosa seems more interested in pouring down all the details he’s learned in his (superficial) research than in building a proper novel. At points, yes, this feels like non-fiction but of the worst kind, nothing to do with Adam Hochschild’s excellent King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) that Llosa knew so well, as he wrote a prologue for the Spanish edition and was the inspiration for El sueño.

I am also wondering whether rather than celebrate Casement as a hero, Llosa is sending out a warning to all those poor misguided souls, queer or not, who fight for the independence of their nations. As you’ll recall, Casement was a former British consul that became involved with the Irish uprising of 1916 and, having conceived the mad plan of asking Germany for help in the middle of WWI, was executed as a traitor. It seems to me that the segments on Congo and Peru do reflect the abuses of colonialism whereas the segment on Ireland completely fails to do so, insisting instead on the poor planning of Irish independence and the ensuing bloodbath. As for Casement’s notorious Black Diaries, which portray in singular detail his many sexual encounters with young men and whose authorship is dubious, Llosa has decided that they are Casement’s but partly a fantasy, as if accepting a gay man as hero was subjected to limiting his promiscuity to tolerable numbers. You might argue that Llosa is here making an effort few conservative writers would make but I doubt this will please many LGTB activists.

All in all, I haven’t learned anything new about Casement that I hadn’t already learned in the afternoon I spent surfing websites about him. Llosa’s research contributes many trivial details regarding location and the characters’ appearance (and health, an obsession) but misses, for instance, the fact that Casement’s report was a British Government Blue Book, calling it the Blue Book, as if this were its title. I’m mystified, though, about the unavailability of this crucial Blue Book on the net, where only an extract can be found. I’d be thankful for tips on the e-text (I know of the print edition by Seamas O’Siochain and Michael O’Sullivan). My impression is that the Black Diaries are much easier to find.

To conclude, whereas in the case of Heart of Darkness I argued the need to bear in mind the ideology of the text and never judge it on its literary merits alone, in the case of El sueño del celta, which raises similar ideological issues, my point is that it fails miserably as a literary text, which is what it should be coming from the most recent Nobel Prize winner… if that means anything at all.

IDEOLOGY AND AESTHETICS (HEART OF DARKNESS ONCE MORE, CONRAD’S AND OTHERS)

I’ve just gone through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness once more, this time to teach it almost simultaneously in my post-grad subject on “The Vietnam War” for our MA, and in my under-grad subject on Victorian Literature. In the first case, I’ve also focused, of course, on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now!, which seems to me a worse film every time I watch it because of its pretentiousness, although I’ll accept that there’s no better adaptation of Conrad’s masterpiece. Odd, very odd for a writer so interested in making us see.

Anyway, here I am this Sunday afternoon bracing myself for a few difficult sessions on Conrad’s novella, not only because the text is (brilliantly) difficult but also because there is no way one can escape the dilemma aesthetics vs. ideology when teaching it. I already had a very complicated taste of this while teaching The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when a couple of (very good) students showed their discomfort with my queer reading, only to beam at my strict aesthetic reading, which I gave in less than comfort. One can always speculate whether Jekyll was imagined as secretly gay or not but NOTHING can hide the fact that Marlow’s misadventure happens to a white man in colonial Africa. It is, thus, my duty –how Victorian this sounds! – to integrate Chinua Achebe’s bitter criticism of Conrad’s racism and the subsequent reactions, for not doing this to focus just on the sheer beauty of the prose would be simply morally wrong.

Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon (1995: 28) that “If we read the Western canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgement, to read at all.” If that is so, then I’m proudly illiterate, as I believe in teaching students to detect everyone’s ideology, including mine and Bloom’s, a true monster of selfishness if there is one. Can there be anything more narcissistic than claiming that “All that the Western canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality”? We live as we dream… alone, yes, as Conrad wrote, but we are also social, historical and cultural creatures, that is, the children of a particular ideology, as Conrad knew very well, whether he liked it or not.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the last Nobel prize winner, has recreated in El sueño del celta (2010) –which I haven’t read yet but intend to read asap– the astonishing story of the man who inspired Conrad, pro-human rights activist Roger Casement, a hero turned villain as British public opinion about his deeds changed. Vargas Llosa, certainly no leftie, is a clear example of the successful mixture of aesthetics and ideology, for which, precisely, he has impressed the Swedes (and, yes, annoyed many others). Read his novel ignoring why Casement fought, what King Leopold’s Congo was about and why Conrad had to write his masterpiece and let’s discuss only literary aesthetics… at your own moral risk.