Book Review: Three new books about World War II:
The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Richard Overy (Allen Lane)
Year Zero: A History of 1945, Ian Buruma (Atlantic Books)
Sandakan, Paul Ham (Doubleday)
Richard Overy’s subject is the bombing campaigns of WWII that were not part of ground or sea operations. The rationale for these campaigns was the belief that the enemy’s capacity to continue fighting would be undermined by demoralizing non-combatants, hopefully precipitating a surrender by their rulers. The first bombings by Germany in WWII, of Warsaw, the Low Countries and France, were tactical operations in support of ground movements. The bombing of Britain that started in the summer 1940 was part of an invasion plan but by mid-September it was clear that the RAF was not defeated. The bombing continued because to do otherwise would be seen as a British victory and, anyway, Stalin had to continue believing that an invasion was about to commence while Germany planned its surprise attack on the USSR. Targets in Britain became economic ones like ports and industrial centres, with London being hit 57 nights in succession. When Germany switched to nightime raids there was no effective deterrent to these attacks, yet little of lasting importance had been achieved (though 43,000 people died).
Overy devotes a chapter to the British civilian experience, more or less confirming the commonplace view that the existential threat was accepted by the public with fortitude. Public shelters were not used as much as expected; Londoners trusted more to the Underground even though it was not official policy at first. Communist Phil Piratin led a protest group of 70 from Stepney to the Savoy and occupied the basement, where they found colour-coordinated shelters with armchairs, but he led them out again the following day.
Another chapter covers the relatively unexplored area of German bombing of Russia, reflecting what at times has become a general indifference to the mighty and hugely decisive part that the USSR played in the defeat of Hitler. In contrast to London, Moscow’s subway system was wholeheartedly utilized from the start and Stalin’s HQ was based in one part of it. Another area that benefits from Overy’s research is Italy’s role in bombing and being bombed.
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Honeymooning in 1979 on a package holiday to the Hotel Alaska, Rimini (it’s surprising how attractive the word Alaska sounds on a hot July day in Italy), I became friends with a man who ran a bar. I remember him saying to me, one day, in reply to some question I asked, ‘Sono communista io’. To make that statement as casually as he did, would really have been impossible in Ireland. In that sense, I think he was the first communist I had ever met who was completely comfortable in his skin. Communism has deep cultural and social roots in Italy even still. The singer-song-writer Giorgio Gaber puts it well in his wry, nostalgic stage monologue Qualcuno era comunista perché (A person was a communist because…):
“[Qualcuno era comunista] perché aveva bisogno di una spinta verso qualcosa di nuovo, perché sentiva la necessità di una morale diversa, perché era solo una forza, un sogno, un volo, era solo uno slancio, un desiderio di cambiare le cose, di cambiare la vita.”
“A person was a communist because he had a need for a push towards something new, because he felt the need for a different kind of morality, because it was simply a force, a dream, a flight, it was simply an impulse, a desire to change things, to change life.”
I have often asked my Italian friends who were members of or close to the Partito Comunista Italiano(PCI) what happened to the once powerful party. I have been given many explanations and I suspect for most of them the collapse of the PCI was a personal as well as a national catastrophe. This was, after all, the largest communist party outside of the Soviet Union and China. It had the great fortune to have as one of its founders one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century, Antonio Gramsci. It had a history of struggle, particularly against fascism. It counted almost all of Italy’s intellectuals, writers and artists among its members, including, at one time or another, Italo Calvino,Pier Paolo Pasolini, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, Federico Fellini, Carlo Levi,Alberto Moravia, Salvatore Quasimodo, Leonardo Sciascia, Vittorio de Sica, the singer Fabrizio de Andre (Italy’s Jacques Brel) and the publishers Giulio Einaudi and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and many more. It was guided by master theoretician Palmiro Togliatti (commemorated in this song). Most of all, it was the organising force behind much of the resistance during WWII and emerged from that war in position to dominate the peace.
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The Book Launch of 2nd Edition of Conor McCabe’s
Sins of the Father: The Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy
is on in:
Wednesday 13th of November at 6pm
Hosted by the History Press and the Young Workers’ Network
Guest: Vincent Browne, broadcaster and journalist
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Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace
The time and place of Harvest seems to be Tudor or medieval England – seven days in the life of a community after the harvest has being brought in and celebrations begin — though one critic reckons it must be after 1850 because of some of the characters’ vocabulary. This is not carelessness on the author’s part (though it may be impishness); Jim Crace likes to equivocate in such matters and it would be a reckless reader who made a bet on the terrain or time of Continent, his first novel, with its seven different parts and a style that mildly mixes Borges with Kafka. Quarantine, his 1997 novel, is easier to pin down for it takes an episode from the Bible, Jesus’s forty days in the Judean desert, but then this could be a fictional event in the first place.
In Craceland, historicity is labile even though one can often make a reasonable guess as to time and place. All That Follows (2010) is recognisably located in a Britain of the near future and there is no doubting that Harvest takes its context from a real historical movement, one arising from the intersection of economic plate tectonics: an old-world, pre-capitalist order coming up against a new mercantile domain where profit and loss calculations take precedence.
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Book Review: Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber (Norton, 2013)
It seems like good news when a new book about Marx is not a hatchet job, is widely reviewed (though not, of course, in Ireland) and receives fairly universal acclaim in the mainstream press. Mind you, another biography of Marx that appeared in 1999 was also praised at the time and few seemed to be offended by the tone of its author, Francis Wheen. Wheen’s style, writing, for example, how Marx had little regard for his mother ‘except when he was trying to wheedle money out of the old girl’, revealed a supercilious, platitudinous attitude towards its subject, as if a book about Marx had to be presented as a jolly wheeze in case anyone thought he might be taking the ideas of the author of The Communist Manifesto just a tad too seriously.
It comes as a relief to find that Jonathan Sperber does not write like Wheen, that he approaches his subject with scholarly seriousness and presents Marx’s life in elegant and scrupulous prose. He successfully communicates a sense of Marx as a restless, erudite intellectual, fired-up by the limitations of others and hugely learned in a way that contemporary academia would have difficulty in coping with. This in itself would not have been a problem for a German university in the nineteenth century but the young Marx burnt that bridge when he crossed over into Young Hegelian territory and identified himself as a caustic opponent of the ultra conservative Prussian order. Until then, his prospects were sunny. Born 1818 inTrier, a southwestern German town that had been annexed to the French republic during the Revolution, he was the son of a Jewish lawyer who pragmatically adopted Protestantism but never abandoned his adoption of Enlightenment thought. Sperber is adept at explaining the obstacles faced by Heinrich Marx and the pressure he would have faced to assimilate. For many in his position, Catholicism would have been the religion of choice for conversion but Heinrich was an heir to the Enlightenment and this explains choice of denomination.
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Book Review: First Book of Frags by Dave Lordan (Wurm Press, Portarlington, 2013)
Dave Lordan announced his uncompromising presence with his first collection ‘The Boy In the Ring. The title poem is emblematic of so much of our recent history. In that brief lyric, Lordan invents or recalls the visceral experience of being the centre of a ring of violence. The boy in the ring is a child in an industrial school, a child in a court, a child in a schoolyard, a child on the street. Whoever he is, he is in great danger, and yet he is not simply a victim. The poem concludes with the unanswered/unanswerable question ‘When will the boy get out of the ring?’
Lordan’s work escapes from all the rings, including the literary traps of form and content. He is always a political poet, always challenging, both as a riveting reader of his own work and in print, so it was with great interest that I opened his first collection of prose.
The title has intrigued me for some time. ‘Fragging’ was the Vietnam War practice of dropping an occasional hand-grenade into the back-pack of an unpleasant officer. And these short fictions are hand-grenades. As the narrator in ‘Christmas Cracker’ says, ‘Tenderness and all that shite is for hypocrites and mealy-mouthed muffin-heads.’ And tenderness there is none in this collection. It seems deliberately set up to take the piss out of all the careful conventions of what we call Irish literature. There isn’t a simple chronological narrative with a sympathetic character and a redemptive ending in the whole thing. What there is a knapsack full of verbal hand-grenades and characters that would stand your hair on end.
‘Dr Essler’s Cocaine’ conjures a fascist orgy somewhere in the (future or present?) west of Ireland in which Lordan has the narrator tell us that ‘The Irishman does not care what his masters get up to as long as he is allowed to get drunk and lash out at his own.’ In another fiction, almost a poem, a series of complex statements about a character called Kathleen is clearly a meditation on the complexity of the feminine image of Ireland beloved of nationalists: ‘We must behave as if the dead are watching and waiting to receive us, or else we are lost. It all comes down to the dead, says Kathleen.’
‘A Bill’ posits an Ireland where transport has declined and the world has grown bigger so that what was once a nearby town is now distant, a place to journey to, and which is famous for its suicides in the same way that Knock is famous for its miracles. The story is about the media and counseling industry that develops around suicides and clusters of suicides, and about managerialism and capitalism’s desire to exploit every human action.
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Book Review of three recent books by Jewish writers, Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on Israel.
This rose is red
Red is a colour
Therefore this rose is coloured
There is an initial plausibility to such syllogizing but Hegel uses this example to show where such thinking goes awry. It associates a universal (red) with a particular (rose) but, because different universals can be associated with a particular, the form of inference being employed here allows for more than one conclusion to be drawn. Red can also be a representation of communism or, as the crowds recently celebrating Alex Ferguson demonstrated, of Manchester United but we cannot infer that this rose is communist or a Manchester United rose. A plurality of conclusions can be drawn, though, because the presence of one universal does not preclude the possibility of there being others. The rose is not just red. It has a certain aroma, shape and so on but these various features do not have any necessary connection to one another.
A similar kind of understanding applies to the kind of dodgy syllogizing that goes along the lines of:
Hostility towards Jews is anti-Semitism
Israel is a Jewish state
Therefore hostility towards Israel is anti-Semitic
It might be thought to be a problem when Jews are hostile to Israel because an anti-Semitic Jew sounds a little odd – but, no, this is not a problem because they are just self-hating Jews and as such they deserve a place on the Jewish S.H.I.T. list (‘Self-Hating and/or Israeli-Threatening’). Not surprising, then, to find Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler on this list.
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Book Review: Social Work and Social Theory- Making Connections by Paul Michael Garrett (Polity Press, 2013)
At the outset of this text Garrett outlines his view that there is a frequently unrecognised value in applying social theory to social worker’s day-to-day education and practice. In this book, he makes the case that theoretical engagement can help social workers to navigate those “indeterminate zones of practice” (p.1). Garrett notes in his introduction that social work is often seen and represented as a practical, common sense profession- an ideal activity for “retired City bankers and ex-insurance brokers” as Garrett notes, quoting a UK government official (p.2). The reality is, of course, far more complex than this and Garrett positions himself in opposition to the harmful, yet enduring, belief that social work is, or indeed can be, “theory-less”
The book concentrates on critical social theory developed in Europe by contemporary thinkers and attempts to highlight where these theoretical positions and social work may meet, intersect and be beneficial to social work. At the outset of the book, Garrett explains two theoretical omissions from the text. The first of these being the work of Michel Foucault which he explains by way of noting that much has already been written linking Foucault’s work to social work. Furthermore, Foucauldian theory is thought to a greater or lesser extent on many post-graduate social work courses and I felt the omission could be justified. The second omission which Garrett addresses is around feminist theorists. Garrett acknowledges the absence of feminist theory in the text but states that the book itself is informed by a feminist analysis.
Garrett’s first chapter proper is focussed on the questioning theories of modernisation. He begins by questioning what happened to post-modernity, and its relationship to social work education. Garrett makes two important claims- firstly, that social work academia came to postmodernist thought much later than other disciplines and secondly, that the social work academy’s short engagement with postmodernist theorisation did not impact upon the day-to-day practice of social work professionals primarily because of the complex, sometimes impenetrable language of postmodernist theorisation. However, Garrett does acknowledge that the postmodernist turn in social work and the “blurring of boundaries between professionals” (p.23) along with the move toward actuarialism in social work did change how services were delivered. In line with this shift toward counting, and drawing on the work of Fredric Jameson (2000), Garrett argues that “a new kind of superficiality” (Jameson, 2000:196, quoted by Garrett) evident in late-capitalism was mirrored in the development of one-size fits all social work “tools” which have become increasingly prevalent, particularly in child protection and probation practice.
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Book Review: Subjects of Desire, Judith Butler (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stephen Houlgate (Bloomsbury, 2013)
Originally published in 1987, this new edition reflects the renewal of interest in Hegel and the overcoming of the obstacle that has for so long bedevilled an appreciation of his tremendous philosophical achievement. The obstacle is the label that has attached itself to Hegel as the omnivorous philosopher of totality, the thinker who espouses the holy grail of a final and all-encompassing state that unites thought and reality. The rejection of this prevalent view is the basis for Butler’s understanding of Hegel as a philosopher of antagonism who recognises the impossibility of a grand and harmonious reconciliation between knowledge and the subject. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit details the journey of the subject attempting to reach a point where its sought-after plenitude and knowledge of the world are at one, but this is a journey defined by its failure. The absolute is the recognition of failure and of the inherent antagonism that robs being of the oneness that it would wish to embody. The satisfaction that is sought is kept at bay by the restless play of negation.
What, though, is meant by the negative, where does it reside and why cannot the subject find a final satisfaction for desire? Reality as we understand it has to be seen as a construct in the sense that Kant propounded – shaped and given form by our conceptual apparatus — but there is no solid kernel resting in the background behind our horizon of meaning. There is only what Žižek describes as a ‘chaotic non-all proto reality’, the virtual multiplicities and proliferating pluralities that are evoked in the language of quantum physics. It is reality itself that is out-of-synch, riven with gaps and discontinuities, and its non-unity is the ultimate ground and truth behind the assertion that ‘there is no big Other’. Butler, writing two years before Žižek’s first major book in English (The Sublime Object of Desire) appeared on the scene, does not acknowledge or rely on such an ontology in her introductory chapters in Hegel but it helps in understanding why she lays out the ground in the way she does.
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Dave Lordan has a new collection of stories coming out called First Book of Frags, published by Wurm Press. You can pre-order copies here.
A book of explosive short fiction from the author of The Boy in the Ring and Invitation to a Sacrifice. First Book of Frags is a projectile flung at convention, capital, and ultimately, civilisation itself.
Some early reactions….
“A new form brings a new kind of fury. Pitched somewhere between the short story and the narrative poem, Frags delivers fragments and stark narrative incisions knitted together by a darkly satirical and formally challenging twenty-first century tone of political urgency. Frags shows up the jaded politico-economic media excursus on the recession and its discontents for the white noise that it is. Whether it is the Orwellian “Street Party”, the vitriolic David Foster Wallace-like “Living in Ikea”, the Beckettian Irish stew of “A Bone”, or the Bolanoesque “Dr. Essler’s Cocaine” the crafted howl of Frags rarely lets up. Cathleen Ni Houlihan is a scavenging Kathleen who sleeps on a “rained on mattress in the woods surrounded by empty wine bottles,” the Iron Lady has been melted down, and Ireland’s Kafkaesque educated unemployed who ponder justice have been transformed into flies, not cockroaches. Dave Lordan’s surreal yet scathing sketches of suffering, violence and ear-splitting silence should capture the hungry imagination of a disillusioned majority.” — Michael O’Sullivan
“echoes of James Joyce and Angela Carter”–Nuala Ní Chonchuir
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Book Review: London's Overthrow, China Miéville (Westbourne Press)
Moving from China Miéville’s novel Scar to his non-fictional London’s Overthrow involves a change of scale not unlike something you find in Gulliver’s Travels. In his novel, the second of the New Crobuzon trilogy though not set in that metropolis but in the superbly realized Armada, Miéville’s prodigious imagination runs riot. The science-fictional citizens of Armada, an urban-like but maritime pirate city made up of countless ships physically and politically joined together, are not the twee middle-class elves and hobbits of Lord of the Rings and nor do daft dragons feature as the baddies although there are plenty of grotesque creatures that belong to some nightmarish version of the wilder fringes of Greek mythology.
There is almost too much to contend with and you are at first overwhelmed with a surfeit of fantasy (consider skipping the first five pages and the various interludes, returning to them when you get your reading breath back) until places, people and plot begin to take fixed shape. There is an awful lot happening and the neologisms and conceptual inventions flow so thick and fast that you yearn for a glossary and a map at the back of the book. The plot builds to a metaphysical climax when Armada reaches the Scar, the ontological void that Miéville calls the wound in reality, a place where Žižek’s Real speculatively materialises itself, a realm where contingency is an absolute. There are many scars in Scar, physical and psychological, but this is the ultimate incision.
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Book Review: After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux (Continuum, 2008) & Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman (Edinburgh University Press, 2011)
In a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1926, when he was working on what would become Finnegans Wake, James Joyce points towards what he is now trying to do in his writing by saying that some things cannot be expressed in ‘wideawake language cutanddry grammar and goahead plot’. Quentin Meillassoux’s style of writing, when it comes to philosophical argument at least, is decidedly pre-Wake for his book After Finitude is characterized by a lucidity and correctness that Joyce was quite capable of but nonetheless had put behind him. Meillassoux writes in a way that is not typical of Continental philosophy and what sets him apart from many of his peers perhaps helps explain why he has gained such praise for his work; for some he has already earned a place in the hallowed pantheon of ground-breaking French philosophers. A remarkable achievement for someone whose reputation is largely based on just one book, although dedicated followers of French philosophical fashion can train their truffle hounds to dig up a scattering of essays, excerpts of an unpublished text, The Divine Inexistence, and a second book, The Number and the Siren, about Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de Dés. Is the Meillassoux phenomenon just another cliquish storm in a Parisian teacup or has something explosively new appeared?
The manifest of works of continental philosophy usually indicates intellectual freight of a heavy and bulky kind and one that sometimes requires cognitive apparatus, like set theory in the case of Badiou’s Being and Event. So it comes as welcome relief to know that After Finitude, a mere 128 pages long, is one of the more reader-friendly texts of recent French philosophy and that its basic argument is put forth with crystal clarity. The book’s author is not one to wallow in words and there is an intellectual impishness to the writing that adds to its attractiveness.
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Even if The Portrait of a Lady has not been read, viewers of the rather fine Jane Campion film with Nicole Kidman — a movie mercifully free of period-drama trumpery — will be familiar with the story. An inexperienced but likeable young American woman, earnestly in love with her own liberty, journeys toEurope; there she rejects two proposals of marriage, sensing that either of them would curtail the adventure of setting out on life’s exciting odyssey. Freedom, she feels, becomes her. All very Emersonian, until in Italy she meets and pledges her soul to a man whom she thinks singularly complements her own exceptionalism; but from this high point, where she had fondly hoped they could together look down generously on the world, she falls to ground and comes to realise she has married not just a hollow and mercenary dilettante but a malevolent narcissist who demands the sacrifice of her life spirit. She had thought she was free but the sordid truth that her husband married her for her money puts paid to her imaginative idealism and she confronts the truth of her marriage and the catastrophic collapse of her American Dream.
Michael Gorra’s enjoyable account of The Portrait of a Lady is very reader-friendly given his easy-going and often personal tone, and his gloss on the novel is interspersed with a mini-biography of the writer. Gorra calls the structure of his own book ‘dialectical’, using the term loosely to capture the way he focuses on key incidents in the novel before bouncing off these moments to acquaint us with episodes in the life of James as well as the history of the novel’s publication, from its initial serialization in magazines to its first book publication in 1881 and the author’s revisions in 1906. Addressing the style of The Portrait of a Lady, Gorra contrasts its series of dramatic scenes, pregnant with meaning, with the multi-plotted, knotted style of a novelist like Dickens and in the course of Portrait of a Novel there are neat commentaries on key moments from James’s text. He draws attention, for example, to the Godless universe that comes to the fore in the scene between the dying Daniel Touchett and his son Ralph:
There are many deathbeds in Victorian fiction, some full of prayers…. Many of them show us characters sunk in fear, and others hit a high note of hope. But I have read no such scene so entirely untroubled by the hereafter as this one; its originality lies in what James feels himself free to leave out. Neither Ralph nor his father speaks of God, and they do not call a clergyman at the last.
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Book Review: Maurice Coakley, Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development (London: Pluto Press, 2012; ISBN 978-0-7453-3125-6; £17.50)
“We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want from a territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.”—Winston Churchill (1914).
This remark by Churchill to his government colleagues on the outbreak of the First World illustrates part of what Marxists understand as the law of uneven development. Not all countries in the capitalist global system developed at the same pace or with the same freedom and control. Colonialism sped the development of capitalism in the colonial powers and left them in a dominant position in relation to colonies, with control over the resources required for developing capitalist production relations and technology and with a subject market for their commodities.
Even where some colonies gained independence politically, the uneven relationship remained, in both material and ideological ways, and consequently many former colonies are trapped in a neo-colonial and subservient relationship, resulting in the global capitalist order having a centre-periphery division. Not all countries are equal. But uneven development also occurred where colonialism didn’t exist, as Coakley points out; so these two situations cannot be reduced to a single one.
Slower capitalist development also occurred as a result of internal contradictions. Where an area was poor in resources or delayed in the commercialisation of agriculture or the use of technological innovation, this left it in a disadvantaged position in production and global trade.
Coakley’s contribution regarding Ireland’s development economically, politically and culturally is a unique analysis of Irish history. Many histories have been printed in recent years that emphasise the role of economic and productive forces in our development, but none has so acutely emphasised the role that our colonial past—in its effect on class, culture, and ultimately the two states that were imposed at the beginning of the last century—has had on our position in the global order.
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