Alan Morrison on
Who are the English?
Selected Poems 1935-81
(Smokestack Books, 2014)
Introduced by Anne Cranny-Francis
- Part 1 -
Preamble on Preface and Introduction
During the past year or so I’ve been working on and off on an epic poem-in-progress juxtaposing the politics and attitudes of today’s “Great Recession” with those of the Great Depression of the 1930s, called Odour of Devon Violet. A recent piece about the work which I wrote for the Morning Star illustrated that the project has drawn extensively on various polemical, historical and literary sources, both contemporary and retrospective, in relation to the Thirties (not least some Left Book Club editions, including Wal Hannington’s superb The Problem of the Distressed Areas, Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion & Reality, and also the invaluable daily ‘80 Years Ago Today’ columns compiled by Graham Stevenson in the Morning Star).
Violet takes in a plethora of key political, cultural and literary figures of that “Morbid Decade” –Christopher Caudwell, W.H. Auden, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Wal Hannington, John Cornford and legion others. But I confess that so far Australian-born English-domiciled poet, writer and political campaigner, Jack Lindsay (1900-1990), has only featured in one brief but fairly compendious stanza.
Having now been greeted with Lindsay’s Selected Poems, a significant period of which contemporaneously covers the Thirties, and from as empirical a perspective as one might hope for, focusing on many of the key figures and events (including the Spanish Civil War) of the decade, that is an oversight which I now plan to significantly rectify. This is because it is clear from reading the poetry in this exceptional and important publication, that Lindsay was not only a key cultural figure of the period, but also a significantly gifted poet.
A quick glance on Wikipedia reveals a decidedly brief biographical extract, which includes the following salient points:
…In the 1920s [Lindsay] contributed stories and poems to a popular weekly magazine, The Bulletin, as well as editing the literary magazines Vision (with his father Norman Lindsay) and London Aphrodite.
Lindsay founded, with P. R. Stephensen and John Kirtley, the Fanfrolico Press for fine publishing, initially in North Sydney. Jack Lindsay left Australia in 1926, never to return. When the University of Queensland Press tried to persuade him to come to Australia for the launch of The Blood Vote in 1985, he declined.
In the 1930s the Fanfrolico Press ceased as a business. Lindsay moved to the left politically, writing for Left Review and joining the Communist Party of Great Britain at the end of the decade, becoming an activist. He started writing novels while living in Cornwall. His works were published in the USSR under the name Richard Preston. He collaborated, amongst others, with Edgell Rickword.
What is particularly noticeable is just how vast Lindsay’s bibliography is; so vast, in fact, that Wikipedia itemises the books by decades. In the 1930s alone he published around 30 titles –about four books a year!– which included books as translator, scholarly works and poetry: Patchwork Quilt – Poems by Decimus Magnus Ausonius (1930; translator), Despoiling Venus (1935), Who are the English? (1936), Rebels of the Gold Fields (1936), John Bunyan: Maker of Myths (1937), The Anatomy of Spirit: An Inquiry into the Origins of Religious Emotion (1937), Sue Verney (1937), 1649: A Novel of a Year (1938), Brief Light: A Novel of Catullus (1939), A Handbook of Freedom: A Record of English Democracy through Twelve Centuries (1939; with Edgell Rickword), Lost Birthright (1939), England, My England: A Pageant of the English People (Fore Publications, 1939). In short, or not as the case is, Lindsay was nothing if not prolific; his bibliography spanning even beyond that of the Thirties’ most legendary literary ‘giant’ of all, W.H. Auden.
In her very thorough Preface and Introduction to this Smokestack Selected of Lindsay, Anne Cranny-Francis (of the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia) furnishes far more information than Wikipedia on the life and work of this super-prolific Australian-born writer and poet. I include below what are perhaps the most vital snippets of information through which to contextualise the poems themselves. First the Preface:
In 1936 Jack Lindsay read a review in the TLS of Allen Hutt’s This Final Crisis. The reviewer had dismissed the book’s arguments regarding the history of Chartism on the grounds that a writer like Hutt could never really understand ‘the nature of the English people’ because he was a communist. Lindsay was not then a member of the Communist Party (he joined sometime around 1941), but he was incensed by the idea that the ‘English people’ was a mysterious and essential category of which only a few people had privileged understanding. ‘Clearly,’ he wrote ‘we have to teach these gentlemen history as well as economics.’ By way of reply he wrote a long poem, ‘Who are the English?’ and sent it to the magazine Left Review, where it was immediately published. It was subsequently issued as a pamphlet; a few weeks later it was staged as a Mass Declamation at Unity Theatre in London.
Inadvertently, then, that organ of the literary establishment, the TLS, had sparked in Lindsay what would become one of his essential preoccupations not simply with English identity (Lindsay having been Australian by birth, and of internationalist outlook) but with that of all nations under the capitalist yoke, in terms of how the hegemonies of such societies strip not only land, economic power and rights from its labouring-class populaces, but also their fundamental claim to any acknowledged share in the national identity (and national wealth, of course):
The question, ‘Who are the English?’ was of particular importance to Jack Lindsay, since he had only recently immigrated to the UK. Jack Lindsay was born in 1900 in Melbourne, Australia. His father was the renowned – and controversial – painter Norman Lindsay. After reading Classics at the University of Queensland, Lindsay moved to Sydney, and then in 1926 to London, where he established the Fanfrolico Press and the London Aphrodite. Neither press nor magazine were successful; unable to afford the passage home, Lindsay retreated to the West Country, writing and publishing poetry, fiction, biography, philosophy, translations and children’s stories. He never returned to Australia.
It is indeed significant to note that it was through the observations and perceptions of an immigrant to English society –albeit a white Australian and English-speaker– and not a thoroughbred Englishman that this rudimentary question was so emphatically posed and explored in a poem. This fundamental question also
marked a significant shift in Lindsay’s interests, away from the Classical world and towards English history. Over the next few years he wrote two historical studies of the English Civil War, John Bunyan (1937) and Sue Verney (1937), a trilogy of historical novels about the English radical tradition, 1649: A Novel of a Year (1938), Lost Birthright (1939) and Men of ’48 (written in 1939, but not published until 1948), a short popular history England My England (1939), and edited (with Edgell Rickword) the influential Left Book Club anthology A Handbook of Freedom (1939).
The publication of ‘Who are the English?’ was propitious for Lindsay both poetically and politically since it brought him
into contact with leading CP writers like Rickword and Swingler, with whom he was to work closely in the pages of Left Review, Poetry and the People and Our Time. ‘Who are the English?’ was consistent with the Party’s attempts in the late 1930s to popularise the idea of a radical national tradition. Following the Seventh World Congress of the Cominern, when Dimitrov had argued that the success of Fascism was based in part on its ability to mobilise the Past against the Present, communists had begun looking for imaginative ways to intervene in the popular apprehension of English history.
But perhaps equally as crucially, it ‘marked a significant change in Lindsay’s thinking about poetry.
Up to this point his poetry had been influenced by his father’s Dionysian aesthetic – anti-Modernist, Classical and Vitalist – publishing slim limited edition pamphlets like Fauns and Ladies (1923), Spanish Main and Tavern (1924) and The Passionate Neatherd (1926) and unstageable Georgian verse-plays like Marina Faliero (1927) and Hereward (1929).
Writing for a new and wider audience meant writing in a new way, in a voice that was both plainer and more rhetorical, declamatory, urgent and public, addressing the series of political crises through which he lived. During the 1930s, Lindsay’s poetry was preoccupied with the struggle against European Fascism, particularly in Spain.
We are then informed of Lindsay’s contribution to the war effort in the Forties and two longer works tantalisingly cited but not included in this Selected:
During the Second World War, he served in the Royal Signal Corps, before being transferred to the MOI to work as a script writer for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. He published two long verse sequences, Into Action: the Battle of Dieppe (1942) and Second Front (1944).
Due to his contributions in both poetry and politics up to this point, he found himself in a well-connected position, particularly since, fortunately, the mainstream literati had yet to completely shake off its markedly left-wing polemical principles (although mainstream poetry was beginning to come under the a gradual embourgeoisement):
By the 1950s, Lindsay was a senior figure in the Communist Party’s cultural life, a crucial link with mainstream literary London and with distinguished Communist writers in Europe. His poetry was unavoidably shaped by the pressures of the Cold War – notably the civil war in Greece, the war in Korea, the Peace Movement and the events of 1956. He attended the 1948 World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, the 1949 Paris Peace Congress and the 1949 Pushkin celebrations in the Soviet Union. He visited Czechoslovakia in 1950, Poland in 1951, Romania in 1952 and 1953, and in 1954 he attended the Second Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow. He reviewed regularly for the Daily Worker and was responsible for the publication in English of several writers from the ‘People’s Democracies’. A hostile review in the TLS of Lindsay’s Byzantium into Europe (1952) concluded by calling for a purge of Communist Party members from British universities.
On my previous point, the point is taken in that last sentence.
At the same time, Lindsay’s developing ideas about culture, national tradition and democracy brought him increasingly into opposition with the Party leadership. He was on the board of Fore Publications, whose ill-fated ‘Key Poets’ series (including his own Three Letters to Nikolai Tikhonov) was denounced in the Daily Worker in 1950.
It would have been instructive to have it detailed precisely why it was the case that the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star) took issue with the ‘Key Poets’ series.
He was also one of the founding editors of the literary magazine Arena, publishing European writers like Pasternak, Camus, Eluard, Tzara and Cassou in the face of severe Zhdanovite disapproval from the Party’s cultural apparatus. Although other members of this ‘Cultural Opposition’ (notably Rickword, Swingler and the young Edward Thompson) left the Party in 1956, Lindsay remained in the Party until his death in 1990. Lindsay continued writing poetry all his life. In 1981, his Collected Poems was published, running to 604 pages. When Jack Lindsay died in 1990 he had written, translated and edited over 170 books.
There follows ‘A Note on the Text’ which emphasises the unique aspects to this Selected Poems:
This selection is based on the texts used in Jack Lindsay’s Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, 1981), apart from ‘Who are the English?’ which is based on the original version published in Left Review. For reasons of space, this selection does not include Lindsay’s long verse-sequences, Into Action: the Battle of Dieppe (1942) and Clue of Darkness (1949).
Anne Cranny-Francis’ extensive Introduction, ‘… and the moons smelt of oranges’: the poetics and politics of embodiment in Jack Lindsay’s poetry’, tackles Jack Lindsay’s poetry from its author’s deeply philosophical form of dialectical materialism, which was rooted in Holism (the wholeness of being as opposed to the demarcation between mind and body/thought and action, as in Cartesian Dualism):
Jack Lindsay’s poetry was a direct expression of values and beliefs that continued to develop over his lifetime – that we are embodied individuals, not disembodied minds; that art must appeal to the whole person, not solely to either intellect or sensation; and that politics is a lived experience, not a set of ideological principles.
Cranny-Francis then excerpts from Lindsay’s unpublished manuscript The Fullness of Life: The Autobiography of an Idea on the subject of political being:
One point in common in all my phases has been the need to
live wholly in accord with the dominant idea. Not to treat ideas
and beliefs as a sort of luxury-product, as something to be taken
out at convenient moments, brushed up, and put on display,
then stowed away again till the next convenient moment. I have
always tried, to the limit of my ability and understanding, to
incarnate the idea, without trimming or compromise, in every
aspect of my living.
So Lindsay’s perspective on political consciousness is essentially an ontological one. Cranny-Francis continues:
Accordingly, then, for Lindsay his poetry – like all other aspects of his life and work – is inherently political. And in order for it to appeal to the embodied individual, it must interrelate bodily, sensuous appeal with conceptual (including political) understanding. As he writes in Fullness about the thinking behind his early book, Dionysos: Nietzsche contra Nietzsche (1927): ‘Next, the insistence on the lived-through, the living through; on thought-thinking not on thought-thought. This philosophy is the opposite of all those which have sought definitive systems’. The distinction between ‘thought-thinking’ and ‘thought-thought’ is that between embodied engagement and disembodied thought; between a concept of thinking that values the input of embodied being and one which believes that bodily input is ‘transcended’ in thought.
She then excerpts again from Lindsay’s Fullness:
Only in poetry I felt the conflict [between permanence and
change] reconciled and the courage to confront a divided
world: a triumphant kinship with all who had ever sung or
loved in the remotest gulfs of time, and with all who would yet
sing or love; and yet the irremediable pathos of the precarious
isolation of the singer or lover, his face immediately blurred in
the black wind. So, till near the end of my teens, I cannot
remember ever thinking about what my career was going to be.
I lived in the moment of absorption by poetry, which
dominated my studies.
Laurence Coupe quotes Lindsay noted in his essay, ‘The Modern Consciousness’ (London Aphrodite, 1928), that Lindsay hankered after the ‘concrete universal’ –that is, an attempt to ground the more religiously abstracted concept of universal consciousness in the material world, where the lived experience of being in both physical and psychological senses were thoroughly integrated and considered of equal importance and meaning. As Coupe also noted, Lindsay praised Kant ‘for attempting to reconcile mind and matter, idea and world, and in effect destroying all metaphysics’. Such materialist philosophy shouldn’t come as much of a surprise from a mind allied to secularism and communism; and yet, ironically, Lindsay was often dismissed critically by some left-wing literary contemporaries and fellow communists (and even by some conservative thinkers) for appearing to champion some sort of ‘nostalgic romanticism’. This was of course both misinterpretation and oversimplification.
If Lindsay was in any sense ‘romantic’, it was in a purely humanistic sense of the term –almost as if he was attempting to formulate a materialist mystique (or mystical materialism). His emphasis was always on the importance, even paramount importance, of what Cranny-Francis terms ‘embodied engagement’; corporeality. She emphasises how in various of his poems Lindsay sought to demonstrate how human ideologies were expressed through bodily experience every bit as much as mental comprehension, and that, indeed, the two hemispheres were essentially co-dependent. So that, in a poem about a community of Republican Spaniards briefly living their ideals by bodily as well as mentally cultivating and experiencing their own pocket socialist society, Lindsay employs much sense-impression to emphasise
…the Spanish people’s sense of political and social justice is expressed in images of bodily engagement (singing in the streets), the senses (time/music, moons/oranges, jasmine/stars) and synaesthesia (visual/olfactory; moon/orange). … the people embody the joyful experience of political equity…
What are ideals, after all, but mental blueprints for a new way of living? If never actually lived, then they remain simply abstract projections, and are never actually and authentically experienced, and, thereby, tested. And some would argue that untried and untested beliefs and ideals are worth no more than the map they are sketched on; they need to be given texture, substance, four dimensions. Sometimes, of course, attempts to put ideals into practice can produce deeply disappointing results –as in the perennial realisation experienced by sundry bucolic utopians attempting to combine ideals of common ownership and agricultural self-sufficiency with the pursuit of intellectual enlightenment, as simply leading them by dint of sweated brows and routine un-stimulating labour to a ‘cloddish’ quality of thought.
Lindsay might have been sympathetic to Henri Louis Bergson’s adage: ‘Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought’. The grey area between ‘thought’ and ‘action’, ‘politics’ and ‘poetry’, was the overarching paradigm of the Thirties generation –as exemplified in W.H. Auden’s poetry and polemic of the period (culminating in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’: ‘poetry makes nothing happen…’ etc.) and Christopher Caudwell (Illusion and Reality)– in one neurotically aware of its having been denied the opportunity to prove its moral and physical courage in the same way that the previous generation had in the First World War (though such tests were of course to come in both the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War).
The political environment of joy and hope, which precedes the fascist takeover, is thereby rendered as a complex of bodily experience – sensory, embodied, conceptual; the people embody the joyful experience of political equity, as does the audience of the Declamation.
She then expands on her hermeneutic view that Lindsay works very much through an ‘interweaving of political commentary and embodied engagement’, citing next the ‘Paris Midnight’ part of his poem ‘Tristan Tzara’, Tzara learns/reveals that religion, where
modern consumerism and idealist philosophy offer no answers but are used by bourgeois capitalism to conceal the reality of its social practice and organization, and that the apologists of capitalism (bourgeois cuttlefish) invent notions of pre-capitalist chaos and disorder in order to justify their own regulatory and disciplinary practices.
However, Hegelianism, wherefrom Marxism derives its dialectical aspects, is a form of philosophical idealism, commonly known as ‘German idealism’. On Ralph Dumain's monographic website The Autodidact Project, in the essay 'The Origins of Jack Lindsay's Contributions to British Marxist Thought', Joel R. Brouwer further examines the philosophical lineage of Hegelian idealism through Blakean Romanticism to the form of teleological Marxism/ humanistic dialectical materialism which Lindsay espoused:
Commenting on the work of Alick West and Christopher Caudwell, Raymond Williams observes that
as we look at the English attempt at a Marxist theory of culture, what we see is an interaction between Romanticism and Marx, between the idea of culture which is the major English tradition and Marx's brilliant revaluation of it. (1983, 279-80)
Although Williams does not mention Lindsay in his critique, he might well have.
Hegel's influence on Lindsay is evident in The Crisis in Marxism, but so is that of Blake and other romantics. This is particularly well noted by Robert Mackie and Neil Morpeth, who write:
Romanticism simultaneously looks to the past and the future, hearkening both to the loss of a previous organic unity and announcing, sometimes in millenarian terms, the forthcoming commonweal of humanity. It is possible to see these conflicting directions not only in Blake and William Morris, but in Lindsay himself. Moreover, it is where romanticism is critical of worldly aspirations, material possessions--the "cash-nexus"--that we find the connection between the Dionysian Lindsay and the Marxist. (1984, 93)
But to return to the example of 'Paris Midnight', Cranny-Francis elucidates exactly how Lindsay communicates this ‘embodied engagement' with politics and idealism as lived experience through his poetry by highlighting the techniques of the poem:
The mixture of material references – bibles, hoardings, cuttlefish – with the meanings they signify – religion, capitalism, obfuscation – exemplifies the same interrelationship of everyday embodied experience and thinking. Again, this is ‘thought thinking’ not ‘thought-thought’ with Tzara’s embodied experience represented by these concrete references to the everyday, while the meanings they signify are revealed as critical to his poetic and political practice.
Here we can see Lindsay works very much with daily concrete phenomena as more than simply symbols: these symbols in themselves are also actual concrete aspects to the manifest experiential nuts and bolts of living ideas. This is an essentially phenomenological perspective. One might posit here that Lindsay’s approach is a type of materialist idealism, if there could be such a thing: an emphasis on reality as the human idea manifest (which is, ironically, perfectly compatible with some philosophies which materialists such as Lindsay would have dismissed as ‘mystical’ or ‘superstitious’, such as Swedenborgism or theosophy, apart from the point that both philosophies emphasise how material earthly reality is but a pale shadow of the authentic and hyper-real shapes and forms of the afterlife or astral plane, which is also the reason why attempts by theosophists to replicate so-called ‘thought forms’ or tulpa using our limited mortal palette can only serve as vague representations of the hyper-colours of the actual phenomena).
Interestingly, there was in Stalin-era Soviet Proletkult (‘proletarian culture’) such a thing as Bogostroitel'stvo (“god-building”), a pseudo-scientific-metaphysical conception of cosmists such as Maxim Gorky, Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, that ultimately humankind might evolve into purely cerebral entities, almost like disembodied minds, which very much taps into the theosophical notion of ‘thought forms’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, being a secular-minded materialist/rationalist, Lindsay places much poetic importance on environment, landscape and location; he powerfully uses the imagery of location, in terms of geographical distance as a metaphor for psychical distance, to also express his sense of his ‘idealist’ father Norman’s detachment from him and his own dialectical materialist/Marxist beliefs, since he is still cradled in the Blue Mountain region of their native Australia long after the son has left home, the country, and moved to Europe.
Perhaps slightly curiously for an atheist materialist (albeit an ‘idealistic’ one to some extent, if that makes sense), one who, one would presume, approaches existence from a fundamentally scientific –as opposed to spiritualistic– point of view, a hemisphere dependent on the exercise of the human intellect above all, though in this instance, towards a more humanistic rationalism based as well on instinctive human feeling and emotion, Lindsay’s anathema is ‘abstraction’, as in ‘the removed, intellectualized, transcendent consciousness that enables individuals to act without empathy and without mercy’. This is emphatically the perspective of a died-in-the-wool humanist, that is, one who, whilst not able to believe in a god or an afterlife, and only in the notion of a ‘soul’ in the purely temporal sense of the human ‘personality’, nonetheless has at the forefront of their thoughts and intuitions a sense of some sort of endogenous human ‘morality’ mechanism –possibly rationalised as an evolutionary safeguard to preserve the human community– which is not dependent on any metaphysical ‘abstractions’ such as religion to leaven it with divine sanction of any kind.
It is the sense of ‘divine sanction’, particularly as manipulated by the power-hungry to justify sometimes unjustifiable cruelties to one’s fellow man, or even some celestially sanctioned passport to earthly immorality by dint of moral impunity due to predestined salvation, as in antinomianism (or even Carpocratianism), which, however, had its own secular translation in Malthusianism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism. Indeed, Lindsay’s evident distrust of metaphysical philosophies, and his conception of the ‘living image’ (i.e. reality as ideas manifest, the ideas being, without the manifestations of them, otherwise of little significance or truth), arguably has something of a Nietzschean/Zarathustran quality about it. And, as Cranny-Francis draws attention to:
in his early book, William Blake: Creative Will and the Poetic Image (1927) Lindsay wrote that Blake identified two conditions that afflict the human soul: ‘The first is all that tends to harden, to parch, to lose vital contact with life and set up an intellectual or moral abstraction in place of the living image’.
Indeed, on Ralph Dumain's compendious monographic website The Autodidact Project, there is an essay entitled 'The Origins of Jack Lindsay's Contributions to British Marxist Thought' by one Joel R. Brouwer, which notes:
From Blake to Marx is not as great a leap as Lindsay's British contemporaries in the 1930s may have believed. Lindsay's aestheticism, derived in large part from Blake, was only one aspect of a fuller understanding. The correspondences between a Blakean and a Marxist world view were to become clearer to Lindsay throughout the 1930s. These correspondences are strikingly described by Minna Doskow, who observes that both
Then excerpting from Doskow:
Blake and Marx propose a humanistic alternative to the mechanistic world view which placed man as a single perceiving subject within a world of dead and mechanically operating objects, cut off from his world and his fellow man in this way, and seen as an object himself by his fellow man so that his relationships to his world and other men become objectified and reduced to mechanistic operations. They propose a human definition of man and his world, for both believe that the world has no meaning isolated from man, and it is only man's work upon the world which gives it shape, substance, and meaning. (1982, 225)
So this is very much a humanistic existential perspective which places humankind at the very epicentre of existence and thereby puts 'us' in the place of 'the old God', as it were; a kind of 'human-based religion' without the metaphysical aspects, one in which 'we' effectively 'worship' ourselves and our own singular powers of world-shaping.
The Nietzschean (as well as Lawrentian) quality to Lindsay’s thinking is also echoed in other excerpts from his writings:
Describing in Fullness their joint (father/son) aims for Fanfrolico Press in London, he wrote: ‘ ‘ …we were in fact strongly patriotic, seeing Europe as culturally exhausted, going down into a swamp of primitivism, a desert of abstraction’ and, even more urgently, he wrote of their joint artistic project: ‘The sensuous image was coming to life, we believed, in the night of abstraction, the death of man’.
Here, instead of Nietzsche’s infamous trope ‘The old God is dead; I am the new god’ –which essentially meant, god and religion are, post-Darwin, proven as fallacies and hence metaphorically ‘dead’, while only the human mind/imagination/intellect is real, hence ‘the new god’– we have a slightly ambiguously couched allusion to ‘the death of man’. So is it man, humanity, as represented by its capacity for symbolic/magical thinking or what Lindsay glibly terms ‘abstraction’ (something many might link instinctively as much to the scientific/mathematical intellect as to the vagaries of the imagination/will to believe in invisible forces/spirituality etc.), that is seen by the poet as the ‘new’ ‘old god’ which is now emphatically ‘dead’ in terms of His capacity to ‘abstract’, and only true/real when living bodily and concretely? If so, then there is much paradox here, not to say contradiction, in Lindsay’s thought, or at least, in its philosophical roots –as Cranny-Francis continues to explore:
Jack explains in Fullness, he saw abstraction as the philosophical move or stance that enabled ideologically driven systems such as fascism and capitalism to flourish, and to generate the repression and alienation of individuals that characterize them. Norman was totally opposed to direct political action and had no sympathy for Jack’s political views, which was one reason (among many) for their estrangement.
At one moment we have Lindsay’s very understandable distrust of the capacity of ‘abstraction’ to delude/derange the human mind, and to lead to such immoral ideologies as fascism and capitalism. Yet, on the other hand, and as mentioned within the same paragraph, we have mention of his father Norman being ‘opposed to direct political action’ and to his son’s ‘political views’ –which, although left-wing, and hence, in Lindsay’s, and indeed my own view, socialism is far more compassionate, moral and just than the other two aforementioned –isms, all three are nevertheless materialisms, thus cut from similar cloths albeit which extremely different designs. Is it really entirely fair, or at least, philosophically coherent, to argue that two materialist –isms/ideologies (fascism and capitalism) are dangerous products of human ‘abstraction’, but not another, such as socialism? The motivation of the latter is, as I’ve said, objectively speaking far more philanthropic and compassionate than those of the other two ideologies; but the fact still remains to some extent all three are the result of a certain quantum of human ‘abstraction’.
Of the three, capitalism is the most emotionally sterile and clinically pragmatic; fascism is, depending on one’s interpretation, or its particular form, the most behaviourally brutal and ruthless, but yet in some respects based more on some aspects of human passions/‘emotion’ (i.e. fear and hatred) than capitalism is; while socialism is undoubtedly the most obviously ‘moral’ of the three, albeit arguably in a form inextricably related to basic tenets of Christian morality, while also being based on gut-level emotional feelings of fellowship and philanthropy (it is, in this writer’s opinion, a secular/humanistic translation of/alternative to authentic Christianity). But can we justifiably argue, like Lindsay, that somehow it alone, socialism, is immune to any contamination of ‘abstraction’ and therefore to any methodological corruptions? It would be wonderful if we could argue this, but sadly, in light of some lingering stains in terms of its sporadic historical applications in the form of, say, Stalinist Soviet Communism, it is very difficult to keep up the premise.
It becomes increasingly apparent that Lindsay’s personal philosophy was one which not so much merges the mind/body paradigm contentiously demarcated by Descartes, but subordinates the mind to the body and places emphasis on the body as ‘thinking’ matter, of which the brain is just one component, perhaps an amplifier. Such a train of thought is quite fascinating in many ways and indeed finds some modern day validation in the concept of ‘body memory’ (most active among those suffering after emotional and physical traumas), or even the relatively recent organic concept of the heart as a thinking as well as feeling organ. This is all thought-provoking and one senses some validity in it, however, returning to human ideologies such as fascism and capitalism, for instance: are not both ‘philosophies’ as much the product of a supplication to the most basic –or basest– human instincts (e.g. fear, violence etc.), ‘animal spirits’, acquisitiveness, greed, and also even emotions/feelings, albeit the darkest and most destructive ones, every bit as much as the products of ‘abstraction’?
There is arguably much of Nietzsche, and indeed D.H. Lawrence, in Lindsay’s concept of ‘the living image’: does it not echo to some degree the former’s emphasis on the human ‘will to power’ (in turn twisted through Hitlerism to apocalyptic ends) and the latter’s almost mystically inclined worship of the corporeal and libido? Interestingly, Cranny-Francis highlights the following, slightly unexpected aspect to Lindsay’s perspective:
Related to this understanding of individual consciousness as fundamentally embodied (not abstracted from the everyday material world) is the need to write of and for the whole person.
An interesting context for this is Lindsay’s response to D.H. Lawrence’s work, which he disliked for what he called its ‘sex mysticism’. In his essay, ‘The Modern Consciousness’ published in the journal, London Aphrodite (1928) he described Lawrence as ‘the opposed twin of Eliot and Lewis’, noting: ‘He wants the loss of identity, not its hellenised godhead. He wants to ooze back into the mud, masochistically surrendering to the brutal embrace of death, not to shape Praxitelean statues from his poised delight.’
So here Lindsay is expressly asserting his opposition to what he perceives more as the ‘primitivism’ of Lawrentian thought, its notably animalistic/‘fascistic’ qualities, while subverting Lawrence’s ostensible liberalism on the subject of human libido as actually more repressive and damaging than it might initially come across; as a form of ‘sex mysticism’, a form of libido sublimated into its own murky and occulting ‘mystery’, or what he terms ‘fetishism’, much in the way that Freud deconstructed Jung, and more recently, legion psychiatric thinkers have debunked even Freud, whose own attempts to demystify the human libido are now perceived as having in themselves simply constructed a whole new mythology/‘mystery religion’ around sex (e.g. the Oedipus and Elektra complexes), or rather, in Lindsay’s terms ‘fetishised’ it (there is a philosophical consistency here though with Marx’s concept of capitalism as ‘commodity fetishism’, and perhaps the term, elaborated on exceptionally in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station (‘Marx: The Poet of Commodities’; 1940), was inspired by the dialectic of Das Kapital.
Lindsay is either being microscopically incisive in his onion-skinned nuances of thought, or trying to have his cake and eat it: to assert the primary importance of physical/bodily existence/experience as constituting the ultimate ‘truth’, but at the same time protecting this concept against any potential for lapsing into political barbarisms (such as fascism) by then arguing that such destructive ideologies are activated not by an appeal to some of the darker and baser human emotions/instincts (such as sex and violence), but much more so, if not entirely, to ‘abstracted’ distortions of them. This is, again, classic humanism at full throttle: highly idealistic in its fundamental conviction that the core human emotions/instincts are basically honed towards love, fellowship, compassion, empathy and philanthropy. That phenomena such as greed, selfishness, hatred, fear, destructiveness etc. are not essential components to humans, but simply corruptions of ‘abstraction’.
This is a hugely optimistic view of fundamental human nature, and one which even many of Lindsay’s fellow left-wing thinkers might have disagreed with, let alone the philosophically pessimistic Right which often argues we are fundamentally animals by nature and instinct and that therefore social Darwinism is the natural and inescapable character of human society (even if, contradictorily, it is right-wing thinkers who are much more moralistic when it comes to law and order than many on the Left are). It is certainly a way of thinking which, as opposed to post-Augustine and Lutheran Christianity’s ‘original sin’, puts an opposite emphasis on humanity’s ‘original goodness’. And it is quite a profound mode of thought the more one ponders on just how much products of human ‘abstraction’, even material ‘progress’, might have somehow, through the artificially constructed human environment (society, cities etc.) induced in humanity all the negative thoughts and feelings, rather than them being in themselves innate.
But it is also a human optimism which tallies with many strands of Christian and spiritual thinking, and seems particularly strange when one considers it is emphatically a secular strain of thought, where evolution, rooted as the theory is in a ‘survival of the fittest’ logic (from which both capitalism and fascism spawn), seems an extremely tenuous basis for supporting the notion of innate human morality (unless one can argue that morality in itself is an evolutionary product in order to protect a species from extinction?).
But the irony is it is as much Christianity, or rather, religion altogether and of many types, as it is any scientific modes of thought, that places most emphasis on humans being superior to animals for their more sophisticated morality and emotions and, crucially, their ability to think in ‘abstractions’, or symbols and metaphors. All right, so religion will argue this capacity at ‘abstraction’ is actually splinters of a divine ‘spark’ of consciousness put into humankind as created entities, but it’s essentially an interchangeable concept. Lindsay would have argued that religion/spirituality is an ‘abstraction’ –as he did the ideologies of fascism and capitalism –but just not his own personal ideology, Marxism? That seems to be philosophical cherry-picking, even if those such as myself are sympathetic to such a bias. But something just doesn’t add up in Lindsay’s philosophy.
Cranny-Francis further elucidates, through her particular interpretation of Lindsay’s somewhat convoluted thought:
Though Lindsay later acknowledged that over time he came to appreciate Lawrence’s understanding of ‘the nature of alienation and of the cash-nexus’, his instinctive response is to reject what he saw in Lawrence’s work as the fetishization of the sexual, at the expense of an integrated (embodied) being. The value of this contrast is simply to clarifythat Lindsay was not arguing for a reversal of the mind/body dichotomy (valuing the body), but for its replacement with a fully integrated understanding of being or consciousness.
Cranny-Francis then further elaborates by focusing on the message of Lindsay’s poem ‘To Ann’:
This image of lovers meeting combines the bodily (sensory) and the intellectual or cerebral. The lovers meet and the world contracts to a roaring cataract of their own senses, thoughts, emotions, in which they encounter only each other. Their perception of each other is sensory – like our visual discernment of day and night, our hearing of a waterfall, our feeling of its spray – and intellectual – the history of love and lovers; of the meetings of like souls. Mind and body are evoked in the same images that are themselves both material (everyday world of noon and midnight, the torrent) and conceptual (lovers, history). For Lindsay this attempt to achieve ‘fullness’ or integration or ‘unity’ is the aim of life…
Cranny-Francis’ interpretation of this theme and poem:
In other words, the responsibility of lovers is not simply to retire from the world into their own safe space, but to use their joint energy to make a better world. Lindsay goes on to specify that this will be a communist future, which for him meant a world without class or alienation or injustice.
When lovers meet
nothing is lost:
the communist future
once grasped in our hands
This is not the kind of sentiment that many would expect in a love poem, but it is crucial for Lindsay for whom love cannot be abstracted away from our living in the world, which in turn is where our responsibility lies. The meeting of lovers, then, is sensory and emotional, intellectual, cultural, social and political.
Mmm. But doesn’t this all sound and feel just a little bit like proto-‘Flower Power’ Hippyism? In its own way, no matter how secular and humanistic, rather ungraspable, even mystical?
Cranny-Francis next analyses ‘a very different poem, ‘Where Are We Hopelessly Wrong?’ (1953)’ in which
Lindsay reflects on the experience of debating social problems and how to solve them in Marx House, London. He begins by evoking the bodily experience of such a meeting; sitting in a hot, humid, dusty room trying to keep awake as people debate around him/us:
The plumes of heat are sprinkling dust
Our faces lift their furtive lids
close down again and bodies creak
upon the chairs of polyp growth.
We start to understand and like plants growing towards the sun, our thoughts rise and our bodies straighten, until fear strikes:
Higher we rise on tenuous stakes
of comprehension till we rub
green-haloed heads along the ceiling
then sink upon a spike of fear
And we see our own inadequacies and fears reflected in the arguments of our opponents:
and look again on our own faces
from unsuspected mirrors set
by enemies in midst of words
to turn them on more complex axes
The poem excerpts here are particularly tantalising in their polemical epigrammatic qualities (and shortly I’ll move on to my own critical ‘take’ of Lindsay’s pretty exceptional poetics). Cranny-Francis argues that this poem illustrates again Lindsay’s emphasis on the physical environment, the stuffy –or draughty– (and in that time, likely smoky too) debating room, as part and parcel of the experience of ‘debate’; something much more than a purely cerebral/intellectual process, but an ‘embodied’ dialectical sparring intimately affected by the immediate environment. For Cranny-Francis this is
a key element of his political argument: that we cannot abstract people from their everyday lives and expect to relate to them, to be able to work with them, or to create a viable new society.
Lindsay’s criticism is directed here at the infamously tortuous and sometimes even stultifying interlocutions of the Left, in this case, his local Communist Party branch. Cranny-Francis then reminds us: ‘For Lindsay, as noted earlier, politics is a lived experience, not just a set of ideas or dogma’. However, we might argue that while this might eventually be the case, and that politics as an ‘abstracted’ set of ethics is drawn from empirical observation of living experience, it nevertheless must percolate and organise itself in the mind –through some element of ‘abstraction’– before it fructifies into actual practice.
Nevertheless, Lindsay’s dialectic, via Cranny-Francis’ interpolation, still emphasises that ‘In each case the politics of a person, situation or a relationship is expressed as fundamental to their being and experience’.
We then move to perhaps Lindsay’s most well-known poetical work, the declamatory ‘Who are the English?’ (1936), where, according to C-F, ‘we find the same understanding of politics as arising out of, and also as forming, the lived experience of the individual’. In this ambitious long poem (though actually not that long) Lindsay juxtaposes ‘The denial of Englishness to the peasantry (Man’s voice)’ with the concomitant ‘formal exclusion of the workers from both the political process and the historical narrative’.
Having not until now –I’m almost ashamed to say– actually read Lindsay’s ‘Who are the English?’, nor even been aware of it –which is both ironic and significant in itself, given its anti-establishment attempt to highlight the pivotal role of the peasant/labouring classes in the development of ‘Englishness’, both industrially and culturally: was it tacitly ‘buried’ by subsequent critical hegemonies?– I find a long poem which tries to rebalance our own social and cultural heritage by tilting away from the bourgeois monopoly of our national historical narrative so that the proletarian contribution is emphasised as of equal, if not superior, importance in it, and which was composed over 60 years before my fictional sobriquet ‘Allan Jackdaw’ attempted a similar poetic panegyric in ‘his’ Keir Hardie Street (Smokestack, 2010); while my most recent attempt to disinter our largely obscured proletarian literary history, or what I call ‘shadow lineage’, of neglected labouring class poets and writers since the 17th century up to the mid-20th), Blaze a Vanishing (World Literature Today, 2014), it is hoped, at least adds an extra layer or texture to such ‘dialectical materialist’ verse tracts.
But Lindsay –in many ways a kind of ‘shadow Auden’ of his period (or one might even say, his having been Australian-born, the ‘Antipodean Auden’, or ‘Auden Down Under’), and also a more prolific poet distiller of much of the countercultural Marxian cultural polemic of his contemporary Christopher Caudwell (see Illusion and Reality and Studies in a Dying Culture/ Further Studies...) – did this first, and a long time before, during that peripeteia of the tectonically shifting, traumatised Thirties, when everything from politics to culture to fundamental post-Darwinian Western morality was in a state of percolation and ‘apocalyptic’ anticipation of dreaded ‘things to come’. In the rhetorical ‘Who are the English?’, Lindsay is essentially attempting not simply a rebalancing but in some ways a full-tilt bouleversement of the national historical and cultural narrative. It’s a seismic poetic interpolation, not so much in its extended but still fairly modest length, but in its sheer teleological sweep:
The declamation then goes on to refute this ruling class claim, showing the role workers have played throughout history and that they continue to play with their vision of a socialist republic, which is their England. Male and female voices, chorus and semi-chorus, literally articulate the involvement of all as individuals, classes and a nation in this history, while the movements that Lindsay specifies for speakers signify, in a direct way, that this is an embodied engagement, not simply a clash of ideologies.
Lindsay’s technique of using choruses to interlocute the narrative of the poem is significant in its echoing of Ancient Greek verse theatre, a medium into which the audiences were drawn and encouraged to ‘engage’ and ‘interact’ via repeated choruses and a choreographic emphasis on their being an active part of the performance itself, not merely spectators. The nearest equivalents we can look to centuries down the line, and in our own English culture, would be the music hall sing-a-longs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, pantomimes, or even Punch and Judy shows. That’s about the sum of capitalism’s approach to ‘community’-based theatre and performance: choruses of “He’s behind you!” and “Oh yes it is/ Oh no it isn’t” etc.
In its character of democratic commonality and inclusiveness, Greek theatre was, significantly, much cited by both Auden and Caudwell as an ancient ‘proletarian’ and community-oriented type of ‘theatre’ which worked through mutual interaction between audience, players and, crucially, playwright/poet, ensuring that while the former were always ‘included’ in the experience, the latter, thereby, was also kept connected to and included in the wider human community, rather than, as Caudwell put it –to paraphrase him– writing apart from and separate to ‘the people’ (from which he argued a ‘specialisation’ of literature had led through the centuries to a kind of embourgeoisment of poetics, leading to its cultural and societal irrelevance; again, see Caudwell’s aforementioned polemical works).
So it is very significant that Lindsay uses a similar form to Ancient Greek communal theatre to put across his polemical points in a declamatory dramatic poem (a technique also employed at the same period by Scots modernist Joseph Macleod in various long dramatic and polemical poems, albeit with a more oblique employment of language than Lindsay’s more accessible panegyric lyricism –see Macleod’s A Foray of Centaurs (’32), The Men of the Rocks (’42), and his poem-as-film-script Script from Norway (’53) et al. –in many respects Macleod could also be called, like Lindsay, a ‘shadow Auden’ of the Thirties, though very much his modernistic extreme alternative; titles such as Script from Norway in many ways acting contrapuntal to Auden’s co-authored long works of the period, Letters from Iceland and Journey to War et al).
C-F refers us to Lindsay’s own polemical work, Fullness, in which Lindsay writes:
The artist, the poet, the musician, who matters, is he who catches and defines this moment of freedom, of Aufhebung (transcendence), in the concrete here-and-now. Utopian ideas and aspirations to definite goals in the future may well play a part in his synthesis; indeed in some degree or other they cannot fail to be present; but the essential thing, the aesthetic core, lies in the concrete apprehension of the living moment as one of freedom, of the three freedoms defined by Marx.
Off the top of my head, I believe Aufhebung is in a lineage of such Germanic terms often employed by the Danish proto-existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, particularly in The Concept of Dread (which, by a chasmal coincidence, I happen to be intermittently thumbing through at the moment): for instance, Kierkegaard employs the term Aufgehoben, meaning the annulling of the ‘relation of dread’ to humankind. Such terms emphasise, again, Lindsay’s fundamentally philosophical sensibility and approach to poetry. To C-F:
Lindsay’s genius was in his specific location of the person, idea or practice within the concrete reality of the everyday. That reality includes both the history that has formed it and the aspirations and dreams of those who live it, all of which is compressed into what he goes on to describe as ‘the concrete humanity of the particular moment’. This description might be read as Lindsay’s manifesto for his own writing and as a tribute to the richness and value of the poetry he left for us.
It’s now my turn to comment on Lindsay’s poems themselves, and, as is my usual method, I’ll approach the book in sequential order, remarking on those poems I find the most exceptional and important, particularly in terms of the historical, political and cultural contextualisation of the poet’s place in his long and eventful time stream. Eventful, since few poets or writers –bar perhaps George Orwell– had truly ‘lived’ their periods as much as Lindsay, very much the ‘empirical poet’, as opposed to purely the ‘poet of witness’ (more in Auden’s or C. Day-Lewis’s lines), and so one who truly tried to ‘live’ his ‘ideals’, to personally ‘embody’ them and their legion seismic events.
In these respects Who are the English? (Smokestack, 2014) is very much a ‘body of work’, poetry composed by a person who symbiotically wore his times almost as tattoos on his own skin, then translating these experiences to the page....