Archive for June, 2010

A soldier without a name

June 24, 2010


Mightier than the sword – photograph by Liz Mathews ( detail from her artist’s book ‘Boon, blessing’, text FB)

In the ‘Identity’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection recently, one of the identities on display was Claude Cahun, the surrealist photographer whose self-portraits express gender ambiguity, masks and disguises, performative selves and personal mythologies, like a demented lesbian Cecil Beaton crossed with Cocteau. Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore were good examples of self-invention, (if not mythomania), and also – in an exhibition probing the sources of creativity – of artists who made their lives into their art. Cahun’s life and work has been rediscovered, and her association with the surrealist groups in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s acknowledged in various exhibitions, but this one also showed some of the work she and Moore made during the Occupation of the Channel Islands, as warriors of art.

The work of the surrealists was condemned as decadent by the Nazis, so the women’s previous work wouldn’t have endeared them to the occupying forces, any more than their sexuality and Jewish backgrounds. But rather than keep a low profile, they embarked on a personal resistance campaign against the Nazis. Although possession of a camera was punishable by death, they took clandestine photographs of the occupation in action, and also spread anti-war propaganda among the German soldiers. (Their acts of resistance are detailed in Barbara Hammer’s film about Cahun, Lover Other, which shows some of the forbidden photographs of Nazi soldiery on parade on the beach outside Cahun’s house, or on the streets of the once-British island.)

When they were eventually caught, both women were condemned to death and six years in prison, for the propaganda and the photography. On hearing the sentence Cahun asked which would come first, the execution or the jail term? The severity of the sentence, and the deadly seriousness of the prosecution, gives an idea of propaganda on a large scale; sabotage of morale by means of printed leaflets, subversive photographs, a big security breach.

Instead, the exhibition cabinets displayed little scraps of paper, offcuts almost, shakily inscribed with faint pencil-words; lines from Goethe or Schiller about peace and universal love. There were one or two more conventional ‘our leaders have betrayed us’ type messages from ‘a soldier without a name’, a few child-like cartoons of war or quotes from the BBC, but most of the documents were just little snippets of German poetry. These flimsy, improvised statements of resistance seemed intensely moving, within the context, rather like being condemned to death for doodling a peace symbol on the back of an old envelope. What courage, yet at the same time what a tiny gesture!

Cahun and Moore didn’t die for their acts; they spent the remainder of the war in prison under sentence of death, but the liberation came in time to save them from execution. After the war, they continued to work with photographs, making some strange images to mark their private victory, such as Cahun celebrating over Nazi war graves. These later images, as well as the subversive surrealist fantasias, are a reminder of why totalitarian regimes always fear art, just as they fear laughter.

The death sentence was a kind of recognition of the unquantifiable results that a scrap of poetry might have on a free mind, of the way in which even the idea of a dissident soldier without a name might work on the imagination of the others. It seems that the act of defiance hadn’t been so small after all, that far from being an over-reaction death was the only possible way to silence these artists who were naive enough to believe that the pen was mightier than the sword, and might change everything.

The Revolution is Eternal

June 18, 2010


Early light – photograph by Liz Mathews

Just as the proletariat makes its own use of the heritage of the past, so women must take over the tools forged by men and use them for their own interests… In the wealth that we take over from them we must very carefully distinguish between those things which have a universal nature and those which are marked with their masculinity… a revision, not a repudiation, of knowledge.

(Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done, trans. Patrick O’Brien)

Simone de Beauvoir did not intend to jettison the cultural past, even if women were virtually invisible in it; her approach was rather to reclaim her inheritance. The revolutionary way of thinking she recommends is not so extreme, after all; a ‘universal nature’ is what she seeks in the culture of the past, not an anti-masculine one. This desire for universality seems reasonable enough for those of any gender, especially as perceptions of gender have changed so radically in the forty years since Beauvoir wrote. The ‘masculinity’ of which she speaks is maleness of a particular kind; patriarchal, militaristic, industrial capitalist (or feudal), implicitly misogynist.

The comparison with the role of the proletariat is telling; in 1972, when the philosopher made it, perhaps there was still a lingering vision of worker-intellectuals listening to Shostakovich while they wrote avant-garde poetry about their lives in the factory, before going to the Bolshoi in their boiler-suits. But – although she might have liked to imagine these fabled creatures admiring Fabergé eggs for the workmanship, not the diamonds – perhaps her point was that it would be even more difficult for women to revise the knowledge of the past in their own image than it had been for the proletariat, who were once almost as culturally invisible.

This is a philosopher’s answer to a problem which has many variants; if knowledge is contaminated, rethink it. Of course, many people in the past have existed within an alien culture, and perforce become adept at extracting their own interests from it; for outsiders by reason of race or class, politics or religion or sexuality, for dissenters and independents of every sort, reading between the lines has been second nature. So there have always been subtexts, messages in code, infiltration of the mainstream, secret communications, as well as the blossoming of sub-cultures and alternative literatures. But in the revolutionary future, Beauvoir advocates moving beyond this, into the mental fight of revising what already exists, as an accepted cultural heritage, which she presents as a take-over of wealth.

Theoretically, the action she describes is entirely possible. In practice, even the whisper of it has often resulted in the entire heritage of knowledge (some of it unequivocably ‘marked with masculinity’ of the worst kind) being resolutely presented as absolutely universal – how not? Any further discussion has been confined, as much as possible, within the alternative academic disciplines of Women’s, Queer, or Gender Studies, where such stalwart efforts have been made to rethink so much of the past.

But what Simone de Beauvoir had in mind was, I think, something rather more drastic. When I re-read this calmly provocative challenge, I believe she intended it to be taken personally, not as part of a feminism which is merely one possible critical school, but as a complete way of perceiving knowledge for the individual. I remind myself of it frequently, as a way of reading, of considering history and culture, of discovering surprising areas of universality in the past, and of misogyny in the present. (It can be quite exhausting.)

Fortunately, Simone de Beauvoir isn’t the only such inspiration; there are other intellectual revolutionaries of a fervour we can only emulate as best we can. Although so different as a writer, in many ways Virginia Woolf’s view of the past – and indeed present – as unacceptably ‘marked by masculinity’ pre-visioned Beauvoir’s, and much of her critical writing could be interpreted as exactly the ‘revision, not repudiation’ which the philosopher hoped would become commonplace. Woolf’s unforgettable image of joyous destruction of the dead past (in the context of women’s education) is another such call to revolutionary thinking:

Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters… dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze!’

Whisper subtle news

June 4, 2010


Waymark – photograph by Liz Mathews

One can shout at the top of one’s voice the information that the 11.15 for Brighton leaves from platform 6, but subtler news has to be whispered, for the reason that to drag the knowledge of reality over the threshold of consciousness is an exhausting task, whether it is performed by art or experience.

This is just one of the throw-away remarks which makes Rebecca West so redoubtable a writer, her intellect applied so unfailingly to her personal experience. When writers talk about ‘working hard’ or being ‘busy’, many people have no idea what they can possibly mean. Some even remark on the ease of a life in which there are no timetables (other than self-imposed ones) when coffee-breaks can presumably be taken at will, early rising isn’t essential, indeed the occupation is so sedentary that it can be taken outside, weather permitting. Sometimes writing looks remarkably like sunbathing…

Against this, must be set the still small voice of writers who – while not as monstrous as Ford Madox Ford, who couldn’t be upset in any way, so that his not-wife had to conceal all news of a financially depressing nature – do find that concentration can be elusive. Magda Szabo, in The Door, writes of the need to be ‘in a state of grace’ in order to write, which is the perfect description. Unfortunately, this state can be dispelled by events less traumatic than those her protagonist experiences – even if we are trying to avoid Ford-like sensitivity.

Wendy Cope wrote a funny poem mocking Ted Hughes’ poet’s angst about every act of creation having to outwit the writer’s internal censors, the secret police who patrol the unconscious. But there are many curious mechanisms which stop even utterly professional writers from just getting on with it; sudden urges to clean the house, write long-neglected letters, do far from essential shopping. Sometimes these delaying-tactics conceal some essential creative mechanism, sometimes they may stem from a sort of guilt at doing it at all.

Thus the only thing to do is sit in the sun, neglecting all other duties, immune to Fordesque worries or other mere sabotages and just write. An exhausting task…