Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Freedom Press

‘NUTS’: Julian Symons annotates Stephen Spender

Having in my time bought a few too many second hand books that turned out to disappoint, it’s rewarding when the reverse happens.

img_0001Some years ago, I forget where, I picked up for a quid a damp-buckled copy of Stephen Spender’s Life and the Poet, 1942, in which Spender attempts to reposition the role of the progressive artist and intellectual post-Spain, post-Popular Frontism. This was published by Secker & Warburg as Searchlight Book No 18, a series edited by George Orwell and T R Fyvel, billed as broadly popular, patriotic and anti-fascist. (Of the 17 projected titles listed here, only ten actually appeared before the printer’s paper stock ran out.) Searchlight Books were hardback with a dust jacket, but mine has paper covers, so must be a review copy.

And indeed, a reviewer has made his or her reactions known in some enjoyably bad tempered annotations, summarised inside the front cover:

Mr Spender wrote but apparently never went “Forward from Liberalism”. This is a wretchedly poor book, illogical, disconnected, apologetic & generally unsound.

Life and the Poet does indeed seem hastily shoved together, sloppily thought through and in places just badly written. Spender dedicates it to “Young Writers in the Armed Forces, Civil Defence and the Pacifist Organisations of Democracy”, which by covering all options avoids offence, but indicates something of the hand wringing equivocation he feels obliged to deliver.

“Before finishing the last chapter of this book,” he confesses, “and while revising the first five chapters, I have already been called up into the Fire Service. Yet I may stimulate in the minds of a few people the urgent necessity of a faith in poetry, or, rather, the poetic attitude …”

Our reviewer is not impressed by this excuse. Here are a few passages he/she found objectionable, with his/her reactions transcribed in italics:

Spender: 'Generally unsound'

Spender: ‘Generally unsound’

Without saying that Tolstoi, Turgenev or Henry James were socialists, one might draw revolutionary political conclusions from the life which they describe in their novels. Yet to believe … that the true picture of life in fiction today would inevitably have a socialist political implication is entirely different from preaching that … novels should preach socialism and see everything through red-coloured spectacles.
NUTS

In the case of a really great novelist or poet there might even be no difference, because his observation and his conclusions would be indivisible. But in the case of those lesser artists, there is a tremendous difference.
If the political conclusions were sound then the Novel will be too. The rest of Spender’s thesis is nonsense.

Listening to these [Left Wing] lectures on literature, it seemed to me that the principles were right, but their application was always wrong.
Well what the hell?

The ultimate aim of politics is not politics, but the activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State. Therefore an effective statement of these activities – such as science, art, religion – is in itself a declaration of ultimate aims around which the political means will crystallise.
Aim? Politics has no aim, any more than evolution has. 

So the political agitator is driven to deny that there is anything in life outside the struggle for power … Therefore you must pretend that everyone on your own side who is killed is a hero gladly giving his life for your cause without indulging in any feelings as a separate individual which might be irrelevant. Indeed, you go on to deny that anything in the nature of an individual really exists or has ever existed.
Oh do I?

Politics then become the only reality, and … [Artists, thinkers and scientists] make a merit of stifling the light that is in them: to become scientists who deny that scientific enquiry can ever be objective, poets who deny their own individuality, who show no curiosity about man’s situation in the whole of life and the universe, novelists who have no interest in human beings except to prove that one race or class is superior to others.
Mr Spender appears to have all the intellectual’s concern for his own piddling little individuality. What does he mean by superior? Dominant? Obviously no class is “Better” – No one suggests any one is.

Political evils must be met by other, greater political evils until the war is won. Yet, just because of this, it is all the more important that the “happy few” who uphold values of art, poetry and science should state as clearly as they can what the function of those values in life is, in order that new social patterns may grow around such an understanding.
Ha! Ha! Spender & Co, world-lovers & leaders.

Politicians establish a Sabbath of institutions which petrify, until at last they are shattered by revolutions. Yet to the revolutionaries, who are also politicians, Man … is still only made for their new Sabbath, which, they are determined, differs from the old Sabbath in that it will never be destroyed.
Nonsense. If Mr S will tilt at Marxists he should get to know some Marxism, which denies the possibility of a fixed, static, immutable policy.

What is important is Man. The creative mind must never entirely subscribe to any kind of Sabbath – Pharisaic, Jewish, Christian, Roman, Communist or British Imperialist.
How nice for the creative mind.

Part way through chapter two our annotator loses patience with the chore of annotation, but has made his or her position pretty clear. The book’s owner did not think to add a name, so who was this irascible Marxist?

As it happens, the sentiments chime rather well with “A Poet in Society,” a review of the book by Julian Symons in the first issue (1943) of the second series of Now, the anarchist political-literary review edited by George Woodcock at Freedom Press. (See here for another aspect. As it also happens, the handwriting of the annotations is not incompatible with the very few samples of Symons’s writing I can see online, though I can’t pretend that the similarities are absolutely conclusive.)

Symons: acerbic

Symons: acerbic

Symons is best known as a writer of crime fiction in later life, but was then the founder of Twentieth Century Verse, an independent Marxist (usually tagged a “Trotskyist”), and a reviewer of clinical and acerbic penetration. While Woodcock aimed to align the new series of Now with an “anarchist point of view,” contributors did not necessarily “subscribe to anarchist doctrines,” and in an editorial intro he carefully separates himself from the “hard things” that Symons has to say, defending “a certain virtue” in Spender’s “doubt of the value of politics as a means of social action.” Maybe he was anxious to avoid offending Orwell, later a contributor to the magazine.

In his review Symons tackles both Life and the Poet and Spender’s latest poetry collection, Ruins and Visions. The poems he finds “fine” and “moving”, but with Life and the Poet he finds himself “in violent disagreement,” denouncing it as “a high, thin and cloudy view of the poet’s nature and function,” marked by “the confusion of thought and frequent clumsiness of phrase which we have learned to expect and regret … Sometimes,” he adds, “this leads him into sentimental rubbish … It is impossible to comment usefully upon writing at this level.”

His critique follows the annotations at a distance while, naturally enough, losing some of the immediacy of his anger. One or two of our annotated passages in particular are fastened on.  Spender, who believes in no absolute, is criticised for setting up “the creative mind” (see the final passage above) as a kind of absolute. The fourth annotated passage above, on the “ultimate aim of politics,” comes in for particular scrutiny:

Man is a social animal: and his creative activities – “activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State” – are part of his social life. It follows that to talk about a statement of artistic aims round which political means will crystallise is to talk nonsense. A new view of society must precede a new view of art: society fashions art, art does not create a society. It is therefore a delusion to believe that any artistic aims are ultimate, since no state of society is ultimate: artistic aims are instead fashioned out of the social life of the time, which is in turn influenced by the tradition of social life and art which it has accepted as a heritage. “Eternal aspirations,” loneliness, and yes, the “creative mind” itself vary in form with the society that contains them. A society gets the art it deserves.

The heavy stress placed on “life” in this book is occasioned by an irrational dislike for the logic which binds the poetry written today inside our routine of living; a routine which exists as much for those who try to be “free” and who write from a position of freedom which is in fact false, as for those who are consciously and even willingly bound.

This is all excellent common sense, and seems to me highly relevant to today’s facile, commodified and over-valued art scene, still lubricated by persistent notions of art and poetry as magical, “alternative,” special or visitation from without.

Symons was surely one of the sharpest minds at work on the Left during this period. In a contribution to Now 5 on “The End of a War: 8 Notes on the Objective of Writing in our Time,” he references, interestingly, Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art, making entirely valid use of the perceptions of a writer working “from an attitude very different from mine.” (Symons knew Lewis well, and respected him.) In Now 6 his demolition of Cyril Connolly (“The Condemned Playboy”) is a pleasure to read.

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Royal academician goes bonkers: the mysterious Stanley Jackson

Now 4

 

 

It’s good when something rather wonderful turns up unexpectedly, especially if it involves a “lost” British surrealist. Or quasi-surrealist, even. Yesterday the postman delivered my copy of Now 4, George Woodcock’s anarcho-arty-literary review put out under the Freedom Press banner, this issue apparently from late 1944. A few pages away from what I’d been looking for were four bonus and totally bongoid images by an unheard-of artist, with this curious little write-up:

PATTERN OF FRUSTRATION

Four Drawings by Stanley Jackson

The work of Stanley Jackson has not yet received the attention that it undoubtedly merits, the main reason for this being that it deals with subjects which society prefers to ignore – death, frustration, the hopelessness of individual life and the pointlessness of accepting the current solutions. In this sense Stanley Jackson is a Romantic in outlook for he sees man as a victim of his environment, and has no faith in the political panaceas which glib-tongued orators espouse so convincingly, and with such cost to mankind. In the past he had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, but his present development represents a withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.

Pattern of Frustration is, in my opinion, one of the clearest statements of the evolution of the individual in society. In the first reproduction we see the apparently solid footing suddenly merging into nothingness, and from this moment the individual is caught up in the struggle which can end only in defeat. The symbolism of the second phase needs no explanation while the third part shows the ephemeral moment when an ecstatic realisation is glimpsed. The final stage is portrayed in the last reproduction – the moment vanishes to be followed by the inevitable frustration – either the individual has to accept and adapt himself, or he faces annihilation. From this dilemma there is no escape.

A. J. McCARTHY.


Frustration? Er, well, yes. This doesn’t exactly flood the subject with clear light. A J McCarthy is no easy name to place, but I’m pretty sure that this has to be the A J McCarthy who wrote widely on jazz in the ‘fifties and who lived at this point in Notting Hill. I imagine Jackson was a mate. As for People and assJackson himself, he was born in 1917 but at the moment I can find little else. It seems that he did his time as a serviceman, but he is nowhere credited as a war artist. The National Army Museum holds a competent oil portrait of a soldier of the Madras Guards, done in 1943, signed with that name in a style not incompatible with the signing on our four images, while auction value websites throw up just one image of a painting of wartime refugees, shown here, and list a still life and a couple of watercolour views possibly by the same man – precious little survival for his “academic” phase and RA showings.

The four images in Now (click them above to enlarge) show a technical competence compatible with these two earlier pieces, but in every other respect they are light years away; their “Jaxon” signature suggests, for whatever reason, a very deliberate dissociation, while their cartoony plasticity and psycho-content surely owe much to the example of the wonderful Reuben Mednikoff, potholer of the unconscious. (See this post.) They’re described as drawings, but the rather grainy reproductions suggest that, if not pastels, they might even be paintings.

In the same issue of Now, McCarthy’s slightly baffling use of the term “frustration” is echoed, and perhaps explained, in a stodgy opener by editor George Woodcock on “The Writer and Politics” which bemoans the “schizoid frustration [my emphasis] … of the modern intellectual when confronted by social issues,” and proposes a disengagement of the writer from collective political activity as the only guarantee of uncontaminated authenticity. All part of the ongoing wriggling and repositioning of British leftist writers post-Auden and post-Popular Front. McCarthy’s outline implies that the crisis of Woodcock’s writer is experienced by every individual in a modern society in their compromised relations to social and political forces. (Woodcock’s position amounts to a neo-Stirnerism, an egoist or existentialist anarchism, which was common ground among Freedom Pressers, Apocalyptics and Personalists at the time. See also my piece on the anarchism of Henry Treece. More to come, incidentally, on the “anarchist” poetry of Woodcock and Alex Comfort in future posts.)

The works’ four titles have to be Jackson’s own, but is the sequence title “Pattern of Frustration” just McCarthy’s after-gloss on a selection of Jackson’s images? Or was that meta-meaning part of the artist’s intent? It’s hard to be sure. If the latter, these would not be surrealist works; rather than emerging from a process of automatism they would be symbolisations of pre-existing ideas. And it’s maybe true that they lack something of the unexpectedness of the comparable but genuinely automatic imagery of Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe or Sam Haile. So are they merely contrived and cynical pastiches of the surreal?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, I don’t care. I think they’re great, and it’s a huge pity we only have them in black and white. The fragmented amoeboids sucked past blasted trees through the sgraffito wind tunnel of Awareness are a classic image of wartime angst, while the John Tunnard-ish outline face of Ultimate Despair (great title), while practically toppling over into comic doom, sits brilliantly over the strange pointy-breasted nude and the drooping background monsters. What’s really going on here? Is it too glib to ascribe this extraordinary lurch into psychologism to the trauma of Jackson’s wartime experiences? It’s hard to imagine what might otherwise account for it, so perhaps not.

And what happened to these works of Jackson’s “personal maturity”? Do they survive? And are there more of the same out there? I need to know. If you can tell me, use the comments option, please!

Minor post script

On closer inspection, there is another war period Jackson hidden on the Art UK site, an oil of boat builders at Madras, listed as by E Jackson. However,  subject location, painting style and signature are all compatible with the National Army Museum picture, and it’s easy to take an “S” for an “E”. The painting is here. It’s owned by Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and was bought in 1970. It’s a decent, unremarkable work, and I’m struck again by the extraordinary transition in Jackson’s career.

Incidentally, is it just me, or do others find the Art UK site, with its annoying, floating, pinterest-style, pick n’ mix pages, a lot harder to use than the old Your Paintings site?