Tag Archives: LRB

Ocelots and peacocks


He had a string of spectacular and often scandalous affairs, and there remains a mythos of Chinese whispers concerning his alleged perversions and fetishes. His paramours included theatrical superstars like the tragedienne Eleonora Duse and the modernist Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and numerous adventurous aristocrats including the Marchesa Luisa Casati, who satisfied two of his chief criteria by being very tall and very rich. She had huge green eyes heightened with heavy applications of kohl, favoured exotic accessories such as ocelots and peacocks, and her party guests were attended by black servants dressed in costumes copied from Tiepolo. D’Annunzio was fascinated by bisexuality, and in Paris had a high profile affair with Romaine Brooks, a crop-haired lesbian painter. […]

‘In heaven, dear poet,’ Brooks wrote to him when their affair ended, ‘there will be reserved for you an enormous octopus with a thousand women’s legs (and no head).’ It was an acute hit at d’Annunzio’s compulsive, narcissistic womanising. His love life was as meticulously styled as everything else about him: the poetic billets-doux, the trysts in wisteria-choked pergolas, the love nests hung with damask and strewn with rose petals, the silk kimonos and cups of fragrant Chinese tea, the handkerchiefs drenched in a perfume whose recipe he had copied from a medieval manuscript.

Lover, litératteur, and proto-Fascist martinet: Gabriele d’Annunzio, demonstrating that poets have more fun than historians. (‘In his last years d’Annunzio grew shrunken and bandy-legged, living a frugal and contemplative life interspersed with cocaine-fuelled sex with a tubercular Milanese prostitute chauffeured up from her lodgings above a trattoria on the lakeside.’) From Charles Nicholl’s review of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s new biography of d’Annunzio, The Pike, in the LRB.

Now I’m off to buy myself an ocelot.

Click image for source


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Bloodless archivists of a real gone time

RAF_roundelIn the latest LRB, Ian Penman has a review of Richard Weight’s Mod: a very British style. It’s a critical review (as sharp in places as a mod’s pressed creases), but it’s also a smart essay on music, clothes, and style more generally in modern British culture, then and now. It’s not behind the paywall, and it also gives us the useful neologism ‘tellyology’: ‘shaping history with both eyes on a potential TV series’.

A representative extract:

Early Mods could ‘pass’ between work and play without changing their suits, which is perhaps one of the reasons they were never sent up in the culture at large. Think back to 1960s and 1970s low comedy: no TV sketch show or sitcom or kitschy horror film was complete without its parade of subcult Aunt Sallies – hippies, ton-up boys, skinheads, punks. Rockers had shivs, skinheads had bovver boots, hippies might dose you – what was a Mod going to do? Make you listen to Otis Redding? Force you to buy a decent pair of trousers? Mods posed a far less obvious threat. They flew the Union Jack, after all, and most of them had jobs; they were clean, well turned-out and had nice haircuts. In 1964 there was a brief spasm of tabloid outrage over some rather tame skirmishes between Mods and Rockers, mostly conducted in bracing seaside ozone. Talk of scooter-borne ‘vermin’ aside, the real fear may have had less to do with physical aggro and more to do with the difficulty of slotting Mod into any obvious class or subcult genealogy. (Even the word ‘subculture’ suggests soil, shadow, dirt; airless oubliettes; greasy rungs leading down into a Harry Lime exile.)

Class plays through this story in sighing counterpoint, but Weight has the pop sociological equivalent of a tin ear. He relies entirely on secondary research, on other people’s now exaggerated accounts of already faded memories, and has zero feeling for real lives, real voices, real flight and fall. There is a dusty old pub-table anecdote about some Mod who would only have bunk-up sex if there was a trouser press to hand for his strides – which is presumably meant as a dig at Mod’s twisted priorities. (Full disclosure: no trouser press, but I do own two pairs of antique shoe trees.) Another way to see this tale: having saved for months to afford a gorgeous suit, and probably unable to afford a replacement any time soon, you’re going to make damned sure it lasts. Maybe this guy was on a 48-hour weekender and didn’t want to roll into work on Monday morning looking like an undignified mess?

Ray Davies, naturally, makes an appearance. Here’s one of the songs Penman writes about:

Click image for source. To understand Penman’s point about the bastardization of mod, consider the results of this google image search for mod hairstyles

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All that is solid

Salvador Dalí, Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man

This letter from the current London Review of Books offers the clearest explanation I’ve seen of one of Karl Marx’s most famous phrases:

Richard J. Evans’s comment on Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to find a better translation of Marx’s phrase ‘Alles ständische und stehende verdampft,’ usually rendered ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ pinpoints a particular difficulty in translating the German term Stand (LRB, 23 May). Sperber’s preferred version – ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate’ – is, well, frankly hideous. On the other hand it is a lot more accurate than the elegant version it seeks to replace. The words Stand and its adjective ständisch have been variously translated as ‘status’, ‘estate’, ‘estate-type’ and now here as ‘a society of orders’. None of these captures what Marx is talking about here, which is inequality organised on a basis other than class or market. For Marx the problem of the emancipation of the Jews was that it would ‘free’ them only to enter an unequal, class-based world and, in so doing, would dissolve what was distinctive in a Jewish way of life, whatever value you might place on that. Even more than Marx, Max Weber contrasted status-based (ständisch) inequality with market-based divisions. A status group (Stand) has a distinctive way of life, which is regarded in a particular way, and is reflected in legal provisions and even in clothes or diet. An example in our contemporary world might be children: we think of them as fully human yet somehow as a different order of beings from adults, with a different legal position and different preoccupations. To some degree, gender divisions too are ständische differences. For both Marx and Weber what mattered was that the sweeping away of the old order – the ancien regime of, er, ‘social orders’ – is at first experienced as emancipation, only for the reality to dawn that what replaces it are different forms of exploitation and oppression and new social identities grounded solely in market position: in buying or selling labour-power. The German term Stand is first cousin to the English word ‘standing’, and both Marx’s and Weber’s point was that modernity erodes all identities, honour and relationships in the acid of commercial exchange, leaving few of us really happy with where we stand.

Jem Thomas

Salvador Dalí,
Geopoliticus child watching the birth of the new man, 1943
(click for source

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Kremlinology in Camelot

Kremlinology, as defined by the OED, is “the study and analysis of the Soviet Government, and subsequently the Russian government, and their policies”. A sharper definition would explain that in the absence of the sort of open information about the workings of the Soviet government, western observers of Soviet affairs would bring almost occult skills of analysis to whatever scant information they could get: a handshake given (or withheld) at an official ceremony would lead to elaborate extrapolations about the likely direction of policy; photos of the same ceremony issued by the state media might give rise to theories that such-and-such a general was about to be liquidated, or already had been; and so on. Frequently these extrapolations rested mostly on the imagination of the analyst, as I was reminded by a recent article on Iran which described the fanciful analyses produced by “the sublimated Kremlinology that passes for Iran-watching” in Washington.

What, I wonder, would a Kremlinologist have made of this photo?

Bobby Kennedy and LBJ

Francis Miller/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Click image for source

On the right is Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the USA. On the left is Robert F. Kennedy, attorney-general, and younger brother of John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in Dallas had given LBJ the presidency. The two men are at an official ceremony: the ground-breaking ceremony for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., December 1964.

The point of Kremlinology was that it made use of occult readings of scant information because the processes of Soviet decision-making were closed, secretive, and restricted to a party elite: in a one-party system with strict control of the media, Soviet citizens and western observers alike had no ready supply of information about how policy was formed. Second-guessing the existence of rivalries and power-battles by (over-)interpreting the public appearances (or disappearances) of the few people whose decisions mattered was all that was left. All of this, of course, was supposedly by contrast with the open workings of power in liberal democracies, where legislatures, executives, and judiciaries all operate according to publicly-known rules, their activities often public also, and all under the watchful eye of a free and independent media.

Did American citizens know how much Bobby Kennedy hated LBJ, though, or that only the national crisis after JFK’s assassination saved Johnson from a congressional probe that threatened to expose his extremely suspect financial dealings? It’s easy to imagine Soviet analysts drawing the same sort of insights into the inner workings of Camelot, JFK’s magic circle of bright young advisers, from the shrugs, sneers, handshakes given or refused. Consider this:

Bobby had a long history of trying not to see Johnson, of resenting it when forced to acknowledge his presence; and he loathed shaking his hand. It began with their very first recorded meeting, in 1953. Lyndon Johnson came into the Senate cafeteria for his customary breakfast there. He was trailing his entourage, radiating his power as minority leader. He passed the table of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was sitting near the entrance with three or four staffers, including a newcomer to his team, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Kennedy, who had just got this job through the influence of his father, a McCarthy supporter. Johnson knew about that arrangement, as he did all the things that went on in “his” Senate. Johnson had mocked Joe Kennedy all over town and despised Joe McCarthy as a loose cannon in the Senate. He also did not think much of the newly elected senator John Kennedy, whom he would soon be calling a sickly absentee from the Senate and “not a man’s man.”

Yet McCarthy, with his coarse affability, leaped to his feet when Johnson approached, greeted him as “Leader,” and shook his hand. His aides followed suit, all but one, who remained seated, with an expression of distaste. Bobby knew what Johnson had been saying about his father and his boss, and he always bristled at slights directed at his own revered family. He refused to get up, or even to look at Johnson. Johnson, whose own history of humiliations Caro has traced in earlier volumes, was just as quick to sense contempt, and determined to crush it if he could. He was a bully and a sadist, and he took the earliest opportunity to force Kennedy to submit to the dreaded handshake. He went right up to him, towering over him (he always put his height to use) and crowded at him with a half-extended hand. Finally, in the embarrassment of a growing silence, Kennedy rose and, with averted eyes, shook Johnson’s hand. Johnson felt he had made this lowly staffer crawl. It would prove to be a costly victory.

The depth of hatred between Bobby Kennedy and LBJ, in particular, and the influence it had during John F. Kennedy’s presidency and following his death, was remarkable. Here’s another handshake, this one from November 1963, after Johnson’s address to Congress following JFK’s assassination. (Bettmann/Corbis; click for source.) Have you ever seen a smile look more like someone wrinkling their nose at the smell of a fresh turd than Kennedy’s here? And it’s not so much a handshake as an awkward clutch: Kennedy looks like he’d rather be holding a red-hot iron, but Johnson has got him firmly in his grasp. “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do,” he once told a friend.

Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson after Johnson’s address to Congress following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, November 1963Robert Caro has been writing his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson for decades: it is over thirty years since the first volume was published, in 1982. The fourth volume of a planned five came out last year, with this volume alone weighing in at over 700 pages: if ever a work of non-fiction deserved the adjective ‘monumental’, this is it. I don’t think I’ll ever have the time to read it; but I’m very grateful to Garry Wills and David Runciman for reading the fourth volume, at least, and writing long and thoughtful reviews of it in the NYRB and the LRB respectively. Wills focuses on ‘America’s nastiest blood feud’:

I doubt that Caro, when he began his huge project, thought he would end up composing a moral disquisition on the nature of hatred. But that is what, in effect, he has given us.

Runciman focuses more on Johnson’s own massively forceful, tortured personality—though both reviewers quote JFK telling one of his aides how to treat his vice-president:

You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego. I want you literally to kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other.

(Note for British readers: it means something different over there.) Both reviews make for compelling reading, in a grim, so-horrible-you-have-to-look kind of way. It sounds like the book does, too. I wonder if there are any retired Russian intelligence analysts reading it and nodding, thinking, “Yes—I was right all along”?

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