Wednesday, 16 April 2014
I've set up a new blog for writing on housing: A Handbook for City Renters (garbled Brecht reference, unsurprisingly). I'll keep the Partisan for non-housing things, though. There are two pieces up, a reposting of an essay on London Renters and The Right to the City and "Novocastrian Faust" on Our Friends in the North, council corruption, Lefebvre and modernization and the limits of labourism and some other obsessions.
Tuesday, 24 December 2013
December 24th. Walter Benjamin's Christmas Angel/ Victoria Spivey/ John Donne's Christmas Day Sermon
A Christmas Angel from Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900
"It began with the fir trees. One morning, on our walk to school, we found them stuck fast to the streetcorners- seals of green that seemed to secure the city like one great Christmas package everywhere we looked. Then one fine day they burst, spilling out toys, nuts, straw and tree ornaments: the Christmas market. With these things, something else came to the fore: poverty. Just as apples and nuts might appear on the Christmas platter with a bit of gold foil next to the marzipan, so the poor people were allowed, with their tinsel and coloured candles, into the better neighbourhoods. The rich would send out their children to buy lambkins from the children of the poor, or to distribute the alms which they themselves were ashamed to put in their hands. Standing on the veranda, meanwhile, was the tree, which my mother had already bought in secret and arranged to be carried up the steps into the house from the service entrance. And more wonderful than all the candlelight could give it was the way the approaching holiday would weave itself more thickly with each passing day into its branches. In the courtyards, the barrel organs began to fill out the intervening time with chorales. But finally the wait was over, and there, once again, was one of those days, of which I here recall the earliest.
In my room I waited until six o'clock deigned to arrive. No festivity later in life knows this hour, which quivers like an arrow in the heart of the day. It was already dark and yet I did not light the lamp, not wanting to lose my view of the windows across the courtyard, through which the first candles could now be seen. Of all the moments in the life of the Christmas tree, this was the most anxious, the one in which it sacrifices needles and branches to the darkness in order to become nothing more than a constellation- nearby, yet unapproachable- in the unlit window of a rear dwelling. And just as such a constellation would now and then grace one of the bare windows opposite while many others remained dark, and while others, sadder still, languished in the gaslight of early evening, it seemed to me that these Christmas windows were harbouring loneliness, old age, privation- all that the poor people kept silent about. Then, once again, I remembered the presents that my parents were busy getting ready. But hardly had I turned away from the window, my heart now heavy as only the imminence of an assured happiness can make it, than I sensed a strange presence in the room. It was nothing but a wind, so that the words which were forming on my lips were like ripples forming on a sluggish sail that suddenly bellies in a freshening breeze: "On the day of his birth / Comes the Christ child again/ Down below to the earth/ In the midst of us men." The angel that had began to form in those words had also vanished with them. I stayed no longer in the empty room. They were calling for me in the room adjacent, where now the tree had entered into its full glory- something which estranged me from it, until the moment when, deprived of its stand, and half buried in the snow or glistening in the rain, it ended the festival where a barrel organ had begun it."
John Donne, Christmas Day Sermon, St. Paul's, 1640.
THE AIRE IS NOT so full of Moats, of Atomes, as the Church is of Mercies; and as we can suck in no part of aire, but we take in those Moats, those Atomes; so here in the Congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that that whole breath and aire is made of mercy. But we call not upon you from this Text, to consider Gods ordinary mercy, that which he exhibites to all in the ministery of his Church, nor his miraculous mercy, his extraordinary deliverances of States and Churches; but we call upon particular Consciences, by occasion of this Text, to call to minde Gods occasionall mercies to them; such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a naturall man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies; A man wakes at midnight full of unclean thoughts, and he heares a passing Bell; this is an occasionall mercy, if he call that his own knell, and consider how unfit he was to be called out of the world then, how unready to receive that voice, Foole, this night they shall fetch away thy soule. The adulterer, whose eye waites for the twy-light, goes forth, and casts his eyes upon forbidden houses, and would enter, and sees a Lord have mercy upon us upon the doore; this is an occasionall mercy, if this bring him to know that they who lie sick of the plague within, passe through a furnace, but by Gods grace, to heaven; and hee without, carries his own furnace to hell, his lustfull loines to everlasting perdition. What an occasionall mercy had Balaam, when his Asse Catcehized him: What an occasionall mercy had one Theefe, when the other catcehized him so, Art not thou afraid being under the same condemnation What an occasionall mercy had all they that saw that, when the Devil himself fought for the name of Jesus, and wounded the sons of Sceva for exorcising in the name of Jesus, with that indignation, with that increpation, Jesus we know, and Paul we know, but who are ye; If I should declare what God hath done (done occasionally) for my soule, where he instructed me for feare of falling, where he raised me when I was fallen, perchance you would rather fixe vour thoughts upon my illnesses and wonder at that, than at Gods goodnesse, and glorifie him in that; rather wonder at my sins, than at his mercies, rather consider how ill a man I was, than how good a God he is. If I should inquire upon what occasion God elected me, and writ my name in the book of Life I should-sooner be afraid that it were not so, than finde a reason why it should be so. God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But Cod hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must againe to morrow, but to day if you will heare his voice, to day he will heare you. If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
Monday, 23 December 2013
I meant to write something on this song and the minimal difference between Merle Haggard and autonomia, the work/energy crisis, the Keynesian family, unpaid domestic labour, trauerspiel, the destroyed landscape as capitalist fate and the only redemption being the delay of the catastrophe... Maybe next year.
Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Saturday, 21 December 2013
This is not just a Christmas recipe, I'd commend it at any time of year, but since The Guardian described it as one, maybe it's worth sharing, the original recipe suggests you could serve it at room temperature, that would be a mistake, but you don't want it piping hot, obviously. It's easy to scale down the recipe too if you've got a slightly smaller quiche tin.
1½ tbsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper
250g best-quality shortcrust pastry
200g stilton, crumbled
75g membrillo (quince paste), cut into 1cm dice
3 free-range eggs
150ml double cream
150ml crème fraîche
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Toss the squash in the oil, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and spread out on a baking tray. Roast for 30 minutes, turning once, until golden brown. Set aside to cool and lower the oven temperature to 170C/335F/gas mark 3.
Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface and transfer it to a 24cm quiche tin – leave some pastry hanging over the edge. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork and chill in the fridge for 20 minutes. Line the tin with parchment paper, fill with baking beans and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the beans and paper, and cook the quiche case for 10 minutes longer, until the pastry is golden brown. Remove and set aside to cool.
Spread the roasted squash over the base of the quiche, dot the stilton around and about in the gaps, and sprinkle the membrillo all over.
Put the eggs, cream and crème fraîche in a mixing bowl with a quarter-teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. Whisk and pour over the squash, making sure you leave some of the filling exposed. Sprinkle over the parsley and bake for about 40 minutes, until the custard has set. Remove from the oven and allow to rest before removing from the tin and breaking off the overhanging pastry. Serve warm.
Monday, 16 December 2013
In, what strikes me as his strongest essay, Greil Marcus writes,
For popular art- art made within a tradition the operating premise of which is to replicate a work and sell as many copies as possible as fast as possible- the question is not that of letting the social into the art. It's a question of freeing the art from the social- and here too the stakes may be high. It may be that unless certain works of art can be loosened from the social circumstances that seemingly produced them , there can be no history, social or otherwise- no history we have to answer to, a history that is more than the sum total of, to quote Clark again, "the topical needs of the moment."...As Marx loved to say, let the dead bury the dead. Some artists are dead to the degree that they are subsumed by the social, and alive to the degree that the social can be distanced from their work; as with any attempts to bring the dead back to life, it's easier said than done....
[Robert Johnson's music] wasn't socialist realism, or even liberal realism, which says that all people are are products of great historical forces in a world they never made: that all people are sociology. Robert Johnson's music wasn't merely a rent in the bourgeois life I'd lived; it was a rent in the theories of the leftists who'd fought against that life as a natural fact, who reached their high point in the thirties, at the very time Johnson was singing. The bourgeois view of the world said people like Robert Johnson didn't count; the socialist realist view said he'd been made not to count, and that if by some miracle he'd made his voice heard, it was as the voice of the irrepressible voice of the people- in other words sociology. As an individual he didn't exist. But this wasn't what I heard. I heard a particular person, someone no particular sociological construct could have predicted, or even allowed for. Years later I would read Albert Murray's comments on Bessie Smith: he noted that many writers had tried to tie the expressive power of Smith's music to the pain and suffering of black people in America, and then he wondered why four hundred years of slavery and oppression had produced only one Bessie Smith. Albert Murray, a black American critic was trying to rescue Bessie Smith from socialist realism; he was trying to give her back the subjectivity, the autonomy that is automatically granted any white artist. She was, Murray was saying, a genius.
Compared with Skip James or Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. He sounds very traditional- and also as if the tradition, this particular racial/economic/social/ religious happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed. In his music you seem to hear what everyone else was reaching for, what everyone else was trying to say, what no one else could touch, what no one else could put into words, into the twist of a vocal, the curl of a guitar line- of for that matter into a passage of prose, the scene of a play, the detail of a painting. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way we take it as a given that people that the people we meet will speak, eat, and sleep; he then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent that concepts of speaking, eating, and sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones...
As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to want more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself- a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired and limited his ability to make demands on life, to protest against it. Just as in 1900 blues made a rent in black American life, in 1936 Robert Johnson made a rent in the blues...He mastered the tradition- he formally extended the vocabulary of blues guitar, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength and delicacy. Yet he also found the tradition inadequate- and you can hear this in his greatest songs, "Stones in My Passway," "Hellhound on My Trail," "Come in My Kitchen," "Travelling Riverside Blues." The tension of wanting to say more than the tradition can say explodes the tradition. "Stones in My Passway" and "Hellhound on My Trail" neither sound nor feel like other blues. It doesn't matter how well any musicologist can track their melodies or their lyrics back to any other performers. You run into a wall of emotional, aesthetic fact: sociology can explain Mississippi Delta blues, but it cannot explain Robert Johnson any more than four hundred years of pain and suffering can produce two Bessie Smiths.
Greil Marcus, "When You Walk in the Room", in The Dustbin of History.
A further consideration should perhaps be added to Marcus's reflections, hopefully without succumbing to technological determinism and this the importance of recorded music for Robert Johnson. Johnson appeared at the point at which the phonograph (and one of Johnson's less singular songs, is "Phonograph Blues") undermined the passing down of the tradition through personal encounters. Robert Johnson was the was the first of the great blues artists to have the output of the tradition ready to hand, ready to play over again and again, ready to be mastered in all its details. Robert Johnson was the first of the great blues artists for whom technological development made a reflective- that is anti-traditional- working over of that tradition rather than a naive one possible. Johnson's mastery of that tradition allowed his transformation and even explosion of that tradition rather than the reproduction of the apparatus that could not say everything Johnson needed to say.
Brecht writes of the situation for musicians (albeit in Brecht's example writers of operas) in which, supplying an already obsolete apparatus, they "believe themselves to be in possession of an apparatus which in reality possesses them, they defend an apparatus over which they no longer have control, which is no longer, as they still believe, a means for the producers but has become a means to be used against the producers." Unlike the thoroughly conservative opera tradition, just seven years after the death of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the blues tradition, for everyone else, seemed still vital, still a means for producers, Robert Johnson on the back of technological developments and his genius and virtuosity found it wanting and exploded it, everything after him in that tradition is, to a degree, hackwork.
Alongside Marcus's list of Americans who heroically took on the world, "Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson- or even D. W. Griffith, John Ford, and Orson Welles", alongside whom Robert Johnson, rightly, takes his place, we should also place Johnson among those modernists, perhaps most notably Manet and Cézanne, who experienced the tradition's naive passing over, limitations- that is the tradition as tradition- and its expressive and figurative possibilities as destroyed by technology- in Manet and Cézanne's case photography; in Johnson's the phonograph- and, through the reflection on the apparatus that technology allowed, a new form of artistic production.