Friday, April 21, 2017

The Medieval Underworld. By Andrew McCall.

Author Andrew McCall defines the Medieval Underworld as “those people who were unwilling or unable to comply with the laws of medieval society” (McCall, p.12). The laws to which he refers are biblical. They are based upon “The idea of a Chain of Being” where each element of God’s creation (from angels to kings, to aristocrats, to peasants, to animals, to plants to rocks), has “an appointed place and function in the Christian hierarchy…Let anyone try to step outside his appointed place…then here was the seed of disaster” as well as defiance of the Lord’s will (McCall, pp.14-15). The groups presented as members of this underworld include criminals, prostitutes, lesbians, gays, heretics, sorcerers, witches, and Jews.

While the topic is fascinating, McCall’s book provides only a small amount of information about this underworld. The first chapter is devoted to defining the Middle Ages. The second chapter examines the roles of Royal and Ecclesiastical courts in prosecuting behaviors considered criminal. The last chapter provides a medieval depiction of hell based on Dante’s Inferno. In addition, there are many pictures that cover half a page or a full page. Therefore, the sub-cultures which comprise the underground are covered in 175 pages. Of those few pages, half discuss thieves and armed robbers of various stripes. The rest of the groups, actual cultures of non-conformists with interesting worldviews, divide the remaining pages.

McCall claims that his book “looks at the period from the point of view of the outsider,” through the eyes of underground members (McCall, p.18). This assertion is most assuredly false. Almost all of the information employed by the author is from the perspective of the persecutors of these sub-cultures: the Royal and Ecclesiastical Courts that tried these groups. Little is written by members of the underground about themselves. Even with groups like Jews and heretics, both of whom left numerous written documents, the majority of the book’s evidence concerns legal decisions and recorded mob violence against non-conformists.  It is surprising that the voices of the people within these sub-cultures are so poorly represented, given that entire books have been written on each of the non-conformist groups to whom McCall dedicates only a few pages.

In spite of its meager quantity of information, almost all of which is presented by those prejudiced against underground sub-cultures, the book does have value: It provides an overview of Church legal repression and violence against groups who failed to conform. Although that overview is remarkably superficial, it constitutes a starting point, or outline, for non-fiction readers who wish to explore further. In addition, it is informative to have a confession from the Church, in its own documentation, describing its persecution of people who were different.

McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. By J.P. Nettl.

If we only read about individuals whose worldview confirms our own, we learn little. By this logic, the assemblage of contradictions which produce a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg will be vastly instructive. She was an independent woman, whose sheer personal drive led her to create national organizations, edit leading periodicals and influence Marxist party politics in several nations. All of this was accomplished during a time when women were considered by men to be intellectually inferior and hardly worth hearing. In spite of this independence, she “was not interested in any high-principled campaign for women’s rights.” In her mind, “the inferior status of women was a social feature which would be eliminated only by the advent of Socialism” (Nettl, p. 415). At times, Luxemburg expresses the purest motives of a life dedicated to serving what she sees as a noble purpose; a purpose for which she sacrificed her life. At times, she reveals stark personal ambition and strategy with comments like “in a year or two…I shall occupy one of the foremost positions in the party” (Nettl, p. 90). There are passages in Rosa’s writings where she counter-intuitively justifies her acceptance of worker suffering for her revolutionary goals as evidence of her compassion: Her chilly prediction, that advocacy of a 1905 general strike will mean that “the masses will die of hunger” and “some blood will be spilt,” is explained away with the rationalization that people who worry about such consequences “haven’t got the least contact or feeling for the masses” (Nettl, p. 212). However it is not only her contradictions that will invite a reader to expose themselves to a differing worldview. Few Western readers are Marxists; especially during a period where the Soviet Union has fallen and most existing, self-described “Communist” nations (Vietnam, China, Laos) are simply dictatorships fostering Capitalist economies. Examining an idealistic individual, who saw economic injustice and believed that Marxism was the answer, permits access to a mindset quite different from our own. It is our willingness to understand (whether or not we agree) that permits intellectual and personal growth.

Peter Nettl completed an academic, two-volume study of Luxemburg in 1966. But between his pre-1966 research and 1969, the political zeitgeist had changed. The United States was in the midst of upheaval concerning an imperialist Vietnam War, a more militant Civil Rights Movement and a general mistrust of authority. It was in this context that Nettl revised his book, cutting its length in half and providing commentary relevant to the late-Sixties protest movements. In the abridged edition, released in 1969, he is clear in his intention to foster and instruct dissent. “The purpose of this shortened version of my  work is to enable a wider audience to have access to her life and ideas…I unashamedly address this edition to anyone interested in using this rich fund of ideas, this rich life of action and experience, for their own purposes” (Nettl, p. xiii). In spite of his “for their own purposes” claim, Nettl speaks to protesters with an eye to converting them to Marxism. “Youth, mostly students; racial minorities, a few dissident intellectuals—these form the new ‘proletariat’ … there is no good reason why such groups should not form, and act like, a proletariat in a perfectly Marxist sense” (Nettl, p. x). His conclusion reiterates this goal: “Those…who hold that the revolutionary steps to progress must lead directly from highly developed capitalism to Socialism…will all find no better guide for inspiration than the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg” (Nettl, p. 499). In service to these ends, Nettl emphasizes elements in this earlier activist’s views that would resonate with his 1968 audience. He devotes long passages to her anti-imperialism (Nettl, p. 163), and her objections to authoritarianism (Nettl, p. 198). A reader’s ability to examine the period in which Nettl is writing and his objectives, adds a meta-biographical dimension to one’s understanding of this book. It can be read both for its’ late-19th/early-20th century biographical content, and for the understanding one may glean about the 1960s.

Because the purpose for this project was largely political and polemical, there is a dearth of illustration regarding the subject’s personal life. We learn the details of her childhood, her relationships, her friendships and the progress of her existence, but that is all. Nettl’s comprehension of Luxemburg’s life events and thought is extensive, but presented in a punctilious manner. In his narrative, Rosa moves but she does not breathe. This is not a book for the sentimental; it is a book for the intellectual who is concerned with theory, historical development and political process. Readers inclined towards the latter mode will find this work satisfying.

Nettl, J.P. Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Birth of the Beat Generation. Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. By Steven Watson.

“The Beats conducted their lives in a state of counter-cultural experiment.” (Watson, p. 6). They expressed non-conformity within a society of the 1940s & 50s that was dedicated to conformity. They valued intense experience when most US citizens spent most of their waking hours at mundane work that was either corporate, industrial or domestic. They enacted iconoclastic creativity while most North Americans were fixated on copying their neighbors. Every period has its foil, its critics. Between the early 40s and the late 50s, that role belonged to the Beats.

Stephen Watson captures the excitement and ethos of that group. He follows their development from the first meetings among the central figures (the writers: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac; as well as the inspirational icons: Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon). Though these men generally ignored or exploited the women unfortunate enough to become attached to them, Watson does a superb job of presenting women’s voices, views and writings. After presenting relational development and first adventures (including collective epiphanies, sex, slumming, arrests, drug experiences and key events of communion), the author follows the evolution of chief writings. He chronicles the development of these works, with special attention to how the writers influenced each other. Watson understands of the importance of artists “circles” for support and inspiration. He continues with this theme throughout the book while the circle is struggling against a hostile mainstream, battling censorship and widening artistic community in New York and San Francisco. Finally, the author presents the disintegration of this group, resulting from a banal commercialization of the Beat image, combined with a natural disposition of the key writers to shy away from media-fueled straitjackets having little to do with individual expression.

Watson occasionally over-emphasizes the importance of the Beat Generation. He calls Allen Ginsberg the “most iconic figure” of “the Love Generation” during the 1960s, when there are too many contenders for that title. (Watson, p. 302). He credits Burroughs with the phrase “heavy metal” used to identify a rock genre, when Burroughs used the term to describe creatures in one of his books, not music, and the term had been in use for decades prior by physicists. (Watson, p. 307). Certainly, the Beats made valuable contributions. Their censorship trial victories are immeasurably important to the freedoms we have today. Their example of living and expression enriched our art, provided a precursor for later counter-cultural movements and made many yearn for greater personal freedom. Some on the periphery (and even in the center) of this circle were self-destructive, thieves, grifters, posers, hacks and parasites. But the constellation of individuals has, in general, made a lasting contribution.

Oddly, the book never discusses the relationship of the Beats to important events of their time. Monumental occurrences like World War II, McCarthyism, race relations and the Bomb, have little effect on the narrative. Some combination of the author lacking interest in the interplay between political events and the Beat world, or the Beats being too self-absorbed to care, seem to be at play. The exclusion of crucial historic occurrences is puzzling in a history.

Despite these flaws, The Birth of the Beat Generation does a fine job of presenting a group of artists and their circle. Watson is skillful at balancing the lively influential events of these people’s lives with the internal processes of creative individuals. He describes both elements with enthusiasm and vivid imagery. As a result, his work is both a portrait of the Beats in their age, as well as a representation of the outsider artistic dissent and creativity that innovates culture in every age.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation. Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.