28 December 2008

Harold Pinter

The death of the major British playwright Harold Pinter has led to many more articles than when this supporter of the now virtually non-existent British left won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The above link is to his biographer Michael Billington's article in this Saturday's Guardian

17 December 2008

Lionel Britton's Brain

Lionel Britton’s plays Brain and Spacetime Inn are are very unusual for several reasons, but in particular because they are science fiction plays. As an indication of the reason for this, Clute and Nicholls, in their Encylopedia of Science Fiction, quote science fiction editor Roger Elwood on the physical limitations which the theatre poses for the genre: ‘Writing an sf play is a bit like trying to picture infinity in a cigar box’; they also state that ‘the first significant original plays appeared in the 1920s and 1930s’, claiming that Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1921) was the first science fiction play to be concerned with evolution. Back to Methuselah is thematically and structurally similar to Brain, and certainly to some extent Britton took Shaw’s play as his model: he includes a quotation from Shaw’s Preface on the verso of the half-title pageof Brain, and the drama critic Hannen Swaffer — whose review of the play is quoted in one of the advertisement pages at the back of Hunger and Love — notes Shaw’s influence: ‘Fancy a young man starting where Shaw left off!’ (p. [707]).

There are a number of dramatic elements in Brain, such as the light show during the funeral of the Philosopher and the Librarian of the British Museum, the violent change of power at the end of Act II, and the apocalyptic climax of the play, but although some of the dialogue is also dramatic, the general emphasis is on the didactic; there is little character development and most of the characters are types. Of primary importance is the message, which is that without co-operation, as opposed to competition, the world cannot survive.

Brain is the theatrical realization of the ideas outlined or hinted at in Hunger and Love; it isin three acts and is set in several different periods in the future. Act I (c.1950–2100) begins with a conversation between the Philosopher and the Librarian, in which there is an exposition of the ideas in an unpublished manuscript which strongly resembles Hunger and Love, which, following the death of the author, was presented to the British Museum in 1950; both men die in a car accident the same evening and the manuscript remains uncatalogued and unnoticed. The next scene then shifts to 2100, when the earth is still run by the business world and central government; Britton makes use of the animal imagery prominent in Hunger and Love in order to emphasize his points: in the first scene, we are told that ‘private enterprise makes for isolation like wild beasts’, and that ‘the beast type of man is still in control; they occupy all the high places’. The 2100 world of Brain shows Britton’s anti-government ideology in practice; Brookes, a prominent member of the Ideas Club, is preparing to make a proposal after the discovery of the forgotten manuscript, and begins by outlining the problem:

‘Human nature grew by co-operation, private interest is anti-human, it will destroy human nature unless some means can be found by which it can itself be destroyed.’

The main point of interest in these lines is the way in which the tenses proceed from the past, to the present, and to the future. ‘Human nature’ is thought to be the product of many years of co-operation and signifies a more enlightened, and more honest, period in history; the private interest now dominating life is divisive and works against human interest; human nature will be destroyed by it unless its advance can be stopped. Brookes is in effect saying the same thing as the narrator of Hunger and Love, namely that the evolution of humanity is now in reverse: the slow movement towards a utopian society is changing into its opposite. Brookes’s proposal leads to the clandestine establishment of the Brain Brotherhood, the purpose of which is to build a giant brain in the Sahara, containing all the knowledge in the world. An idea similar to this is also put forward in Hunger and Love, and incidentally seems in part to anticipate the Internet, or the Internet of the future: ‘Why can’t all the books be stored in one big building, properly classified and indexed and catalogued, so that anybody who wants anything at all can get it at once: write, telephone, call, — get it immediately’ (pp. 295–96).

Act II is set in the twenty-fourth century and mainly concerns the consternation of the business community and the government over the increasingly powerful Brain Brotherhood, which many doctors, scientists, writers, engineers, and the working classes have joined; members of the organization, who receive no money apart from any needed for use in contact with the outside world, are seriously affecting the efficient running of the business community. Any attempts to prevent a company’s shipping orders from reaching the Sahara, for instance, are blocked by Brotherhood infiltrators. The Prime Minister feels increasingly isolated and, ironically, is beginning to feel like an outsider himself. He says, ‘Laugh at me if you like, but it is as if we are becoming outcasts from the world’, and believes that the existence of an Anti-War League means that the ‘good old days are gone’. But the inexorable power of the Brotherhood is such that even members of the government have applied to join it, although without success apart from one exception: the Fourth Minister (one of the few ‘human’ politicians) has been approved for admission largely because he has written a socialist play and is a lover of the arts. He has a vision of the future world: ‘I have the feeling that in […] ten years […] the life of Ministries and Governments will have passed away, and we who now possess power and eminence will have become outcasts in a darkness outside the human sphere.’ Predictably, the government decides to dispense with his services, although his expectations of the future are realized: by the end of the act, the world outside the Brain Brotherhood is in chaos before the people take over.

In Act III, all the action is in the far future; money no longer exists and crime too appears to be a thing of the past; there are no more wars, no private property or distinct classes, and unpleasant jobs are shared equally between everyone; each individual is working towards the improvement of society; disease has been eliminated, and even a sneeze causes alarm; sexual inhibitions are a thing of the past and monogamy is not the norm, although the few who choose to live in a permanent relationship usually have ‘side-mates’; applications have to be made to begin a ‘propagating union’, and it is unusual for a couple to be allowed to have custody of their own children.

Brain is a centralized computer and has become the new God, as indicated by the capitalization of ‘It(s)’, and It lists tasks from an intricate network of activities more or less freely chosen by the people. Anyone with a strong research project can be chosen by Brain to take a ‘B. C.’, meaning ‘Brain-controlled’ research towards a goal which will benefit society; following that, the highest accolade is to be allowed to work within the Brain itself.

The language used in Brain reflects the changed society; because the emphasis is now on the nature of the activity performed, the play is punctuated by references to ‘Regulars’, ‘Compulsories’ and ‘Playgames’; oaths have changed focus and emotions such as anger, annoyance or surprise are often conveyed by expressions such as ‘Mankind!’, ‘Race!’, ‘Co-operate!’, ‘Humanity!’ or ‘Struggle!’: in a world where the old God has no meaning, blasphemies are replaced by invocations of co-operative activity.

The ageing process, though, has not been arrested, and those unfit for work because too old are painlessly put to death. Wild-Eye is an elderly character in Brain who has to undergo the Death Test (a kind of measurement of people’s readiness for ‘euthanasia’), but he is not in pain and does not want to die: quite simply, he is becoming surplus to the needs of society and although he receives a temporary reprieve, his time to die will soon be ordained by Brain. Towards the end of the play, Brain says that it is imperative to gain ‘spacetime control’ in order for the world to survive and other Brains to continue elsewhere. However, ‘the human’ is too late, and as It says just before a star destroys the earth:

‘A thousand million years life was on earth, there was time for men to come together, the human to have evolved sooner, like beasts they preyed on one another, the human idea was not born. […] all worlds might have worked together, all consciousness grown into a unity, we might have called on other worlds…had we been human sooner…like beasts they preyed on one another, isolated in immensity, one man sapped the strength of another. Where there were two strengths there was less than one. […] Too late, too late!’

In the light of the above, of interest is the article 'UN is Told that Earth Needs an Asteroid Shield: Scientists Call for £68m a Year to Detect Danger, and More for Spacecraft to Defend against It' which appeared in the 9 December Observer of this year:

9 December 2008

Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women's Poetry, ed. by Sayd Bahodine Majrouh

I wouldn't normally pay things like this much mind, but this is so relevant, and so worthy, that I can't not. A short time ago, a message to my last post provided a link to Rubia, a project by Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs (SEE). The website says:

'Rubia 2009 Afghanistan calendar features Afghan women's poetry collected throughout the valleys of eastern Afghanistan and refugee camps of Pakistan by the late poet Sayd Bahodine Majrouh.

The calendar, designed by Beth Gottschling, showcases Rubia embroidery, and photographs by Beth Gottschling, Rachel Lehr, and Anna Lehr Mueser. All proceeds support Rubia's work in Afghanistan.

All of the landays in the calendar are reprinted with permission from Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women's Poetry, Edited by Sayd Bahodine Majrouh, Translated by Marjolijn De Jager, Other Press: New York, 2003.'

Atiq Rahimi and Sayd Bahodine Majrouh

It seems odd to say that someone who is called Afghanistan's 'only great postmodern writer' is obscure, but this is just what the poet Sayd Bahodine Majrouh (1928–88) is in England at least, and I suspect in many other countries too. Atiq Rahimi (winner of this year's Prix Goncourt with Syngué Sabour: pierre de patience) writes about his literary hero in this month's Magazine littéraire. He remembers picking up his Ajdahaï khodi (roughly 'The Dragon of the Self' or 'The Self Dragon') at 15 and greeting it with incomprehension, but nevertheless feeling that it had a magnetic power. He had the same feelings about the banned book after the Soviet invasion, when he was fortunate enough to rediscover it in a cardboard box of his father's: Majrouh had been an active member of the resistance against the invasion; but after being advised to read Carl Gustav Jung's Man and His Symbols, he understood that Majrouh was writing about the collective unconscious.

Majrouh was born in Afghanistan, received his doctorate in Montpellier, France, and taught Literature in Kabul before becoming Governor of the Province of Kapiça. Following the Soviet invasion, he went into exile in Pakistan, where some years later he was machine-gunned to death by Islamists in Peshawar.

Rahimi says that Majrouh lived beyond political, ethnic, linguistic or philosophical barriers. He is most noted for Ego Monstre, a large work in two volumes.

Mahjrouh first wrote Ego Monstre in Persian, re-wrote (not translated) it in Pashto, and almost completely re-wrote it in French. And the books are different, Rahimi says, 'not to adapt his writing and his thought to another culture and vulgarise it. Far from it. He was re-thinking and re-writing his texts to bring out another dimension to his works […]. His intensely visionary writings, though rooted in the contemporary history of Afghanistan, can never be reduced to present-day anecdotes. In everything he wrote, History becomes transformed into ‘epic fable’, and human tragedy into myth. In this way, his works become universal and timeless.’

Unfortunately, virtually none of his poetry is at present available in English. The Library of Congress redirects the name ‘Sayd Bahodine Majrouh’ to Majrūḥ, Bahāʾ al-Dīn, which is the only name the British Library recognises.

(My translation from the original French.)

4 December 2008

James Kelman's Kieron Smith, Boy

The Saltire Society's Scottish Book of the Year 2008 went to James Kelman's Kieron Smith, Boy. This novel, considered by a number of critics to be Kelman's best, was not even included on the Man Booker longlist this year, although Kelman's A Disaffection was shortlisted for the Booker in 1989, and his How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker in 1994. Sin comentario.