Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mobility Shifts


I had to miss far too much of the Mobility Shifts conference (yes, I know, it had a fancier title). organized last week at the New School by my colleague Trebor Scholz.  But I did see John Willinsky's talk on open access,  and workshop, Cecilia Rubino's wonderful play (featuring my former student Brian Lewis), the panel on the scribal; and the digital featuring Michael Pettinger, Dan Visel, and Elaine Savory, Henry Jenkins and Liz Losh's dialogue on participatory culture, and some of the Policy Day sessions featuring Obama administration officials including Asst. Sec'y Eduardo Ochoa (I was most impressed both by the innovativeness of their policies and the intelligence of the personnel enacting them). It was a very inspiring conference and I was particularly pleased by the sense that the liberating expansiveness of digital possibility is being manifested in a very specific socio-economic world still dominated by neoliberalism.

Willinsky's point was that people have been afraid of open access because of proprietary reasons and fears about devaluing information by making it too available. Ingeniously, Willinsky turned to John Locke and utilized Locke’s theory that the only way value is added to property is through the owner improving it (a backbone assumption of the US Homestead laws in the nineteenth century, I might add). As intellectual capital, argued Willinsky, is gained by disseminating work—not by letting it, as it were, remain in the bank and collect interest—so it goes ot waste unless it is communicated. Open access allows academics to maximize the value of their work; it really is a form of capital investment. As much exposure can be gained by publishing one's articles on a free e-journal maintained by a university liberty as a journal behind a pay wall such as those maintained by Taylor and Francis, Reed Elsevier, and so on….

I asked Willinsky, this may be all very well and good, but what about tenure and promotion? Recent cases at various universities with which I am familiar have shown that administrations still tend to value very traditional channels—a book from Oxford, a book from Cambridge-and as exciting and genuinely efficient in information distribution as free library e-journals might be, one can’t see them counting for tenure as much as an article in (in my field) PMLA or ELH. Willinsky's answer centered around increasing awareness and reminding the administrations that they also are stakeholders in any gain to be made from an o-en-information discursive realm, but certain troglodytic administrations may, I am afraid remain unconvinced.

Jenkins and Losh were both great, discussing how 'participatory culture' (a term made famous by Jenkins) could manifest itself in public schools and highly institutionalized universities. Although Jenkins was billed as the advocate of popular culture, Losh of critical theory, there was not much daylight between them; they both gave a realistic sense of pervasive possibility in familiarizing teachers and students with new learning structures. Streamlined textual poaching, perhaps? My own colleagues, Pettinger and Savory, were both outstanding, both commenting on moments of transition between writing technologies, with orality not far from the background: Franciscus Junius’s seventeenth-century editing of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript into a printed book  and Kamau Brathwaite’s shift from composing his experimental Caribbean epics with a typewriter to a computer, which led Brathwaite to develop his ‘video’ style’. Visel talked of computer pioneer Ted Nelson, to a degree like Brathwaite a cranky visionary who has tread an eve more solitary path as he grows older.

The policymakers on Saturday were, again, all outstanding, and made one feel the Obama administration’s achievements were not being trumpeted. (As did the scandalously low attendance, although partially explained by concurrent sessions). Richard Culotta of the Senate Suzanne Hall of the Sate Department and Hal Plotkin of the Department of Education (who was very funny) all illustrated, in concrete, non-euphoric ways, how digital communication is enhancing opportunities and possibilities, both here and abroad, There was no sense that the internet was a mantra that would solve all our problems, or would be seamlessly tied in with an ever-triumphant neoliberalism: where the discourse went wrong in the 1990s. It was good to see the New School’s own president, David Van Zandt, there exchanging ideas very nimbly with Secretary Ochoa, which augurs well both for the New School’s integration into the wider educational world and for the capacity of the university to maximize its greatest wealth—the intellects associated with it.



This panel also discussed the issue of open badges,” which had come up earlier at the Losh/Jenkins panel. At first, I somewhat misunderstood this term, thinking this meant people who wanted to attend conferences affiliated with specific institutions and could do so without obtaining credentials, much on the order of Willinsky's open access arguments. In fact it meant something different: a program, spearheaded by Mozilla, to credential people, as refereed by a team of volunteer experts, as having put together knowledge in specific areas, thus qualifying them for jobs and promotion and professional advancement without having to pass through the mesh of a specific prestigious or hallowed institution. This is wonderful in its non-hierarchical and democratic aims. It has the potential to empower people worldwide. As with Willinsky and open access, though, I feel open badges may work very well in a truly meritocratic sphere like technology, but in the humanities, where meritocracy and sociocultural capital have always coexisted, challenging the credentialing effect of e g. Ivy League or Oxbridge institutions is a habit that will die hard. I am all for it, but realize that an open badges approach would require a redefinition of the humanities in the direction of total meritocracy, which as of now certainly does not prevail, at least in the US and UK, where the place you go to school still matters. 

I love the Internet, but I am honestly an outsider to discussions of digital culture, and for all that I enjoyed the conference I still felt disconcerted at times by the corporate sponsorship, the insider-y talk of personalities and filiations, and the comparative lack of emphasis (the Savory/Pettinger panel being an exception) on analyzing texts. I am very curious about these things, though, and this will be shown over the next few months as I turn over my CELJ responsibilities to Cheryl Ball of Illinois State, one of the foremost advocates of open access and the Internet in literary studies, and as, at the Seattle MLA, I introduce Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Pomona, the MLA's head of Scholarly Communications, for our CELJ keynote address. Listening to the talks at Mobility Shifts, I see I do a lot of the things in the classroom that people were talking bout, even if I did not know them by their designated terms of art. One issue that I almost brought up before the public policy panel: I worry that a lot of our classroom practices are residual. As I observed in 2009, our online teaching is not always fully online, and certainly our on-site teaching is not; we assign print books to our students, are encouraged to place bookstore orders. Why do we need to? Is not everything either free on the Web or downloadable to an e-reader for less than the cost of the physical book? I am all for preserving the physical book as a communicative mode, but, as I explained to Joseph Owens of Grey Sparrow a few weeks back, I see no need to be wedded to teaching Shakespeare in a cheap Signet edition when one can teach him online. I am not labeling those who continue to use physical books as Luddites, just stating that we need to own these practices, do what we would if the university was starting off from scratch.  What is the point of recent developments both in literary theory and technology—recent meaning say from 1970—if we keep on assigning Signet paperbacks and handing out print syllabi? The slogans and formulations are great; if it is truly worthwhile for the reality to catch up with them, then we should start moving….

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Henry VI plays

In the midst of all the hubbub of Mobility Shifts (to be blogged about eventually)  and of teaching three classes and doing who knows what else, I took three hours or so to see the New School for Drama's production of an abridged version of the three Henry VI plays. These are famously under-discussed in Shakespeare criticism; the late plays have an entire critical apparatus about them, centered around ideas of 'romance' and more recently 'late style,' ideas that can encompass even plays of debated quality and authorship like The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII. Early Shakespeare, by contrast, has little constituency, despite some classic treatments  by scholars such as Theodore Weiss; although the early comedies, A Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona, have thrived in performance (and musical adaptation) they have not always attracted the most rigorous criticism. The Henry VI trilogy does not even have the crowd--pleasing aspect of these comedies. Full of referents--people, places, contexts--that still meant something to Shakespeare’s audience, where the times described were on more distant than those of the 1880s re to us, but that mean little even to the most historically acculturated. Whereas Shakespeare’s other history plays can get by on their psychology and dramatic action and a sprinkling of knowledge, the Henry VI plays cannot. And this is after Shakespeare has smoothed to the chronology considerably by not including, in the material covered by the third play, Warwick’s turnabout and Henry VI's brief re-ascension of the throne. 

Moreover, Henry VI is such an uncharismatic figure--sickly, pious without really being holy, somebody whose inability to effectively occupy the space of the monarchy allows for the excessive sway of the regent, Humphrey of Gloucester, in the first play; the rebellion of the peasant leader Jack Cade in the second; and the rebellion of the Duke of York and his offspring in the third play, couched in terms of legitimacy (that become increasingly mechanistic, as every royal aspirant whom somebody or other does not like is deemed illegitimate and a usurper, slightly in the manner of the Obama 'Birther' controversy) but in fact conceived in terms of competence. if Henry VI had been competent, the Yorkist cause would have had no place to stand; it is not comparable e.g. to the Carlist cause in the Spanish nineteenth century which was certainly based on legitimacy.

Thus one cannot cast Brad Pitt as Henry IV; one wither has to have an ineffectual-looking male actor or a female, which also raises interesting issues of gender politics, The director of the new School production, Casey Biggs (who I saw, superbly, play Claudius in the 2009 Theater for a New Audience Hamlet (with Christian Camargo as Hamlet) uses nontraditional casting both to comment on the King’s inherent unkingliness and also to make the tableau more dynamic, make it less historical and more dramatic. The bare- Butoh-influenced staging and the sense both of bleak despair and dark melancholy the stage's white tableau suggested added to a deracination necessary to take the play out of a strict referentiality. Surprisingly the abridgment into a manageable three hours' traffic did not damage the play appreciably; its three parts--that centering of Humphrey’s regency and the slow war of attrition, elevated by the stunning, unpredictably emergence of Joan of Arc, that made the formerly heroic English invasion of France into a quagmire, that centering on Jack Cade’s rebellion; and that centering on the Lancaster-York rivalry--were intact. The Cade play has always been my and most critics' favorite, and its cadences and attitudes are noticeably Shakespearean, so much so that, admittedly intuitively, I do not think he had a collaborator for it, I see it is largely by Shakespeare’s own hand. Not only are the humorous byplay and linguistic riffing on the dramatic situation consummately Shakespearean--and absent in plays I consider falsely ascribed to Shakespeare such as Edward III—but Shakespeare’s skepticism of the fickleness of the crowd and populist leader’s seen in plays such as Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Troilus and Cressida, is manifest here. It is too much, though, to say Shakespearean takes the side of King against peasant, the establishment versus anarchy. He recognizes that the ineffectuality of the king is what has provoked this, and generally that the reign of Henry VI, with its inexorable slide from the glories of Agincourt into civil strife and desuetude, is some sort of karmic payback for the arrogance of the English monarchy’s overreaching in its claim to the French throne. Moreover, he is worried about the anti-intellectualism of Cade’s populism, with its desire to kill off all the lawyers and clerics,  worried that a rage against the establishment will kill off high culture as well. Cade himself is confused about his relationship to the establishment, being a populist leader proud that his father was a bricklayer, yet simultaneously claiming descent from Edward III and the status of Ear of Mortimer. Cade challenges the personnel of the monarchical institution, but not the idea of monarchy--he does not have the imagination to do it, and in all the above plays Shakespeare's biggest critique of the crowd over and above its caprice and inconstancy, is its lack of imagination.

The New School production, which had begun with reciting the “O for a muse of fire’’ invocation of heavy V, ended with the scowling Richard of York, made no happier by his brother’s ascension to the throne, snarling, "Now is the winter of our discontent….” Although Edward, as the legitimate son of the Duke of York, inherits the throne which would have been his father's had not the Lancastrians gotten to him, Richard, in the last part of 3 Henry VI, asserts that he has the same name as his father, so is in some sense the real heir. Legitimacy has been boiled down to a farrago of interlocking and almost nonsensical assertions; the genie that has been taken out of the bottle by the overthrow of Richard II cannot be re-sealed; the very idea of royal legitimacy has been splintered into a multitude of improvable claims. By showing us the arc of history between Shakespeare’s toe most famous history plays, Biggs and the New School for Drama actors have shown us how daring it was for Shakespeare to write these plays, among the first depicting an attested historical event in English drama (thus going very much up against the Aristotelian tradition), and how they should receive far more attention in the context of Shakespeare’s overall achievement.



Sunday, October 16, 2011

Eulogy for Samuel Menashe

I first heard of Samuel Menashe in the mid-1980s through reading British poetry periodicals such as PN Review and Agenda. I was struck by the way articles in these periodicals referred to a living American poet I had not heard of as if he were already part of the firmament, already integrated into the fabric of universally assumed references. When the University of Maine Press released his Collected Poems in 1986, i bought them and became familiar with his work. As a consequence of this, in 1991, when I was asked to write for an anthology on poems more or less of my own choosing, I chose Samuel's poem "Curriculum Vitae"

Scribe out of work
At a loss for words
Not his to begin with
The man life passed by
Stands at the window
Biding his time.

Time and again.
And now once more
I climb these stairs
Unlock this door
No name where I live
alone in my lair
With one bone to pick
And no time to spare.

I knew that this poem referred to Menashe's fifth-floor walkup, where, the British poet and critic Donald Davie had put it, he lived "alone and frugally." Little did I know that,in the course of cleaning out Menashe's papers, I myself would Mount those five flights of stairs hundreds and hundreds of times.

I later published two more essays on Samuel's work (four in total, but two more before I met him). Yet, as Samuel contantly reminded me, I made no attempt to contact him. Just as Samuel, when young in Paris after the Second World War, never even thought he would meet a poet, yet alone become one, at that point I did not see that any poet I wrote on would want to be contacted by me. We were finally introduced in 2002 through the agency of a senior American author (you can work out who she is from the context, since I have provided the gender) who suggested to a retired literary critic who had taught at CUNY that a new article be written on Menashe's work, that he was still underrated even though his recent omnibus volume The Niche Narrows had received very positive notice. I met Samuel in December 2002 and wrote a long piece about him for The Hollins Critic.
     I never thought Samuel and I would become friends, he was forty years older than I was (though, perhaps significantly, born in a -5 year--1925--like me, and for that matter, Anthony Powell, about whom I was writing at the time, was born in a -5 year as well, 1905). Yet Samuel and I developed such a rapport that we would talk several times a week and would meet usually once a week or every two weeks to see a literary event. (Samuel set the record both for going to literary events in New York and for getting autographed books signed. He is the Cal Ripken Jr or the Joe DiMaggio of these records; they will not be broken). I also became, along with his friends of far longer standing, a principal interlocutor of his new poetry, including some of the most exciting of his 'ultimate poems,' which I got to see in their meticulous working-out. Here is 'Rue':


For what I did   
And did not do   
And do without   
In my old age   
Rue, not rage   
Against that night   
We go into,   
Sets me straight   
On what to do   
Before I die—   
Sit in the shade,   
Look at the sky.   

Here is a recording of Samuel reading the poem. It feels eerie to hear his voice, so strong and confident; this would have been in 2006 or so, before he became ill and frail; I am still used to the ill,frail Samuel, but tend to forget that until 2009 or so he was still at the height of his vigor, not, as goes the Dylan Thomas line alluding to in that poem, going gently at all into that good night.


But my friendship with Samuel was not one-sided or confined to his own poetry. We talked about poetry, the Bible, literature in general, politics. He was often a crucial backchannel reader or editor of my own work, at first the subsequent essays I wrote on his poetry, then, as I became increasingly ware of his intellectual breadth--Samuel loved the word 'breadth'--and learning on virtually every aspect of my work. As I will come back to later, the man was not just a great poet but also an intellectual.

I was very privileged to know Samuel in the years he finally got his due recognition; the Neglected Master award from the Poetry Foundation in 2004; regular publication in the premier little magazines of our day; increasing awe and respect from younger writers such as the award-winning novelist Colum McCann, who inscribed a short story of his to Samuel with these words: "We have taken our voice from yours." As much as Samuel was wont to rue his earlier lack of recognition, he understood what a gift and a miracle his being loved and respected in his own lifetime was; after all, none of his great idols among the poets of the past two centuries--William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins--had received anything like this.
   I think that God, or whatever agency you prefer to impute these things to, placed me in Samuel’s life when he needed me; both when his career was finally becoming as spectacular as it should always have been, and when he needed logistical help of the sort I, being relatively young and geographically proximate was able to provide. It was wonderful for me to be able to give help and care in a way that I think mattered.

 (For more of the eulogy you will have to come to the memorial service at the Synagogue for the Arts. 49 White St (two blocks south of Canal, west of Broadway), Thursday, October 27, at 7 PM. 






Friday, October 7, 2011

Tranströmer


I am very surprised that the selection of Tomas Tranströmer as this year’s Nobel laureate in literature is at all controversial. Tranströmer has been well known to followers of poetry for over thirty-five years, since Robert Bly translated him in the 70s. (It may have even been the 60s). These posts by Teju Cole and David Ulin sum up his virtues very well, but I was surprised by some of the detractors. Of course there are always those upset when an American does not win or when an author is not a household name, but, in the latter case, these critics never seem sated when a household name--and Mario Vargas Llosa, Doris Lessing, the late Harold Pinter, J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, and Orhan Pamuk are that in the world of highbrow letters--do win. 
    Posts such as Tim Parks's strangely (for such an accomplished writer) misunderstand the nature of the prize. The prize is not primarily for writers under fifty; it is not about potential or the best book of the year. It takes the longer view, and that is its value; it is designed not to succumb to the trends of the moment, but to weigh writers and have a conversation about them. This countercultural tendency is the finest thing about the prize. If it just rewarded the trends of the culture now, many prizewinners would look very bad thirty years from now, as is true of the book-centered prizes for national literatures. Even as is, some Noble choices inevitably look hackneyed or dated, even ones made with the best of intentions. If the Nobel were redesigned along the lines of the Booker, as Parks seems to want, it would be even more so. 

I also do not understand the criticism of the Swedish Academy giving it to a Swede. Is the idea that Swedes should be ineligible Or that just because some Swedes won it early on who did not deserve it deserving Swedes now should have to atone for this? A great writer in Swedish (albeit a Finnish Swede), Bo Carpelan, died a few years back without ever having won the prize, and if he were not Swedish speaking his chances would have been much better. Tranströmer himself, at 80, was near to this fate as well. Two generations have passed since a Swede won it, and it is clear that it was the quality of the work that was being honored and indeed the judges if anything had qualms about awarding it to a Swede. I wonder why some critics are anti-Swedish or anti-Tranströmer? Do they see his having worked (before his illness) as a prison psychiatrist as too social-programy, too much like water flouridation? Is it because they are people of the Right and still see Sweden as a socialist welfare state? Under the leadership of Fredrik Reinfeldt it is hardly that now....



Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tuncel's Genealogy of the Spectacle



My New School colleague Yunus Tuncel has just published a groundbreaking book, Towards a Genealogy of Spectacle. This handsomely produced book (Eye Corner Press)  is important because Tuncel rehabilitates the spectacle from two species of opprobrium: social and aesthetic. Social, because, as Tuncel points out, modern authoritarian leaders have exploited mythic patterns and symbols in a crypto-populist way that the ancient world did not itself understand, but which tropes from antiquity provided a powerful substrate for their noxious propaganda, in which "myth becomes convoluted and confounded with nationhood" (77). Moreover, the absorption of the spectator in the spectacle (the two words interestingly aligned much as Paul Kottman, another New School colleague, has pointed out with respect to 'theory' and 'theater') has been unfashionable ever since the Russian Formalists, with their 'laying bare the device', and Brecht, with his "alienation effect." Really the idea of the spectacle today is confined, as Tuncel says, to the most banalized spheres, such as Disney shows and the Super Bowl. (Even in contemporary sports, the spectacle is being pierced, as in the case of Moneyball, one of whose effects is to 'lay bare the device' of what actually goes on in baseball, rather than to just look at the 'spectacle’ of on field play. Indeed, as a former student of mine showed in her senior thesis a few years ago, the behind-the-scenes quality of Moneyball (the book) had a plausible alignment with beyond-formalism quality  of many postmodern aesthetic theories. Tuncel, one of whose great interests is sports history, would presumably not take this aside too amiss--or the observation that, if they lived today, Aeschylus would be a Yankee fan, Sophocles a Met fan, Aristophanes a Cub fan, Euripides a Tampa Bay Ray fan. 

So spectacle needs to be rescued. How does Tuncel propose to rescue it?  In short, staccato bursts of argument--their aphoristic quality reminiscent of Wittgenstein, Pascal, or the Nietzsche of The Twilight of the Idols--Tuncel resuscitates the spectacle. Far from being reliable and absorptive, true spectacle is risky in its hypersensible self-sufficiency, ecstatic (e g. 'standing outside of', not just 'blissful') its existence as pure metaphoricity rather than something which seeks to refer, affirmatively or subversively to something else. Ecstasy represents a kind of lay spirituality, intense yet unmoored, fulfilling yet chaotic. Ecstasy provides the heedlessness that unbinds the spectacle from self-sufficiency. "Spectacle does not represent something outside itself, but is a unique occurrence in time and space" (67). Tuncel is anti- or post-Aristotelian; but not totally so. His 'unity of spectacle' (26) takes its place in the sundry alternate unities that have been employed to widen, but not entirely supplant, Aristotle’s theory of mimesis. But Tuncel does not want us just to stand in awe of the spectacle or murmur genteel or even not-so-genteel effusions about it. (It is this light that he strategically does not discuss the natural sublime, or any form of extra-human or extra-aesthetic spectacle). Getting back to sports, Tuncel reminds us that, in ancient Greece, spectacle and agon has an intimate kinship, as Greek theater and poetry were manifested in competitions, contended for prizes. In a way, today these two strands have been separated: when artists win prizes, it is only about money and cultural capital, there is no art itself in the winning of the prize, as opposed to 'that quantity which wins the prize'. That a spectacle is manifested as part of a competition renders irrelevant the most vexing aspect of the spectacle, its seeming inertness and impenetrability.

Another way Tuncel goes against the grain here is in preconceiving the theory of response to the spectacle, which since Aristotle has been a subject of considerable ambiguity. it is understood, for instance, that catharsis requires an audience to complete it, that it cannot just unfold in a mute artifact without an audience, like Keats' Grecian urn. On the other hand, though, few would want to label Aristotle an audience-response theorist; he is seen above all as a theorist of the work of the art-object as work. Tuncel, though, widens the sphere of effects from the conscious to the unconscious--thus in a way the thinker who can most explain the element of audience response in Aristotle is Freud--or at the very least Nietzsche. Tuncel indicates that a mediating factor between the unconscious and the conscious is what might be called the proprioceptive, an orientation of the spectator to the spectacle in terms of space and place. The theater or arena, Tuncel implies, embody an ideal mediation of these two factors: architectural spectacle, on the other hand, risks careening towards the unipolar, a conscious display of splendor and visibility, that evokes the name Tuncel, in a highly Nietzschean way, sues as his bête noire of bad spectacle throughout—the music of Richard Wagner. In the wake of the debate about the World Trade Center site and the highly visible role of architecture s trope for both mourning and national reassertion, this is a very needed reminder. Tuncel suggests we replace architecture in  our idea of the typical spectacle with the artistic movement—he proffers the example of Surrealism—that, whether or not its actual products operate in the mode of the spectacle (as Tuncel sagely recognizes all art does not), indicate in the public display of the very nature of art the most outstandingly brave aspects of spectacular manifestation.

What I like most about Tuncel's book is how he reminds us of the humility of the ancient Greek dramatists. Even what we might see today as something vaunting and narcissistic--that they competed for prizes--public-spiritedness and humility. Every time I teach Greek drama, my class and I struggle with how these works are so ‘universal’; without cliché, Tuncel comes very close to indicating why and how this is so.

Anthony Powell's From A View to A Death


  My old 1970s paperback finally having worn out, I purchased from Joe Trenn's Bookshed, in Benson, Vermont, a 1960s Heinemann hardcover of Anthony Powell’s From A View to a Death, and have just completed rereading it. Having done so, I see that I missed a lot in my account of the novel in Understanding Anthony Powell. (I think I generally missed a lot about the prewar books there). I stand by my primary point that Powell delights in the fall (literal and figurative) of the opportunist Zouch, but does not simply endorse the resiliency of the old order in the form of a triumphant Vernon Passenger. But what I somehow did not see, although it is clearly stated at the beginning of the book, was that Passenger, like Zouch, is also seen as an Ubermensch. (Interestingly, Nietzsche is never credited with the term, never mentioned in the book—it is just seen as a generally German concept, of which more later). When Passenger catches Major Fosdick in his cross-dressing routine, he does not exact undue revenge on him, and feels some disappointment that he had not lived up to his Ubermensch potential. Does his aristocratic reserve and noblesse oblige prevent him from moving into the kill? Is his grousing to his wife at the end merely a deflective gesture, a refined way of underplaying his success, as a gentleman should? Or is Zouch the true Ubermensch, whose fall we rejoice in as a foiled aspirant to power, whereas Passenger keeps his love of dominance and mastery in more civilized channels? Powell, always fascinated by power and those avid in its pursuit yet keeping a reserved distance from it, lets us judge: but there is no ready moralist, and so simple recouping of an established given.
The ambiguity here is striking; My concern in UAP (somewhat expedited by issues present in the culture in the early 2000s, happily less present in the early 2010s) was to point out that Powell did not want a simple restoration of the Old Regime. He did not want to refight the old battles of the past (seventeenth century England now exists as a pageant where the roles of king, rebel, and courtesan are virtually interchangeable). But, on the other hand modishness comes in for a good deal of rebuke in the book. Characters are roasted for reading John Maynard Keynes and J. B. Priestley, both writers of the Left whom Powell seems to view with scorn. In addition, Powell seems to be sarcastic towards any sort of reconciliation with Germany; as witnessed by Mrs. Fosdick wanting to take in a German boy as an au pair. This of course was often considered the less “Conservative" position in the 1930s. As pointed out in UAP, there is some ambiguity about attitudes towards Chamberlain and Munich in The Kindly Ones, so it is interesting to see this hint of not being satisfied with a “don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans” attitude.
Zouch is a fairly conventional portrait painter but he does not show in the Royal Academy because, for his generation, that his not the pathway to power. Zouch is no rebel per se. When Passenger suspects him of being a Communist, the narrative comments that Zouch urgently depended on the capitalist system, to sell, his paintings. Indeed, his desire is to play the role of proud scourge to capitalism who nonetheless profits from it; by seeing vaguely rebellious, he can play the system whole seeing to thumb his nose at it. This kind of inverse attraction also seems to operate with Joanna Brandon and Mary Passenger; as it is stated that Zouch has generally not seen himself as attractive to women, having only one rather dowdy long-term girlfriend who is no great catch, it must be this juxtaposition—of the fusty privilege of Passenger Court with the go-getting Zouch—that makes him so effective in this regard in this particular tactical situation. (I always pronounced Zouch to rhyme with Pouch, but at the 2003 Powell conference in Oxford, Patric Dickinson pronounced it to rhyme with louche, something that brings out the seamy appeal of his character all the more).
      But things get more complicated than this, Zouch, like all the protagonists of the prewar novels, is in some way a Powell manqué. He is a young, aspiring artist, going to country houses where his entrée is because of his art—much like, mutatis mutandis, the young Powell himself in his associations with the landed gentry and above. Powell himself said that Zouch’s misadventures on Creditor were based on his own on a horse during a rural chase—of course happily without the fatal results. Powell, of course, was actually a great artist, and his aspirations were ultimately artistic rather than social. But there is a kinship, if even by inversion. It has often been said that the I-narrator of What’s Become of Waring foreshadows the I-narrator of Dance. But, turned backward, the I-narrator also shows how Atwater, Lushington, Zouch, and Blore-Smith are all potential Is, or would be if turned around, having, as Zouch eventually does, their beards taken off (a feature obviously indicated to assure the reader Zouch is not Powell). In Zouch, Powell is writing about just what he is not. But in a writer of genius, writing about what he is not becomes an inevitably rich and complicated gesture.
       Gender and ethnicity are also complicated categories in the book. In UAP, I was at pains not to overtly mention modern critical theories or concerns, because that often seems preposterous with a writer who has not yet been properly read in introductory terms across the whole of his oeuvre (considering the earlier critical books had not ha the chance to look at the Memoirs and Journals). With this now done—not just in UAP but also in Barber’s biography, Christine Berberich’s book on the English gentleman, and in the many fine articles in both the Anthony Powell Society newsletter and the Society’s journal, Secret Harmonies, by such hands as Colin Donald, Jeff Manley, and Peter Kislinger—one can look at issues that would have been thought disproportionate and incongruous before. The cross-dressing of Major Fosdick is obviously meant to be funny, but Powell also saw it was a very key part of the book, being delighted when, in the 1990s, Susan Macartney-Snape’s design for the paperback edition feature the transvestite Fosdick rather than a man on a horse. Fosdick’s cross-dressing is seen as insanity by the society but the narrative itself is more compassionate: when caught in the sequined dress by Passenger and folding it up for what he knows will be the last time, he feels as if a part of himself had ended.   
Major Fosdick in a way is having to live within the constraints of a false self, having to impersonate a hearty rural squire whereas the sequined dress represents aspects of himself that this role cannot accommodate. Similarly, for all Powell satirizes any attempt at high culture—people who read Melville in the same tranche of books as Edgar Wallace, people who think Axel Munthe is highbrow literature—and recognizes how it can be used by opportunists to cozen landed gentry out of their funds (and their daughters), there is a tacit critique of the narrowness of men like Passenger here. When Passenger encounters Fischbein and his wife Hetty, Zouch tells them that they are hikers. “Hikaz’,” says Passenger, as if in an oriental language. Not only does Passenger not understand that the rural scene is being more festooned with urban nature-lovers, but he articulates his bafflement in a sound that sounds foreign.  Powell spelled his astonished pronunciation of the word very like the Arabian region of Hejaz, much in the headlines at the time as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was being formed out of the Arab states that had coalesced in the revolt against Ottoman rule during the First World War. Interestingly, this Semitic reference is paired with the entrance of Fischbein—a character with an obviously Jewish name. As with his portrayal of the Jew, Verelst, in Afternoon Men, Powell is deliberately foiling stereotypes of Jewishness. Some would see any representation of a Jew by a non-Jew in this era as somehow anti-Semitic, but here it is Zouch who exhibits anti-Semitic tendencies, being ashamed of Fischbein both because Fischbein knows him in his pre-aspiring-to-country-gentlemenhood life and because Fischbein’s ethnicity and status as a journalist are not the sort of associates he wants his new friends to see. Yet Fischbein is one of the servers at the end, offering commentary on the slain Zouch, much as the Palliser does on Lizzie Eustace at the end of The Eustace Diamonds, with as much an air of survival-authority as passenger has. The landed squire and the Jew remain on the canvas after the social-climbing opportunist has faded.
       As long as well are discussing ethnic issues, what Major Fosdick reads during the sequined-dress interludes is also apposite—Through the Western Highlands With Rod and Gun. Scottishness is on Powell’s mind here, as he was shortly to write Caledonia. Again, he is writing about what he is not; of English and Welsh descent, Powell sees Scotland as a gently teasable ‘other'. The incongruity of the hyper-macho reading and the sequined dress hits the reader first; but the writer is, in complex ways, giving us his likes and dislikes, his identities and avoidances: putting them on the canvas.
     Speaking of canvases, the women in this book—objects of Zouch’s portraiture—are some of the most attractive female characters in early Powell. For all the bad judgment both Joanna Brandon and Mary Passenger show in being interested in Zouch, both ladies are presented very positively. Mary is universally seen, by many neutral observers, as the best in the Passenger family. Joanna is game and lively and is accorded the books one happy ending, in her engagement to Jasper Fosdick. This marriage makes clear, --despite the Major’s commitment to a rest cure and the breaking of Torquil Fosdick’s relationship with Betty Passenger,--that the Fosdick family are not being punished by the narrative of the crime of simply being slightly less well off and/or prestigious as the passengers. Though we do not admire Zouch’s pursuit of the two ladies, his two-timing of Joanna, and his gravitating towards Mary simply because her family has more money and prestige, we understand what the women see in Zouch: an escape from the stultification of rural life, an expression of individuality, a chance to live a more creative and inspired life than their mothers. Powell’s ability to make us admire these female characters even as we despise the man who unaccountably interests them is one of his most subtle and winning touches in what, for all its satire and all the shock of Zouch's death, is so often a very lyrical and moving novel.
     The youngest female character in the book should not be scanted. Betty Passenger’s daughter Bianca—the product of her ill-fated marriage with an Italian aristocrat—provides an air of impish irreverence throughout the book. Powell rarely depicts children, but in Bianca he engagingly depicts a precocious yet sometimes irritating child whose truth-telling is sometimes tinged with malice, as when she tells Zouch that, of all her family, only Mary likes him. She has both the insouciance and menace, though in a more minor key, of the young Pamela Flitton depicted in A Buyer’s Market, who similarly is the first instance in that narrative of generation definably younger than that of the novel’s point of view. The final action of the novel—Bianca’s defacing of Zouch’s portrait of Mary with a moustache—is a pleasingly farcical and deflationary ending to an often farcical and deflationary book. But not only, in its mixture of gender signifiers, is it reminiscent of Fosdick’s cross-dressing, but it also defaces a portrait that represents the book’s most admirable aspirations. Zouch, in reality had little real regard for Mary other than as a target of opportunity, but how Mary saw herself in Zouch's vision of her was something laudable and, for her, empowering, and her niece’s description of the portrait indicates that, whatever happens in the future, her family will not provide the succor and encouragement she needs
       All this in a short pithy novel with lots of dialogue! So many missed chances, chance catastrophes, rogue animalities, calculating rogues. There is so much more--the linear inevitability of the title, taken from John Woodcock Graves '1820 Cumberland Hunting Song (do ye ken John Peel?), the open question as to whether Passenger actually planned Zouch's accident with Creditor, the fact that this is Powell's sole novel to deal primarily with country life. Powell’s prewar fiction is deceptively slight, easily able to fake out the reader with its slightness, as I confess it semi-faked me out when I wrote my book on Powell. For more on my reconsideration of non-Dance Powell, you will have to come to my lecture on March 17, 2012, at St James’ Piccadilly in London, sponsored by the Anthony Powell Society, starting at 1:45 in the afternoon.