Friday, 8 November 2013

Anti-Racist Action: Origins and Ideological Roots

Many readers of American Renaissance are aware of “anti-racist” activist networks, but very little has been written about them. These networks are the most militant proponents of political correctness and are ideologically very much with the grain of mainstream social trends. They have many chapters throughout the country. And yet they are notoriously shady and obscure—most members of the public are unaware of them. Indeed, they operate in near secrecy, and their members often wear masks at public events. Worse still, they are violent; they proclaim this proudly in their literature. In this article I would like to examine what is probably the best-known of these networks in the United States: Anti-Racist Action.

Background

The anti-racist movement in the United States has antecedents in Britain, and was first organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), which in turn traces its intellectual roots all the way back to the Trotsky’s Fourth International of 1938. The SWP’s anti-racist activity was in response to the success in Britain of the National Front.

With up to 14,000 members, John Tyndall and Martin Webster’s National Front was at the height of its success in the mid-1970s, performing well—for a nationalist party—in local and parliamentary by-elections. Though the NF won no seats, in the Greater London Council election of 1977, for example, it got nearly 120,000 votes, and polled better than the Liberals in 33 of 92 constituencies.

The SWP’s original anti-fa group was the Anti-Nazi League (ANL, though some prefer ANaL), organised in 1977. ANL had sponsors who were either prominent or went on to prominence. One was the anti-Apartheid campaigner and former Youth Liberals president Peter Hain, who later joined the Labour Party and remains a prominent supporter of Unite Against Fascism. Until he was forced to resign for failing to declare campaign donations, Mr Hain held cabinet positions under Gordon Brown’s and Tony Blair’s Labour administrations, and was Leader of the House of Commons during half of Mr Blair’s second term.

Another Anti-Nazi League sponsor was Neil Kinnock, who was later Labour Party leader, member of the European Parliament, and Vice-President of the European Commission. He now sits in the House of Lords, having accepted a peerage despite previously refusing (allegedly out of principle) even to set foot in the upper chamber. The ANL also enjoyed the support of many trade unions.

The ANL was linked to the Rock Against Racism campaign, started in 1976 by Sunday Times photographer Red Saunders, after Eric Clapton declared support for Enoch Powell and shouted the NF slogan—“Keep Britain White”—at a concert in Birmingham. Another impetus to Rock Against Racism was David Bowie’s “racist” and “pro-Nazi” declarations (“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars”) in 1976. Mr Bowie later blamed these comments on drug use and an obsession with occultism and Nietzsche.

Rock Against Racism enjoyed support from pop, rock, and reggae, but it overlapped with the punk movement to a significant degree, and its “Carnival Against the Nazis,” organised jointly with the ANL in 1978, included groups such as The Clash, Buzzcocks, Sham 69, X-Ray Spex, and Generation X. Other punk groups supported later festivals.

The Anti-Nazi League targeted the National Front and Colin Jordan’s British Movement, though the league was primarily anti-police, and became known for its violent street-fighting gangs, referred to as “squads.” These were formed first in Manchester and then elsewhere, with the aim of assaulting National Front members—and the police, whom they saw as instruments of fascism—on every possible occasion. (Manchester remains the capital of militant anti-fascism.) This was not the only tactic used by ANL squadists: One of them, Steven Tizley, was imprisoned for kidnapping a young skinhead in his efforts to discover the address a family of NF activists then living in Lancashire.

Yet it was not the Anti-Nazi League that eventually stopped the National Front, but Margaret Thatcher, who by 1979 had moved the Conservative Party to the Right, offering a “respectable” alternative after five years of miserable Labour governments. Many former Conservatives, who had defected to the NF, rejoined the Conservative Party, and the NF, afflicted by internal problems, went into sharp decline. By 1981, the ANL had thoroughly discredited itself because of its violent squadism, and was finally disbanded by the Socialist Workers’ Party, which expelled ANL members from the party.

This was not the end of anti-fa terrorism, however. Former ANL members quickly formed an equally violent working-class group, Red Action, grouped around a newspaper of the same name that was sold in Left-wing bookshops. Red Action was mostly Irish, pro-IRA, and anti-police. One of Red Action’s leading members, Patrick Hayes, who was English, was involved in street fights against NF members from the beginning, and would later run an IRA bombing campaign. When he was finally arrested in 1993, the police found Semtex, handguns, ammunition, and electronic detonators in his basement flat, plus keys to a north-London garage filled with home-made explosives.

Red Action provided leaders for Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), a group formed in 1985. Violence was at the center of the AFA’s strategy and it even criticised the ANL for not having been confrontational enough with the National Front and for having cooperated with “bourgeois” (i.e., “conservative”) groups linked to the state. These included the Labour Party and even such “anti-racist” but non-violent publications as Searchlight.

In 1988, Red Action developed a musical arm called Cable Street Beat, which organised concerts and published an occasional magazine. The bands had a strong DIY (“do it yourself,” meaning independently produced and marketed)/punk flavour and included The Men They Couldn’t Hang (folk punk), The Neurotics (punk rock/post-punk), Attila the Stockbroker (folk punk), The Blaggers (Oi!/punk rock), Angelic Upstarts (Oi!/punk rock).
 
Origins of Anti-Racist Action

Anti-Racist Action was founded in 1988 by a Minneapolis-based group of Left-wing skinheads, who had adopted the name “Baldies” in 1986. According to Minnesota journalist Matt Snyders:
The Baldies began as a small, insular group of friends hanging out, drawn together by a shared love of oi! music—working-class punk rock with unpretentious, street level lyrics. Many were straight-edge—no drugs or drink—and all harbored a disdain for racists, particularly neo-Nazis.
Their main target was the White Knights, a Klan group, whom they would attack (give a “boot party”) on sight.

By 1987 they tried to widen their influence and introduce a more explicitly political approach to their brand of anti-racism. They approached student groups, including the University of Minnesota Black Law Student Association, of which now-Congressman Keith Ellison was then an officer. The name Anti-Racist Action was a variant on Anti-Fascist Action, the British group founded two years earlier. ARA copied the “no platform” (i.e., no debate with opponents) policy of the AFA. Mr Snyders continues:
That summer, two carloads of Baldies followed Blind Approach on their tour to New York City. For two weeks, the crew acted as the Johnny Appleseeds of the ARA, planting the seeds of what would become a national movement. They cruised the streets of Chicago; Milwaukee; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Rochester, New York, shouting the international skinhead greeting to any Doc Martens-wearing, close-cropped chap they passed: “Oi!”
Many of the groups they came across were scattered, unorganised, and nameless. Upon learning about the activities of Anti-Racist Action, some simply decided to adopt the name “ARA” and operate as a chapter. ARA affiliates sprang up in Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Vancouver, and Front Range, Colorado. The first gathering of the national network was held in Portland, Oregon, in 1988.

Ideological roots

As with their antecedents in Britain, ARA’s ideology mixes anarchism and Trotskyism. The Love and Rage Anarchist Federation, a revolutionary organisation, played a key role building the ARA network during the 1990s.

Love and Rage was launched at a conference in 1989. Its predecessors were the Minnesota-based Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League (RABL), and a faction of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), an orthodox Trotskyist group, from which Love and Rage obtained the Aspect Foundation, its tax-exempt, non-profit organisation.

The RABL had been founded by members of the Back Room Anarchist Books collective who wanted more militant, explicitly revolutionary anarchist politics. The group gained notoriety during a protest of Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Nicaragua in 1988, when someone who was probably a member of the Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League threw a bowling ball through the window of a military recruiting center. Some of the Baldies/ARA were involved with RABL, and it is probably through this group that anarchist politics became integral to the ARA program.

Love and Rage members had scant regard for anarchist orthodoxies, and from the beginning were influenced by several varieties of Marxism, most notably support for national liberation struggles and the embrace of a white-privilege analysis of racism in the US. They claimed that white workers received material and psychological benefits at the expense of non-white—especially black—workers, and since white privilege undermined multi-racial working class unity, it had to be confronted directly.

These ideas were reinforced by prison-solidarity work, which forged personal relationships between Love and Rage members and former members of groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, the Weather Underground Organization, and the George Jackson Brigade.

Noel Ignatiev, now a history professor at the Massachusetts College of Art, was one of the writers who was influential in linking black nationalism and American Communism. In the late 1950s, Prof Ignatiev had been a member of the Provisional Organizing Committee, a proto-Maoist breakaway from the Communist Party USA. Prof Ignatiev then became active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and played a leading role in the Sojourner Truth Organisation, which blended Maoism and Italian Autonomist Marxism.
Prof Ignatiev briefly joined Love and Rage when it was founded, and is now probably best known for his book, How the Irish Became White. He also edited a journal, Race Traitor, which was notorious for its motto, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” and for its calls to “abolish” the white race. He is frequently cited as an authority by ARA activists.

One of the most important contributions to the ARA mindset may have been the ideology of the Weather Underground Organisation. Indeed, it is similar to the ARA: clandestine, militant, confrontational, violent, conspiratorial, and attracts young, mostly white members with its egalitarian-universalist moral idealism. Originating from the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) faction of the SDS, members of the Weather Underground were dissatisfied with the previous strategy of non-violent resistance and opted for domestic terrorism.

The Weathermen issued a declaration of war against the United States, and from 1969 until the mid-1970s, conducted a violent anti-government campaign, included bombings and arson, targeting, in particular, the police and the FBI. The Weathermen hoped that urban guerrilla warfare would catalyse a revolutionary uprising that would support a Marxist-Leninist Party in the United States, overthrow the government, and support national liberation movements in the Third World. The Weathermen had contacts with the governments of Cuba and North Vietnam, but also with the Chinese government, then three years into the Cultural Revolution. (Up to 20 million people were killed in the violence of the Cultural Revolution, according to Daniel Chirot.) The FBI soon put the Weathermen on its ten-most-wanted list.

Citing Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), the Weathermen thought that “the main struggle going on in the world today is between US imperialism and the national liberation struggles against it.” Like Marx, the group claimed that oppressed people were the rightful owners of the wealth of empire, because they created it. The Weathermen saw their goal as “the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism.” Their 1969 founding document, You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows, takes its title from a verse of a song by Bob Dylan.

Most importantly for our purposes, the Weathermen were vociferous advocates of the theory of “white privilege,” against which they supported non-white identity politics. Bernardine Dohrn, a leading theorist of the terrorist group (and now, ironically—without ever having served a prison sentence, due to a judge’s error—an associate professor of law at the Northwestern University School of Law), stated, “White youth must choose sides now. They must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressor.” This has since become textbook ARA language.

Historians sympathetic to these groups conceive them as part of a tradition of American anti-racist white organising that goes back to the 19th century, beginning with the radical wing of the abolitionist movement, which sought both an end to slavery and racial equality. These efforts continued with the white anarchists and socialists of the labour movement, including the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. This led into the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. For Chris Crass, author of Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, ARA was part of a continuation of this tradition into the 1990s that also included Earth First!, Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Black Cross, Books to Prisoners, Homes Not Jails, Lesbian Avengers, Anarchist Youth Federation, and Art and Revolution.

The Anti-Racist Action network’s national structure was finally formalised in 1994 at the Midwest Anti-Fascist Network meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The network is decentralised, with chapters spread throughout the United States. It has a logo, but no central office—although it has released a compilation CD giving an address in California, which may simply be a chapter. It does have four points of unity, upon which every chapter must agree:
  1. We go where they go. Whenever fascists are organising or active in public, we’re there. We don’t believe in ignoring them or staying away from them. Never let the Nazis have the street!
  2. We don’t rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us. This doesn’t mean we never go to court, but the cops uphold white supremacy and the status quo. They attack us and everyone who resists oppression. We must rely on ourselves to protect ourselves and stop the fascists.
  3. Non-sectarian defense of other anti-fascists. In ARA, we have a lot of different groups and individuals. We don’t agree about everything and we have a right to differ openly. But in this movement an attack on one is an attack on us all. We stand behind each other.
  4. We support abortion rights and reproductive freedom. ARA intends to do the hard work necessary to build a broad, strong movement against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination against the disabled, the oldest, the youngest, and the most oppressed people. We want a classless, free society. We intend to win!
The main ARA website now lists only a few chapters in the United States and Canada: Los Angeles, Arch City (Columbus), Calgary, Central Florida, Central Texas, Lafayette (Indiana), Circle City (Indiana), Rose City (Portland), South Side Chicago, and Minneapolis.

Image

I have already noted that the “anti-racist” movement has links to the punk subculture, and that ARA is proud of its ethos of violence. This is evident in all its propaganda, which is crude, hastily thrown together, and designed for maximum visual aggression. White, black, and red are the dominant colours; faces in masks, hoodies, and balaclavas are common. The archetypal “anti-racist” activist is always depicted as angry, in aggressive postures, about to commit or committing an assault against an unseen victim, who is sometimes the viewer. Indeed, the main theme is intimidation and bodily assault. The most common weapons depicted are fists, slings, and baseball bats.

ARA literature delights in displaying smashed swastikas and bleeding skinheads and neo-Nazis, surrounded by blocky, screaming slogans, and humorous, triumphalist copy. In style and content, their prose suggests little reading or education; any knowledge they have was most likely acquired second-hand from their comrades, and in their minds it is reduced to slogans. In look and feel it is like the do-it-yourself ethos of the 1970s punk scene, only updated with personal computers and simple publishing software.

Compared to the bravado of their graphics, ARA activists are unimpressive: scrawny, unkempt, wearing informal, worn-out clothes from charity shops. Far from the image they cultivate of tough street warriors clad in black and wearing Doc Marten’s boots, they wear soft cotton clothing and comfortable shoes. There is no evidence of involvement in sports. The women, who are always a minority, are consistently unglamorous.

Psychology

Despite the romanticised conception given to them by people like Mr Crass, it seems that the main appeal of ARA is that it lets activists engage in anti-social acts of violence and vandalism against private people and property under the cloak of moral idealism. It seems improbable that a person with high self-esteem, talent, and good prospects in life would choose ARA activism as a lifestyle or as the most meaningful way to improve the world. These young activists seem to have concluded early that their prospects in life were minimal, and that ARA terror was the only way to give their lives meaning. They find significance in lashing out.

Their choice of targets is instructive. In their war against privilege and racial supremacy, they target the most marginalised, disprivileged, and powerless: Klansmen and Neo-Nazis. This suggests cowardice because they are dishonest about their simple desire for cathartic violence, and because they choose unpopular, ridiculous, weird, or powerless targets from the far reaches of society. Their choice of enemies also shows a lack of ambition. They keep their sights low by targeting people who are, in essence, just like them, only at the opposite extreme of their race-based worldview.

This worldview is so intensely polarised, exaggerated, and stripped of nuance that they end up—comically—applying incongruous labels to middle-class proponents of Euro-American identity politics. Indeed, they are baffled when confronted with ideas or people who defy their system of classification. American Renaissance, the National Policy Institute, and Arktos Media, whose editor John Morgan lived for many years in India, are perplexing to them. For the ARA, these must necessarily be Nazis and Klansmen who have disguised themselves in suits and ties in order to deceive a credulous public; indeed, an ARA activist recently complained on Internet radio that Richard Spencer was intelligent.

Ultimately, ARA activism represents a psychopathological mindset, a form of militant masochism. In it we have a group of near- or self-disenfranchised white youths assaulting white folk who campaign—in a variety of guises—for what is essentially in their interest. The pathological nature of this mindset is obscured by the fact that many of the groups they target are unserious, unpopular, and considered immoral. In a society in which egalitarianism was considered immoral, ARA activism would be incomprehensible, comical, and would deserve clinical study.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Blurb of My Talk for the TBG



Sovereignty is identity, so to talk about the future prospects of the nation-state in a world of disintegrating boundaries is—at least in the West—really to talk about our destiny. Will our uniqueness as peoples endure, or are we, instead, condemned to dissolution, reduced to denatured abstractions to be subsumed into universalist proposition states? What prevents a frank discussion of the various issues relating to identity in the West—e.g., immigration, citizenship, nationality, etc.—is the belief that equality is the highest moral good, since in its anti-essentialist assumptions it is antagonistic to the privileging of one category of citizen (or aspiring citizen) over another on the basis of ethno-cultural origin. While the nation state is associated with 19th-century nationalisms and hæmato-geographical romanticism, its design provides, in fact, a template for the gradual erasure of regional variation in the service of an all-encompassing, undifferentiated, and centrally regulated identity, a procedure originally intended for national unity that can be replicated at both the national and supranational level in the creation of proposition states. As an ethics, egalitarianism is the single most powerful impediment in the articulation of the traditionalist conception of nationhood. Since the ability to invent unique cultures—and find meaning through them—is integral to what makes us human, we cannot unquestioningly accept egalitarianism as a humanist project. On the contrary, it seems that tradition and cultural differentiation is the true form of humanism. The nation-state may or may no longer be an optimal formation for purposes of sovereignty, but the issues that lead us to ask ourselves whether it will survive, or should, is the real issue, and one which egalitarian ethics presently excludes from public debate. Egalitarianism is long overdue for a moral critique.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Gentleman from Povidence

S. T. Joshi
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft
2 vols.
New York: Hippocampus Press, 2012


When it comes to a truly comprehensive biography of Howard Philip Lovecraft, one cannot do better than S. T. Joshi’s I am Providence, a 2 volume, 1,000-page, 500,000-word mammoth of a book that aims to cover everything there is to know about the American master of the weird tale.
I am Providence by S T Joshi
As with Mark Finn, whose biography of Howard I reviewed recently, it would seem that L. Sprague de Camp was what spurred Joshi into action: after reading the latter’s Lovecraft: A Biography upon initial publication in 1975, Joshi dedicated his life thereafter to the study of the author from Providence. His choice of university was dictated by its holding the Lovecraft manuscript collection of the John Hay Library. And when he discovered that At the Mountains of Madness, his favourite Lovecraft story, contained no less than 1,500 textual errors, he devoted the ensuing years to tracking down and examining manuscripts and early publications in order to determine the textual history of the work and make possible a corrected edition of Lovecraft’s collected fiction, “revisions,” and other writings. What we have here, you may confidently conclude, is the product of decades of fanaticism and obsessive investigation.

Lovecraft was born in 1890, into a conservative upper middle class family, in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, Winfield, was a travelling salesman, employed by Gorham & Co., Silversmiths, and his mother, Sarah, could trace her ancestry back to the arrival of George Phillips to Massachusetts in 1630. His parents married in their thirties.

The young Lovecraft was talented, intellectually curious, and precocious, able to recite poetry by age two, and to read by age three. Growing up at a time when school was not compulsory, Lovecraft would not be enrolled in one until he was eight years of age and his attendance would be sporadic, possibly due to a nervous complaint and / or psychosomatic condition. But he was well ahead of his coevals in any event, having been exposed, and thereafter enjoyed ready access, to the best of classical and English literature. From Lovecraft’s perspective, this meant 17th and early 18th century prose and poetry, and, indeed, so steeped was he in the canonical literature from this period that he regarded its style of writing not only the finest ever achieved, but, for him, the norm. In the process, he also absorbed some of the archaic tastes and sensibilities permeating this literature, which would subsequently be reflected in his writing, speech, and attitudes, fundamentally aristocratic and at odds with the 20th century. What is more, Lovecraft was never denied anything he may have needed in the pursuit of his intellectual development, be it a chemistry set, a telescope, or printing equipment, so he became knowledgeable enough on these topics, and particularly his passion, astronomy, to contribute articles to a local publication from an early age. He also regularly produced—while still in infancy—his own amateur scientific journals, many of which still survive and were personally examined by Joshi for this biography. Thus, from early on, Lovecraft, a somewhat lonely boy with a charmed boyhood, was committed to a life entirely of the mind.

With such beginnings, it would appear to a casual observer that Lovecraft was well-equipped to become a success in life. But, instead, in adulthood he experienced ever-worsening poverty, squalor, and, though well known for a period within the specialised milieu of amateur publishing, growing professional obscurity. That his legacy has endured owes—besides to the intrinsic value of his works—perhaps in a not insignificant measure to his having been a prodigous correspondent: it has been estimated that throughout the course of his life Lovecraft may have written as many as 100,000 letters (only about 20,000 of which survive), and these were not hastily penned missives, as can be seen in the many excerpts herein presented, but thoughtful communications, sometimes of up to 30 pages in length, which are works of literatue in themselves.
In examining his overall trajectory, we can identify a number of negative vectors early on. The loss of his father, who, following a psychotic episode and permanent committal to a local hospital, suffering from what Joshi presumes to have been syphilis, meant that, from 1893, Lovecraft passed into the care of his mother, aunts, and his maternal grandfather. Whipple van Buren Phillips, a wealthy businessman, proved a positive influence, but died in 1904, and, his estate being poorly managed, this eventually forced the family to downsize. This badly affected the young Lovecraft, to the point that he briefly contemplated suicide. He was eventually dissuaded by his own intellectual curiosity and love of learning.

In 1908, just prior to his high school graduation, Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown. Joshi speculates that failure to master higher mathematics may have been a factor, since Lovecraft’s ambition was to become a professional astronomer. (Failure to master meant not getting straight As, but, among the As, a few A-s and Bs.) Whatever its cause, the breakdown prevented Lovecraft from obtaining his diploma, a fact he would later conceal or minimise. Lovecraft then went into seclusion—hikikomori, as it would be called today—in which condition he remained for five years, mostly reading and writing poetry. Joshi expresses alarm at the sheer volume of reading undertaken by Lovecraft during this period, a large portion of it consisting of magazines.

Lovecraft’s re-emergence owes to his irritation with a pulp author, Fred Jackson, whose stories in Argosy magazine he found maudlin, mediocre, and irritating. His letter was published in the magazine, whereby it detonated an opinionated debate. When Lovecraft’s expressed view led to attacks, he responded in lofty and witty verse, thus instigating a months-long war—in archaic rhyme—in the letters’ page. This got him noticed by the president of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), Edward F. Daas, who invited Lovecraft to join. This inaugurated Lovecraft’s amateur career, which led to his return to fiction—something he had dabbled in years before—and, by 1919, to his first commerically published work. During his early years in amateurdom, Lovecraft would also produce his own literary journal, The Conservative, a publication that truly lived up to its name and that has only recently been reprinted by Arktos in unabridged form.

Throughout this period Lovecraft continued to live with his mother, who sustained them both off an ever-shrinking inheritance. Trapped between the expectations of her class and dwindling resources, she grew progressively more neurotic and unstable. She already had an unheathily close, love-hate, relationship with her son, and Joshi records that she considered her son’s visage too ugly for public view. By 1919, suffering from hysteria and clinical depression, she would be committed to hospital, where she would remain for the rest of her days. Mother and son stayed close correspondents, but she was a perennial source of worry. Thus, when Sarah died in 1921, initial grief led to a sense of liberation, and an improvement in Lovecraft’s general health—though he, at this time a tall man of nearly 200 lbs, always regarded himself as ailing.
Yet there were further turns to the worst ahead. In 1921, at a convention for amateur journalists in Boston, Lovecraft met Sonia Green, an assimilated 38-year-old Ukrainian Jew from New York, whom he would marry in 1924. Interestingly, Lovecraft only told his aunt after the fact, writing to her from New York, where he had by then already taken residence at Sonia’s apartment.

Joshi notes that at this time Lovecraft’s prospects appeared to be improving: Sonia earned a good living at a hat shop in Fifth Avenue, and Lovecraft’s professional writing career was taking off. Lovecraft, then in a decadent phase, was also enthralled by the city, where he had a number of amateur friends. However, Sonia lost her job almost immediately when the shop went bankrupt. This forced Lovecraft for the first time to find regular employment, but without qualifications, work experience, nor, apparently, marketable skills, he was unable to find a position. The consequent financial difficulties impacted on Sonia’s health, who entered a sanatorium for a period of recovery. Eventually, she would find a job in Cleveland, leaving Lovecraft to live on his own, in a tiny apartment, in Brooklyn Heights (then Red Hook), back then a seedy neighbourhood. Sonia sent him an allowance, which permitted him to cover his rent and minimal expenses, but otherwise Lovecraft lived in poverty, stretching as far as possible a minuscule fare of unheated beans, bread, and cheese.

This was, however, genteel poverty. When, on one occasion, Lovecraft’s apartment was burglarised, he was left with only the clothes on his back (while he slept, the thieves gained access to his closet and stole all his suits). His reaction says much about Lovecraft: first priority for him was to get four new replacements: light and dark, winter and summer—no easy task, given his slender wallet. A gentleman may be poor, but he must still dress like a gentleman! The ensuing hunt for suitable attire taxed Lovecraft’s ingenuity, and ignited his frustration at the shoddy quality of modern suits (Lovecraft’s original suits had been made in happier times). Eventually, he succeeded, with minimal compromise.

Seething with immigrants of all descriptions, crowded, and filthy, Lovecraft came to despise New York, recognising it as an emblem of modern degeneration (remember: he already thought this in 1925!). This negative opinion does not sit well with Joshi: having immigrated from India at a young age and having been a New York resident for 27 years, Joshi puts Lovecraft through the wringer for failing to appreciate the city’s vibrancy. Here and elsewhere, he attacks Lovecraft for his enamourment with Anglo-Saxondom, his fierce resistance to racial egalitarianism, and his rejection of the multicultural society. In Joshi’s estimation, Lovecraft ought to have considered Franz Boas’ research, which was beginning to transform anthropology at this time; Joshi views this as contrary to Lovecraft’s rigorous scientific outlook—in other words, as Lovecraft having been blinded by prejudice. However, this overlooks the fact that there were different strands of opinion in anthropology at this time: this was the Progressive Era, when the American eugenics movement was at its height, enjoying institutional legitimacy, famous proponents (e.g. John Harvey Kellogg), and backing from the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Institution, and the the Harriman estate. Boas’ findings were politically motivated and not universally accepted, and he had by no means proven his case. (Worse still, since then there have been accusations of scientific fraud.) It would, therefore, seem that Lovecraft was entirely consequent with his aristocratic and scientific worldview.

Though Joshi deems it necessary to shoehorn his views on race and racism—zzz . . . —he shows admirable restraint, all things considered—though he has still been criticised by readers. He clearly struggles to reconcile his admiration for Lovecraft with an imagined rejection by him, which is coloured by the absurdities of the modern discourse on these matters. As the author of The Angry Right: Why Conservatives Keep Getting it Wrong (2006), where he invects against liberals like William Buckley and Rush Limbaugh, and where he welcomes the Leftward drift of American values, he can understand Lovecraft’s own merely as a reflection of the times in which he lived. Yet, Joshi has expended an immense amount of time and energy studying and writing about Lovecraft’s thought and worldview, as expressed both in correspondence and in fiction, and thus makes a fair attempt at describing them at length in a temperate fashion.

Lovecraft would eventually return to Providence, thus marking the beginning of the most productive phase of his career. By this time his marriage to Sonia was essentially over; a final attempt was made, but Lovecraft’s aunts rejected the idea of Sonia setting up shop in Providence, regarding her—or rather, the idea of a businesswoman—as somewhat declassé. Joshi again takes Lovecraft to task for not having shown more backbone before his aunts, but he is, nevertheless, of the opinion that Lovecraft was unsuited for marriage—being emotionally distant, stiff-upper lipped, and sexually sluggish—and ought never to have taken a wife. The Lovecrafts would in time agree on an amicable divorce (though, in the end, and to Sonia’s shock later on, he never signed the decree).

Despite his peaking productivity, Lovecraft’s economic prospects continued to decline. His stories became longer and more complex, and it became increasingly difficult to place them. Farnsworth Wright, Weird Tales’ capricious editor, repeatedly rejected them, though sometimes he would accept some after a period, after lobbying or intercession by one of Lovecraft’s correspondents. His seminal essay on horror fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature, completed at this time, appeared haphazardly and incompletely in tiny amateur publications, and would never appear in its final, revised, complete form during his lifetime. Therefore, Lovecraft, now living in semi-squalor with his aunt in cramped accommodation, was increasingly forced to survive through charging for “revisions,” which, given the amount of hands-on editing and re-writing involved, was for the most part tantamount to ghostwriting. Lovecraft was too much of a gentleman, too generous for his own good, and charged very modest fees. We must remember, however, that Lovecraft, in this same modest spirit, saw himself as a hack.

All the same, through extreme frugality and resourcefulness, Lovecraft still managed to travel yearly around New England, mainly as an antiquary. This resulted in extensive travelogues, written in 18th-century prose, replete with archaisms and therefore neither publishable nor intended for publication. Joshi mentions that some have criticised Lovecraft for expending excessive energy on correspondence and unpublishable travelogues, rather than writing fiction, but he argues that this was Lovecraft’s life, not his critics’—who are they to tell him, posthumously, what he ought to have done?

Joshi notes that the Great Depression forced Lovecraft to reconsider some of his earlier positions, and that he—encouragingly in his view—embraced FDR’s New Deal. He also notes, although briefly, that Lovecraft may have misunderstood the nature of the program. All the same, he likes to describe Lovecraft as having become a “moderate socialist,” even if he is later careful to point out that his socialism was radically distinct from the Marxist conception—in fact, Lovecraft instinctively sympathised with fascism and Hitler’s movement, and would remain firmly opposed to Communism. Lovecraft’s conception of socialism was entirely elitist. From his perspective, the culture-bearing stratum of a civilisation should not, in an ideal world, be shackled by the need to waste time and energy on trivial tasks, out of the need to earn a living: the production of high culture is often incompatible with commercial goals, so, in his view, it demands freedom from economic activity. And this implied some sort of patronage, in the manner that kings, popes, or wealthy aristocrats or businessmen provided to artists in the past. In other words, a portion of the nation’s wealth should be channelled into things of lasting value—and, therefore, into seeing to it that the very few individuals capable of producing them are in a position to do so. Lovecraft conceived this as socialism because he saw it as the task of the best to better the rest, and high art and intellection played an important rôle in that endeavour.

By 1936, Lovecraft, already in constant pain, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He would die a few months later, on 15 March 1937.

As with Finn’s biography of Robert E. Howard, Joshi carries on beyond the grave to trace Lovecraft’s legacy, and the development of Lovecraft scholarship over the past 75 years. Like Finn, he has complaints about L. Sprague de Camp’s biography, which he deems substandard and inaccurate; he describes de Camp as business-minded (a euphemism for opportunist). Joshi also criticises August Derleth, one of Lovecraft’s correspondents, who acted early on and energetically to preserve Lovecraft’s legacy through his publishing company, Arkham House: as de Camp did with Howard, Derleth sought to extend Lovecraft’s mythology with posthumous “collaborations,” wherein he distorted the mythology by infusing it with his own preconceptions. To Joshi this was a disreputable attempt to market his own fiction using Lovecraft’s name, though Derleth would later become a well-regarded author in his own right.

While Joshi’s biography is impressive in its comprehensiveness and level of detail, I found his compulsion to provide a plot summary of every single story that Lovecraft ever wrote rather tedious and beyond requirements. One can see that the biography’s comprehensive logic dictates their inclusion, and they can be useful, but I wonder if the tomes’ objectives could not have been met without this overwhelming prolixity.
Joshi recognises his subject’s superior character in that, though Lovecraft would have been able to prosper economically had he compromised on quality, produced more, and stuck to what was popular, he remained steadfast in his refusal to do so. Whatever he did, he did to the best of his ability, without homage to Mammon. Readers, says Joshi, should be grateful for that, as it was this that has guaranteed the lasting value of Lovecraft’s work as well as his enduring legacy.

Monday, 2 September 2013

You Can Take the Man Out of Texas, But You Cannot Take Texas Out of the Man: Mark Finn's Blood and Thunder: The Life and Times of Robert E. Howard

When Mark Finn read the initial biography of Robert Ervin Howard (Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard by L. Sprague de Camp), he was enraged by what he found. Thus, his Blood and Thunder, published some 30 years after de Camp’s, was meant as a corrective: an effort to right the apparently numerous wrongs of accumulated preconceptions, distortions, and omissions, which had been perpetuated and propagated to meaningful degree by the earlier biographer—a business-minded biographer who, had also come to control and assiduously exploit the Conan stories and brand for many years. In particular, Finn was vexed by two sins, one of commission and one of omission: de Camp’s fixation with Howard’s alleged craziness, and de Camp’s failure to consider Howard’s environment as an integral element of his personality, worldview, and brand of fiction.

Blood and Thunder by Mark FinnFor most of those who know anything at all about Howard, their knowledge is usually limited to his having been the creator of Conan; his being a pulp writer like H. P. Lovecraft, also linked to Weird Tales; his having been into boxing; and his having blown his brains out in his car at the age of 30. Given the brevity of Howard’s life, this seems to cover much of what is relevant. However, what is important for understanding him is everything else, and, if Howard is the centre, Finn accordingly spends as much time on the periphery.

Howard’s father was a medical doctor. He was also a good raconteur, highly regarded within his circle and the wider community. It seems Howard’s mother, Hester, chose Dr. Isaac as her husband because of his profession, expecting to be looked after and the social standing that came with it. Hester was tubercular, and would die in middle age from the disease. Isaac Howard moved his family frequently (no less than nine Texas cowtows and boomtowns in eleven years), so Howard’s early years were unsettled and with few friends. As a student Howard proved much brighter than his coevals, and was a voracious reader, but he detested school, where was forced to go at the speed of the slowest pupil in his class, and where the rigid rules and strictures of schooling at that time were not amenable to him. It has been said that Howard was bullied, but there is no evidence to this effect. He was, nevertheless, regarded as a dreamer and somewhat odd, and this perception by others would follow into adulthood, for the frontier in the wild Texas of the early 1900s placed a strong emphasis on practical matters, and literary types were seen as in need of getting “a real job” (whatever that meant).

After 1917, Howard spent most of his life in Cross Plains, with occasional journeys into Brownwood. By 1925 Cross Plains would become yet another boomtown, due to the discovery of oil. Besides money, and because of it, boomtowns attracted all manner of crooks, bandits, whores, and adventurers, all chasing dollars. Bar-room brawls, gun fights, murders, and drunkenness were everyday occurrences. And as one can easily infer from countless Westerns, the federal government had but a tenuous hold on these volatile, remote, and rickety settlements, so those who lived in them had to live by their wits. Capacity to improvise, to seize opportunity, to be self-sufficient, and to work hard in the pursuit of dreams and opportunities were indispensable for surivival; but so was willingness to do anything, to be ruthless, and resort to violence, since there was no nanny state to afford protection or enforce countless laws and regulations. This is the environment Howard grew up in, and, combined with the recurrence of wealth and industry bringing along with it crooks and degeneracy, it quickly dispelled any illusions he may have had about civilization, progress, and human goodness. Howard thus came to associate civilization with corruption and decline, and barbarism with heroic purity. It also made him realise the importance of being tough, which led him as an adolescent to build his body and get into boxing.

Finn notes that Howard was a storyteller from early on, and selects examples from his letters to friends. He further argues that Howard’s literary roots lie in the American folk tradition of the tall tale. He identifies elements of the tall tale in much of Howard’s fiction. Most importantly, he emphasises the degree to which specifically Texas, and the experience of boomtowns, appear transliterated again and again even in the sword and sorcery tales of Conan the Cimmerian. For example, the snake cult in the Conan tales is a reflection of the snakes in Texas.

Conan is what Howard is now most famous for; and even in his lifetime, it was his most memorable character. However, Conan was neither his only creation nor even his main breadwinner. Besides sword and sorcery, Howard wrote very prolifically in a variety of genres, including humorous Westerns and boxing stories. Though he saw himself as a hack, and a lowly scribbler, he approached his craft with admirable determination and professionalism. If a story was rejected, he resubmitted it elsewhere, until he found a home for it. If a magazine wanted stories with a specific type of character, he created them and produced regularly, writing under various pen names. And he was constantly attempting to break into new markets. His efforts paid off; unlike Lovecraft, who was less productive and lived in ever-increasing poverty, Howard managed a respectable living, with ever-increasing sales. By 1932, Howard was able to fork out $350 (a little under $6,000 in today’s money), in cash, for a used green 1931 Chevrolet Coach (Finn omits make, model, and color). This probably stilled the wagging small-town tongues that had hitherto described him as a freak unacquainted with “proper” work.

But all was not well. As Hester’s condition progressed, she required more care. She was high-strung, put on airs, and even affected an Irish brogue, to highlight her ancestry. Moreover, her marriage was unhappy, and she was demanding and passive aggressive. The tension often caused Dr. Isaac to storm out of the house whistling—a psychotherapeutic measure he adopted to conceal his anger in public. Dr. Isaac was, in addition, often absent, or else he was unable or unwilling to care for his wife, the care of whom then defaulted to her son. Howard was, consequently, under immense pressure, living at home and unable to write for days at a stretch—although he was not resentful: he was and remained very close to his mother, to the point that he often talked about not desiring to survive her.

Howard was also unfortunate in love. Novalyne Price, an aspiring writer and later a school teacher, was the only girlfriend he had in his life. Novalyne was feisty, outspoken, and dynamic. She was also a small, rail-thin woman—less than 100 lbs in weight—who grew even thinner from worry and overwork. She was smitten with Howard, but Howard was much in his own head, and they dated intermittently for two years, much of which time was spent in erudite conversation. Novalyne desired marriage, but at a time when Howard was not ready and too distracted by his situation at home. By the time he finally came around, Novalyne, considering herself in a casual non-exclusive relationship, was already dating his friend. This effectively ended the relationship: they saw each other as friends a few more times, but Howard severed all contact after she left Cross Plains to pursue a graduate degree at Louisiana State University.

It turns out that Novalyne was Howard’s only hope. Despite his success as a writer of pulp fiction, Howard thought he had little to live for. And he said so to Novalyne. Howard was by nature a loner, his disposition morbid, his worldview pessimistic: for him the future would always be worse than the past. The worlds he created in fiction—shouting loudly as he banged away on his Underwood typewriter—were his sole retreat; but, clearly, this was insufficient. Hence, when his mother went into a coma in June 1936, and he was told there was no hope of her ever awaking, Howard entered his car (by then a black 1935 Chevrolet Standard, bought new—a detail not mentioned by Finn), took the gun out of the glove compartment, and shot himself in the brain. Howard’s body lived for eight hours after the suicide.

It later transpired that Howard had planned his own death: during the aftermath, it was discovered that in the preceding weeks he had organised his papers, written a final will and testament, left instructions for his literary agent, and purchased at lot at Greenleaf Cemetery, in nearby Brownwood.

Finn tells us that Dr. Isaac suppressed his son’s will in order to gain control of the literary estate, which Howard had left to a friend. Dr. Isaac collected the money that was owed to his son (Weird Tales was the worst offender, with somewhere between $13,000 and $21,000 outstanding in today’s money) and continued to work with Howard’s literary agent. The rights to Howard’s fiction then changed hands multiple times, until they ended up with Paradox Entertainment, a Swedish company.

Conan the Conqueror was not published until 1950, but its success led to a series of Conan books, which were published by Gnome Press. The editor, by L. Sprague de Camp played an active rôle in popularizing the Conan stories, and, once he achieved control over the stories and brand, instigated in 1966 a twenty-year boom, which saw the publication of paperbacks with celebrated covers by Frank Frazetta, and which transferred Howard’s character into other media, including comic books. The apex—and the beginning of the end—of this boom was John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, with former Mr. Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reprised the role with a second film (Conan the Destroyer), declined a third (reworked as Kull the Conqueror), and is currently training for a new one, The Legend of Conan, set for release next year. De Camp’s legacy is, however, mixed, for he came increasingly to edit Howard’s texts and also instigated the creation of posthumous “collaborations” or pastiches, of variable quality. This led to complaints by fans who desired Howard’s stories to be published as he wrote them. The desire was finally met with a second boom, beginning in the late 1990s. Somewhere in between came the epic/symphonic black/death metal band Bal-Sagoth, whose concept derives from the story “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”

Finn notes de Camp’s insistence in perpetuating his own pre-conceived notion of Howard as mentally unstable, recording that de Camp’s interviews of Howard’s surviving friends and acquaintances were designed to “prove” or “confirm” this a priori determination, at the exclusion of everything else. (In relation to Howard’s suicide, Finn argues that, given the author’s particular worldview and circumstances at that time, he may have felt there was nothing left to do.) Finn—half-jokingly—also deems that, as a Yankee, de Camp was ill-suited to write about a Texan author, which, to Finn, explains much; only a man from Texas is equipped to comprehend Howard’s quintessential Texanness, and produce a book that does him justice!
But Finn’s biography is not perfect. It could have used with more active editing and the formatting is poor; for instance, the lack of a space before and after blockquotes is an eyesore, and the publisher ought to have known better. Also, the inevitable moral anxiety creeps in, and Finn feels the need to talk about—(yawn)—race and racism; to answer the question “was he a racist . . . ?” as if a big pair of frowning eyes were demanding the answer from the sky. (Mercifully, Finn moves on quickly.) Finally, Finn’s biography at times tells the story in general terms, sailing over the kind of exact details that can bring a subject to life. This is not to say that detail is lacking or scarce; we do get, for example, exerpts from correspondence which provide plenty of insight; but the reader is occasionally left desiring specifics. It may be that the information is no longer obtainable, or that it was never recorded, or that Finn wished to avoid unnecessary prolixity getting in the way of what he wanted to achieve with this biography. Yet, for example, it would have been interesting to know (as I found out elsewhere) that, after Howard’s brains were wiped from the windows and surfaces of the black Chevy’s interior, Dr. Isaac continued to drive it like any normal car, and then left it to his nephew.

As I read this book as part of my research for a biography of Jonathan Bowden, it seems pertinent that I discuss Howard in this context. There was certainly enough in Howard’s life with which Jonathan would have been able to identify—besides, that is, what is already obvious from Jonathan’s 2010 talk about Howard and his subsequent reviews of Howard’s work: a professional and very conventional father, who was popular with the community and a good raconteur, much in demand at dinner parties; a close mother, who died of an illness in middle age; his being considered eccentric by most, yet highly regarded within a specialized, less-than-prestigious milieu; and his working within a modern medium while being a proponent of archaic, heroic, and—for liberal sensibilities—“barbaric” values, to name just some. There were, at the same time, significant differences, but, as with Lovecraft, Jonathan was more interested in the fiction than in the author. I also think what Jonathan liked about the United States, or at least his idiosyncratic conception of the country, was the ferocious dark energy that could be found in frontier towns like those of Howard’s time, particularly as mediated by old Westerns (a full third of Jonathan’s extant DVD collection consists of John Wayne films).

Finn’s may not be a definitive biography, and it may have not been intended as such, but it is a valiant effort and does underline the important message, which as of 2006, and at least in relation to Howard, seemed in need of restatement, “You can take the man out of Texas, but you can’t . . .”

Friday, 26 July 2013

Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners

Sam Selvon
The Lonely Londoners
Alan Wingate, 1956; Penguin Modern Classics, 2006


The field of postcolonial studies ostensibly tells the story of European imperialism from the viewpoint of the colonized. While this is a perfectly valid area of study, it is used in Western academic circles to advance a radically egalitarian agenda. The literature serves to embolden and cultivate revanchismamong the descendants of former colonial subjects and to burden white students with a sense of collective guilt for the evils of empire.

This has multiple benefits for the Left: It facilitates the colonization of Western countries by colored settlers from the former colonies; it politicizes these settlers, encouraging them not to recognize the indigenous authority and to press for accommodation; and it lowers moral resistance to these processes among the whites.

But it does not have to be this way. We, too, can—and indeed should—provide our own perspectives on this literature. Otherwise, for lack of opposition, the Leftist argument wins by default. As this review will show, even a book written by an “other,” from his perspective, offers much that is helpful to us.

Sam Selvon was a Trinidadian author, best known for his novel, The Lonely Londoners. Born in San Fernando in 1923, he was the son of Indian immigrants from Madras, though his paternal grandmother was Anglo-Scottish. In the 1950s, at the age of 15, he moved to London, where he lived for 20 or so years, before moving to Canada and, finally, returning to Trinidad.

Published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners was the first novel to tell the story of the daily lives of the West Indian (Afro-Caribbean) immigrants of the “Windrush generation,” so named after the British troopship, MV Empire Windrush, which in June 1948 brought nearly 500 Jamaicans to the United Kingdom. This migration was made possible by the British Nationality Act of 1948, passed during Clement Attlee’s Labour government, which granted British citizenship and full rights of entry to all people living in Commonwealth countries. At that time the British government was encouraging mass migration to fill shortages in the labor market arising from the losses of World War II. The Lonely Londoners is an important book in the field of postcolonial studies.

It is not, however, a diatribe of post-colonial ressentiment. It is an amusing novel, written in creolised English, about the often comical adventures of a handful of Afro-Caribbean characters.

The story begins on a foggy, winter evening, with the Trinidadian Moses Aloetta. A veteran settler, he had been asked to meet an immigrant from Trinidad arriving that day at Waterloo Station, about whom he knows nothing, except his name: Henry Oliver. At the station, he meets Tolroy, another Jamaican settler, who is there to greet his mother, also arriving that evening. As Tolroy scans the passengers getting off the train, he is in for a surprise:
A old woman who look like she would dead any minute come out of carriage, carrying a cardboard box and a paper bag. When she get out the train she stand up there on the platform as if she confuse. Then after she stand a young girl come, carrying a flour bag filled up with things. Then a young man wearing a widebrim hat and a jacket falling below the knees. Then a little boy and a little girl, then another old woman, tottering so much a guard had was to help she get out the train. (p. 8)
Tolroy is livid.
‘Oh Jesus Christ,’ Tolroy say, ‘what is this at all?’
‘Tolroy,’ the first woman say, ‘you don’t know your own mother?’
Tolroy hug his mother like a man in a daze, then he say: ‘But what Tanty Bessy doing here, ma? and Agnes and Lewis and the two children?’
‘All of we come, Tolroy,’ Ma say. ‘This is how it happen: when you write home to say you getting five pounds a week Lewis say, “Oh God, I going England tomorrow.” Well Agnes say she not staying at home alone with children, so all of we come.’
‘And what about Tanty?’
‘Well you know how old your Tanty getting, Tolroy, is a shame to leave she alone to dead in Kingston with nobody to look after she.’
‘Ah, you see what I tell you?’ Tanty say to the mother, ‘you see how ungrateful he is? I would go back to Jamaica right now,’ and she make as if she going back inside the train. (p. 9)
Tanty, of course, is staying, as are all the others, and Tolroy, staggering in dismay and disbelief, now has a troop of relatives in London with nowhere to stay.

Soon Moses’ charge arrives:
Moses watch Henry coming up the platform, and he have a feeling that this couldn’t be the fellar that he come to meet, for the test [guy] have on a old grey tropical suit and a pair of watchekong [canvas-soled tennis shoes] and no overcoat or muffler or gloves or anything for the cold, so Moses sure is some test who living in London a long, long time and accustom to the beast winter. Even so, he really had to feel the fellar, for as the evening advancing it getting colder and colder and Moses stamping he foot as he stand up there.
The fellar, as soon as he see Moses, walk straight up to him and say, ‘Ah, I bet you is Moses!’
Moses say, ‘Yes.’
‘Ah,’ Henry say, looking about the desolate station as if he in an exhibition hall on a pleasant summer evening, Frank did say you would come to meet me in Waterloo. My name Henry Oliver.’
‘You not feeling cold, old man?’ Moses say, eyeing the specimen with amazement, for he himself have on long wool underwear and a heavy fireman coat that he pick up in Portobello Road.
‘No,’ Henry say, looking surprise. ‘This is the way the weather does be in the winter? It not so bad, man. In fact I feeling little warm.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ Moses say. ‘What happen to you, you sick or something?’
‘Who, me? Sick? Ha-ha, you making joke!’
Moses watch the specimen again suspiciously.
‘You must be have on bags of wool under that suit,’ he say. ‘You can’t fool a old test like me.’
‘What you making so much fuss about?’ Henry say, opening his shirt to show bare skin underneath. ‘This is a nice climate, boy. You feeling cold?’
‘Take it easy,’ Moses say, deciding to wait and see how things would develop with this strange character. ‘Get your luggage and we will go. Tonight you could stay by me, but tomorrow I might shift from my room and go upstairs, and I will see if I could fix up with the landlord for you to take my room.’
‘Whenever you ready,’ Henry say.
‘Where your luggage?’
‘What luggage? I ain’t have any. I figure is no sense to load up myself with a set of things. When I start work I will buy some things.’
Now Moses is a veteran, who living in this country for a long time, and he met all sorts of people and do all sorts of things, but he never thought the day would come when a fellar would land up from the sunny tropics on a powerful winter evening wearing a tropical suit and saying that he ain’t have no luggage.
‘You mean you come from Trinidad with nothing?’
‘Well the old toothbrush always in the pocket,’ Henry pat the jacket pocket, ‘and I have on a pair of pyjamas. Don’t worry, I will get fix up as soon as I start work.’ (pp. 12-14).
Moses’ astonishment only grows when he finds that Henry has arrived with only £3 in his pocket, having gambled away £2 on the train:
‘All right Sir Galahad,’ Moses say, ‘Take it easy. London will do for you before long. Come, we will catch the tube as you ain’t have any luggage.’
Thus it was that Henry Oliver Esquire, alias Sir Galahad, descend on London to swell the population by one, and eight and a half months later it had a Galahad junior in Ladbroke Grove and all them English people stopping in the road and admiring the baby curly hair when the mother pushing it in the pram as she go shopping for rations. (p. 15)
That sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Sir Galahad is shown the ropes, and Moses remains the axis around which revolves a small constellation of amiable hustlers. One is Lewis, who gets a job in a factory. Told that his wife is “giving him the horn” while he is at work, he beats her regularly until she files for divorce. Tanty proves the archetypal big black mamma—bossy, loud, proud, nagging, and funny—she eventually persuades—or bullies—the local grocer into extending credit to the entire neighborhood. There is Captain, or Cap, a Nigerian who refuses to work. He swindles landlords out of their rent and his endless white girlfriends fund his food, drink, and cigarettes. And there is the weed-smoking fellow from Barbados, Five Past Twelve, so called because he was darker than midnight. And there is, inevitably, the self-important Harris, who speaks in polished Standard English and tries to be more English than the English:
. . . when he dress, you think is some Englishman going to work in the city, bowler and umbrella, and briefcase tuck under the arm, with The Times fold up in the pocket so the name would show, and he walking upright like if is he alone who alive in the world. Only thing, Harris face black. (p. 103)
Harris, who is status-conscious in an English, middle-class way, worries about how his easy-going, roguish, and nearly uncontrollable peers could reflect badly on him or on the West Indian community as a whole. This they do in short order:  At a “fête” Harris organizes, where he stresses to the others the importance of being well-behaved on account of his having “distinguished” guests, the others smoke weed, get boisterously drunk, and get into a brawl.

In all cases, the motivation for settling in Britain is economic. Yet, the glamour of life in the Imperial capital is also part of the allure. Once Sir Galahad has found work and has suits in his wardrobe and a white girlfriend, he delights in telling Moses that he is meeting his girl in Piccadilly Circus, or some other iconic, world-renowned location.

Nevertheless, the lives of these “fellars” are grim. They live in dismal, smelly, cramped bedsits, hostels, or small hotels. When they work, they have factory jobs. When they are unemployed, they either hustle, sponge off friends and girlfriends, or go hungry. At one point, Sir Galahad is forced to snatch a pigeon in Kensington Gardens, and Cap survives for a time on the seagull population on the roof above his bedsit.

Most importantly, they are collectively an island, socially cut off from the rest of the metropolis, which is itself a compendium of social islands.
It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening to the other ones except what you read in the papers.
They find the English cold, suspicious, and fearful, and the urban experience of being alone among multitudes is strange to them. So are the subterfuges of employers, landlords, and hoteliers who pretend the job or room they had advertised has already been filled the moment they see a black face. The “fellars” would almost prefer open discrimination, 1950s American style, for at least everyone knows where he stands.
“We only want to get by, we don’t even want to get [along],” says Sir Galahad (p. 77). (The United States, incidentally, is spoken of with fearful awe, as a terrible place where blacks have it extraordinarily bad.) Strangest of all, of course, is the British climate: freezing cold winters, with dark days, long nights, fog, rain, and grey misery, which only aggravates the settlers’ loneliness.

The settlers are baffled by British civism: at the Underground stations, commuters pick up their copies of the Evening Standard and leave payment on the table, even though it is unattended, and stealing would go unpunished. Women have rights, and can take wife-beaters to court. And the British state even provides a safety net for the unemployed—though the incredulous West Indians see this as an invitation to get by without working.

The settlers are also baffled by British democracy: It astonishes them that the public can criticize the government and publicly express all manner of opinions. As they settle in, they soon learn to support Labour and in some cases the Socialist Worker’s Party, but it is clear that British politics are very remote and disconnected from their lives.

The Labour movement, which at the time focused on the working class, seems almost irrelevant to the black settlers. They think in racial terms, and feel that the Marxist class struggle is the white man’s business. Black settlers would say that race was the more important issue.

Though mere shadows, politically, the settlers are well aware of the rising disquiet in British society over their rapidly growing presence:
the English people starting to make rab about how much West Indians coming to the country: this was a time, when any corner you turn, is ten to one you bound to bounce up a spade. In fact, the boys all over London, it ain’t have a place where you wouldn’t find them, and big discussion going on in Parliament about the situation, though the old Brit’n too diplomatic to clamp down on the boys or to do anything drastic like stop them coming to the Mother Country. But big headlines in the papers every day . . . (p. 2)
Not so worried are the Jewish tailors, who are portrayed as eager for business, though some are also described as unscrupulous predators. As in all large, multicultural cities, there is rapacity between ethnic groups.

Thus, the settlers develop a collective identity based on their race and the fact that they are far from home. Every Sunday morning they visit Moses, ask him questions, share a meal, borrow money, smoke, swap stories, keep track of each other, and engage in ‘oldtalk’ about their native islands. Theirs is a tight, racially-based community and support network that transcends nationality.

Perhaps the only point of intersection with British society, besides jobs and money, are the white girls, of which there seem to be plenty for all, a fact spoken about with wonder even in the far-flung tropical islands. We learn that back in Trinidad, Sir Galahad was told, “Boy, it have bags of white pussy in London, and you will eat until you tired” (p. 79). Yet, these girls are treated merely as objects of sex and conquest, or else, as wallets. They—or rather, their legs, which for part of the year are concealed by the winter coats—are mostly spoken about as something that is ogled and coveted from a distance.

Even when white women appear as dates or girlfriends, they are always at one remove—always ‘other,’ something exotic, remote. We learn nothing about their feelings, aspirations, or opinions—not even what they look like, except in one case; we only learn that they are white and English, or French, or German. A white girl may, indeed, be referred to merely as “skin.” They are, essentially, trophies for the black men—they are simple sources of status. Neither do we learn why these white women are so plentifully available; we do learn, however, that the black men were seen as a threat by the natives, and that when a relationship results in inter-racial children, these attract curiosity in the street and taunts in the playground.

Much of this low-intensity native hostility is accepted by the West Indians as a matter of course, but it occasionally perplexes them. At one point, Sir Galahad wonders what it is that West Indians want that whites find it so hard to give; from his perspective, he only wants some upward mobility—not much, but enough to have a roof over his head, food in his cupboard, money in his bank account, and a “frauline” on his arm. Yet, it seems the British would rather see a black man starve than let a pigeon go hungry.

Sir Galahad decides the problem is not him, but the color black. It would seem, then, that this is the first stage in a process that leads to the formation of a Harris: once a black man sees his negritude as a barrier to money and status, he is split, unable physically to escape his negritude, but yearning to become as white as possible in every other way. But Harris tries too hard, has only a superficial understanding of whiteness, and becomes only a very style-conscious dandy with semi-archaic mannerisms and an acute consciousness of how other blacks may expose the lie through stereotypical black behavior.

The long-term prospects for the West Indians are ambiguous. In some cases, despite all the petty miseries they endure, they end up not wanting to go home. In other cases, they neither plan nor want to stay, but find themselves trapped, working dead-end jobs, unable to save enough money to buy return tickets. Time passes and they become accustomed to the strange pattern of life in London, and continue to postpone the decision to go home.

The end of the novel finds Moses reflecting on the decade he has spent in London, nostalgic for his native Trinidad. He knows he must one day return, and fears the prospect of getting old in London, as others have, only to end up alone and destitute, picking up cigarette butts on the platforms of Underground stations. For the unassimilable outsider, immigration ends in disillusionment.

What is perhaps most interesting about The Lonely Londoners is that it offers white readers a good-natured but refreshingly frank account that confirms many of the perceptions whites have of African and West Indian settlers. However, using this merely to point out the truth behind certain stereotypes would be trite.

What is most valuable are the insights Selvon provides into the settler experience in the period after the war. This may be a novel, but it is also a historical document.

First, it is clear that the black settlers of the Windrush generation saw Britain fundamentally as a resource: a wallet, a source of status, and a harem of white girls ready to be conquered. And who could argue with that? The white man had given them the go ahead, and enshrined it in law.

Second, it is clear that white Britons were increasingly alarmed by the influx of Afro-Caribbean settlers. The politicians in the novel are locked in ineffectual parliamentary debate, but many ordinary Britons improvised subtle strategies to keep blacks out of their own local environment. Casual racism, however, was clearly not enough to deter further immigration, let alone encourage emigration.

Third, it is clear that Moses’s disillusionment stems from an inability to fit into a society that, even after a decade of residence, remains strange and unnatural for a black settler. At best he either gets used to it, developing survival strategies, or learns to imitate superficial aspects of it. British men remains remote, inaccessible, incomprehensible, like a creature from another world—an obstacle to be avoided. White women, though seemingly available, are almost completely dehumanized—they remain psychologically at a distance, even while in a relationship.

Finally—and this we can deduce from historical developments after the novel—it is clear that the only long-term solution has been to fundamentally change British society. Once white Leftists realized race opened a new front in their struggle for ever greater equality, and once black settlers realized they had political support among white Leftists, the settlers welcomed the initial concessions and pressed for more, eventually becoming Leftist theorists, campaigners, and legislators in their own right. We have seen across the West how quickly settlers of color master the language of radical egalitarianism, clearly emboldened by the fact that even conservatives dare not speak against it.

None of the above are original conclusions, of course. We have known this for decades. But the fact that our conclusions can all be derived from the recorded experience of black settlers rather than from ‘racist’ speeches by Enoch Powell shows that the arguments of whites who value their own societies are not delusions. Dispossession is unpleasant, and the push for ever more intrusive polices shows the degree to which no one is really happy.

This leads to the ethics of egalitarianism, which is what justifies current race-related policies and also makes it hard to argue against them. Through egalitarianism, we both fail to value our uniqueness and to recognize difference in the Other. The Other is well aware of this difference, but has learned that paying lip service to egalitarianism in our part of the world is a good survival strategy while they are here, since it leads to concessions. These, of course, never end, since, from the Other’s perspective, there is no reason to stop at equality when more is available. Egalitarianism thus perpetuates an exploitative relationship, and transfers privilege from one group onto another. The path to mutual respect and dignity is the recognition of difference, not the pretense of equality.

Friday, 19 July 2013

William R. Forstchen's One Second After

One Second After
William R. Forstchen
(New York: Forge, 2009)

One Second After is a post-apocalyptic novel by American author and military historian, William R. Forstchen, who uses it to explore the likely effects on a small community of a high-altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which causes an intense, high-velocity surge that destroys all electrical and electronic systems.
 
John Matherson is a professor of history and retired U.S. Army Colonel, with, even if one stretches definitions, only the briefest of combat experience. A widower, he resides on a hill, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, a small town with a 600-student-strong college and a smattering of small shops, which has become a popular Summer hideaway for city dwellers. Matherson has two daughters, Jennifer (12) and Elizabeth (16), the younger of which suffers from type 1 diabetes. Matherson, though not native to the region, is well respected in the community.

The story begins on Jennifer’s 12th birthday, just before the festivities. It is mid-afternoon. Jennifer has brought along a friend from school and other kids have been invited, though they have yet to arrive. Already present is Jen, Matherson’s mother-in-law, who has arrived in her 1959 Ford Edsel. They are all conversing, listening to music, or chatting on the telephone, when all electrical items suddenly die, including Mathersons mobile while he is in mid conversation. He assumes there has been a power outage and that the battery on his mobile died at the same time. A little later Jennifer and her friend notice that all the vehicles along the interstate traversing the landscape half a mile in front of them are motionless, as are the vehicles on the older motorway running alongside the interstate; also noticed is the utter silence: normally, the interstate generated a constant roar in the distance. Matherson finds it strange, but tells the girls there must have been accident that backed up the traffic. They carry on with the birthday celebration as normal, and are only a little disappointed that no one shows up. The power remains out for the rest of the evening.

The ‘power outage’, it turns out, has also taken out Matherson’s car—not a light on the dashboard when the ignition key is turned. The Edsel, however, works. When Matherson drives down to the town, he discovers that all electrical devises, including all motor vehicles, there are also dead. The only exception, besides the Edsel, are a handful of very old cars. With his military experience, Matherson begins to suspect, and eventually realises, that the United States has experienced an EMP attack. The attackers are unknown.

The rest of the novel deals with the consequences. These are staged at increasingly long intervals, each chapter (except Chapter Ten) dealing with a phase in the social breakdown and the assertion of the new reality. We are first shown what happens a day out, a few days out, a week out, two weeks out, a month out, two months out, four months out, and a year out. In the process, we follow the characters as their region descents from a state of taken-for-granted technological civilisation to a Dark Age of barbarism, superstition, and cannibalism. The population is decimated: at first there is chaos, unrest, looting, and murder; when martial law is imposed, some order is restored, but leaders are forced to make hard decisions, which involve allowing many to die of starvation or die of still treatable illnesses in order to save those who have the greatest chance of survival and can perform useful work. Usable vehicles are confiscated. A militia is organised. The golf course is turned into a graveyard. Public executions are re-introduced. Food is rationed, and the rations are progressively reduced and adulterated with sawdust until most are on 900 calories a day, though it is secretly arranged for the militia to get more. All the livestock is eaten. The forests are hunted clean. Folk eat their pets. And so on. Meanwhile, the cities are devastated by gangs and looters, and fall into ruins. Once ball-busting female executives—their skills, like those of most urban professionals, now irrelevant—prostitute themselves for a bowl of soup. Cults and warlords emerge, full of apocalyptic rhetoric and predatory ferocity. Naturally, this entire time Black Mountain is virtually isolated: with no means of communication with the outside world, the federal government is assumed to have collapsed; with no prospect of help, the community is forced to exist behind barricades, beset by all manner of external threats.

Scraps of information make it through to the Edsel’s ancient radio, which runs on vacuum tubes unaffected by the pulse: a radio station—Voice of America—suddenly appears. It seems the EMP was caused by three nuclear weapons launched from cargo ships. There was aid coming from other nations. The attackers remained unidentified. Otherwise, the broadcasts stay upbeat, with talk of reconstruction, recovery, and aid. It all sounds too remote, however, and Matherson remains sceptical.

Matherson, who over time assumes leadership of the community as the established authority dies off, does a good job in keeping his family and Black Mountain together, though Jennifer eventually dies, and Elizabeth becomes pregnant by her 17-year-old boyfriend, who then also dies. His moral authority prevents a full-scale descent into barbarism, though the world has thrust upon him and the survivors a harsh and unforgiving order, where there is no room for sentimentality, waste, or uselessness. Only ruthless pragmatism, adaptability, and resourcefulness can keep a person alive. The best they can do is revive or retrofit a handful of archaic technology—for example, an old switchboard is found, and they manage to get a single telephone line working, with rotary telephones.

By the time novel ends, just a small fraction of the population survives. It is all flint-eyed, dirty, bearded; all skin and bone. Black Mountain is mostly derelict, there being too few people alive or strong enough to remove fallen trees, repair ruined infrastructure, or even bury their dead (they are eventually burnt in pyres). The few antique vehicles still running have their days counted, since the little fuel that remains is increasingly contaminated. In short, conditions have returned, more or less, and at least in the provinces, to those of the frontier and pioneering days.

In the final pages, the U.S. Army makes an appearance, stopping by Black Mountain on their way to Ashville, where they will establish control and coordinate with the rest of the region. Matherson is told that New York was a ghost city, with only 25,000 people surviving on garbage, sealed off from the outside; that the United States has broken up, with the South West and Texas being reclaimed by Mexico, and the East Coast being occupied by Chinese troops, ostensibly there for aid purposes, but clearly with no intention of ever pulling out; that there only 30 million people left in the United  States; and that, for morale purposes, the Voice of America told only part of the story—there was some reconstruction, but the old United States was forever gone, and it was now a matter of salvaging the little that was left. Whoever the attackers were, it made no difference now: the attackers won.

 This is a typical ‘warning’ novel. Its whole purpose is to alert Americans of the price that would be paid should the government not adequately prepare for an EMP attack. In the novel, the United States government knew it as a theoretical possibility, but never acted to harden the nation’s infrastructure against an EMP: there were other, less abstruse, less expensive, more media-friendly issues for politicians to play their popularity contest with, such as global warming and ‘going green’. There is also a criticism of ordinary Americans, who in the novel are deemed to have become soft, spoilt, wasteful, sentimental, and distracted by a society in which superabundance, convenience, automation, medicine, and technology made life easy and comfortable; living in a just-in-time economy and consumer culture they are deemed to be—and the author could hardly be accused of being wrong—entirely unprepared for survival with all the aids and padding they currently enjoy. Indeed, as humans, they have forgotten how to prepare and how to survive. Hence, unsurprisingly, the novel is popular with preppers and survivalists.

Philosophically, the novel articulates is an x-ray of the American conservative mind, which nowadays is, of course, liberal with classical leanings. (That is, that modern conservatives seek to conserve is a vestige of classical liberalism.) This results in occasional corniness and, inevitably, concessions to political correctness. Yet, Forstchen makes an important point, even though his purpose is to awaken Americans as to the degree to which precious liberalism is threatened by complacency, for we are shown that the liberal values with which the United States was framed and upon which American built its conception of itself, would quickly crumble without an infrastructure to sustain them. In the novel, concepts such as fairness, equality, and freedom go out the window, even as the main characters lament it, resist it, and deny it, to each other and to themselves. Many of the decisions they are forced into making are fundamentally unfair, but clearly of absolute necessity; they also distribute resources unequally, the latter going to those thought most likely to bring the greatest chances of survival; and they impose numerous—sometimes fatal—restrictions on the population, which are brutally enforced. The author even highlights how preposterous it is for some to think that being an American is something ontologically special or unique, which makes it impossible for cannibalism or inequity to occur even while society has fallen apart completely. The EMP scenario serves to highlight how the U.S.-led ahistorical pretensions of liberal superiority and uniqueness rest on fragile, man-made structures, physical and cognitive, that can endure only under controlled and artificial conditions. They begin dissolve one second after the props have been knocked down.

The novel is well written and a fast and easy read. The prose is so basic as to be invisible, which keeps the reader focused on the story, though there is a mild slump in the middle due to an over-reliance on dialogue. Also, the minimally developed, largely stereotypical characters arouse nearly zero emotion from the reader, and it becomes annoying when, during the dialogue sections, the reader is told, too often with exactly the same phrase, that no ‘one spoke’ or so-and-so ‘shook his head’. However, the real driver of the story, and what the reader wants to find out, is how the post-EMP scenario unfolds.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Oroonoko; or, the Royal Slave
Aphra Behn
(London: William Canning, 1688;
Penguin Classics, 2003)

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) was a prolific dramatist, spy, and Tory propagandist of the English Restoration. After spying for Charles II in Antwerp during the Dutch wars, she turned to literature and became a successful author—indeed, the first female literary author to earn her living entirely from her quill. It is possible nowadays to obtain her entire oeuvre in a six-volume collection (300+ pages per volume). However, her most prominent works include a comedy, such as The Rover (1677); a farce, such as The Emperor of the Moon (1687); and an amorous and political novel, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-1687). The short novel, Oroonoko (1688), though not the first, is considered important to the development of the English novel, and perhaps the works for which she is best known today.

Putatively an exploration of slavery, race, and gender, it is easily seen why Oroonoko is studied at university; on the surface, it fits in well with the radical egalitarian agenda of feminism and postcolonial studies. Yet, I will show here that there is another reading—one that sharply contradicts egalitarian theses.

Though classed as a novel, Oroonoko blends genres, including biography and travel reportage; Behn’s visited the then English colony of Suriname in the 1660s, and thus provides fascinating insight into the environment and conditions of a remote tropical outpost in the New World, as experienced by the English settlers of the age.

The story begins in Africa, with Oroonoko as the young prince of Coramantien, a kingdom in the Gold Coast, or modern Ghana. Coramantien is ruled by his aged grandfather, a warrior of fame, who by this time had sacrificed all his sons to his various conquests; he is the last of his race, leaving Oroonoko as his sole heir. The Old King lives in a palace, where he maintains a well-populated harem that he replenishes from time to time with young female flesh as the older concubines lose their luster, whenceupon they become carers, charged with training their successors in the arts of love.

Oroonoko is as well versed in the art of war as he is in the art of conversation, being fluent in English and well cultivated in European history. His deportment is regal, his sense of honour exemplary. His inborn magnificence approximates Attic ideals of physical perfection more than African ones; though described as dark skinned, Behn even has him with a straight nose and non-everted lips! (Do not be tricked by modern theatrical adaptations.)

In Imoinda, who, though Black, is also given European features, desired by all, this prince finds a worthy match to his accomplishments, and they quickly fall in love. The Old King, however, was not one to be deprived of the very best the female sex could offer, and wastes no time in demanding what he deems his due and contriving to imprison Imoinda in his harem. After a short while, he also tells her that Oroonoko has already forgotten about her. Oroonoko’s distress is considerable, and in his scheme to liberate Imoinda he finds an ally in one of the Old King’s now middle-aged, former lovers, who had been put in charge of training the nubile concubine. But the Old King discovers and frustrates the scheme, following which he sells Imoinda into slavery. This rash action soon elicits regret, and the Old King, fearing Oroonoko’s rage, tells him he has executed her, this being deemed a lesser evil than the humiliation of slavery.

Upon being told, Oroonoko loses the will to live, and endangers his troops through his own indifference when faced in an attack. He, however, is before too late reinvigorated for long enough to avert a disaster—he hurls himself into the battle, and returns to court a victor.

An English captain, with whom Oroonoko had a prior relationship trafficking in slaves, and esteemed by him more than others of that ilk on account of his superior education and refinement, then arrives on business. They enjoy fine conversation, as was their custom. He invites Oroonoko and his men aboard his ship, where he treats them to a sumptuous dinner. Yet, this man proves treacherous, and, having plied his guests with wine and waited for them to let down their guard, immediately clasps them in irons and sets sail. Slaves were usually purchased from native slave-takers stationed on the harbours of collaborative African kingdoms, and the enslaved were typically enemy soldiers captured in war, traitors, opponents of the local king, psychopaths, and other undesirables, but kidnappings of this nature apparently took place on rare occasions, in hopes of obtaining a ransom. Needless to say, the practice was condemned, and avoided, since it risked capturing a person that would anger the friendly groups on the coast.

The captives are horrified, and Oroonoko is bewildered by his friend’s betrayal. Out of loyalty, the soldiers go on a hunger strike, vexing the captain, who worries about his merchandise. With voluble discourse and feigned contriteness, he pleads with Oroonoko to forgive him, and, after a verbal exchange, eventually agrees to unchain Oroonoko, offering to free the men at the next port of call. Oroonoko’s unchaining allows the soldiers to break their strike, so the captain is at ease, but the latter explains that he feels the offence he committed was so great, that he must keep Oroonoko’s men in irons while they are still at sea, as he fears they will want to avenge their king. Being the kind of man for whom his word is his bond, Oroonoko remains naïve to the captain’s designs, and only learns he has been deceived a second time once he finds himself in Suriname, sold as part of a lot to local English planters.

Oroonoko’s owner is the affable Trefry, from Cornwall, who soon divines his new slave’s regal status and takes a liking to him. He renames him Caesar. Trefry treats him well, and affords him freedoms not permitted to his other slaves in that rich colony. In turn, the slaves also recognise Oroonoko’s status, and pay him respect. It turns out that most of them are afflicted by amorous emotions, on account of a beautiful female slave who has been there for some time, but who has ignored their advances. Of course, the latter is Imoinda, and thus she is quickly reunited with her prince, glad and relieved as anyone could be to find her alive.

The euphoria makes Oroonoko not care about his servitude for a while, but once Imoinda becomes pregnant, he requests they be allowed return to their homeland. When his petition is continuously ignored, his condition becomes intolerable. In his view, it would not be so had he been captured following defeat in battle; under such circumstances, the warrior ethos dictates stoic resignation. In this case, however, he is a slave because of the treachery of a calculating man without honour. He decides he would rather die like a man in a bid for freedom, than carry on living like a dog. This resolution he communicates to his fellow slaves, who agree to join him in his escape.

When the English find their plantation deserted, a party is organised to search for the fugitives. A military party is organised by William Byam, the deputy governor. Locating them proves easy, for they have had to hack a path through the forest. Before long, Oroonoko discovers he is being pursued, and, placing the women and children behind him, he and the male slaves confront their masters. The latter are armed with a semi-comical assortment of weaponry, much of it old. They do manage to terrorise the slaves with their whips, and, eventually, through Byam’s promise of an amnesty, and at the behest of the imploring wives, the slaves desert Oroonoko and return to their masters. Oroonoko, Imoinda, and a fellow slave called Tuscany remain then the last ones standing. They are defiant, willing to fight to the death, but Trefry is sent to parley with Oroonoko, and eventually convinces him to give up.

Byam, however, is a perfidious, licentious, cruel rake, whose support base, though rich, consists of a semi-criminal rabble. He restrains Oroonoko and Tuscany, and whips them both with a cat of nine tails until the flesh is ripped off their bones. Pepper is then rubbed into the wounds.

By this time Oroonoko has been betrayed three times, and he has had enough. He decides to kill Byam, to avenge his honour and assert his worth. Realising he is unlikely to survive the ensuing punishment, he also decides to kill Imoinda first, to protect her from the violation and ill-treatment he was sure would follow. After discussing his plan with her and with his masters, among whom is the narrator, they decide that, however horrible, the plain is just. Oroonoko takes Imoinda to the forest, and she, with a smile, dies by his hand. He removes her face, and with flowers covers the body.

Having committed this deed, however, Oroonoko is wracked by such tormenting grief, that he is paralysed, unable to leave his dead beloved. After two days, cursing himself for having lived so long after her death, he attempts to undertake the next stage of his plan, but, not having eaten, he is dizzy and too weak to move. Eight days later he is found by a search party, still grieving next to Imoinda’s decomposed body. He resists attempts to seize him, and even kills one and stabs Tuscany in the arm—Tuscany already perfectly reconciled with Byam. Oroonoko attempts to take his life by slicing open his abdomen with a knife and pulling out his entrails, but his is stopped before he can take his life and is taken back to the plantation. There, he is sown up and look after for a number of days, until he regains some of his strength. He demands not to be allowed to live, and he is, indeed, deemed unlikely to survive. Byam, nevertheless, decides to make an example of him and has him publicly executed. As he stoically smokes his pipe, Oroonoko has his ears and nose cut off and burnt in front of him, and is dismembered alive and without protest until, with only one arm left, he keels over and expires. Byam then quarters the body and has it sent to the various plantations. George Marten refused to accept his piece, arguing he would govern his slaves through infamy.

The novel ends with the narrator, now speaking in first person, desiring her fame to survive her long enough for Oroonoko and Imoinda to be known through the ages.

Needless to say that, though Behn’s style is convoluted, with epic sentences joined by multiple colons and semi-colons, one cannot but feel pain at this sad and horrible tragedy. Certainly, one feels Oroonoko was badly treated and was not deserving of such iniquity.

This is clearly the sort of text that, if decontextualised, could be used in modern academia to reinforce the politically fashionable postcolonial narrative that paints Whites as guilty of deceitfulness and inhumanity in their participation in slavery, particularly since African Blacks are herein painted in a sympathetic light. Indeed, Oroonoko was the first English novel to do so.

Yet, Oroonoko is not really about race, but about kingship and nobility of spirit. What is important about Oroonoko are his superior qualities and principles; his negritude is, in fact, de-emphasised by the attribution of many European traits. Behn’s is not an indictment against slavery. She, in fact, tells us that Oroonoko also trafficked in slaves. Moreover, slavery fits in with Oroonoko’s warrior code; he resents his enslavement only because it resulted not from defeat in battle, in which case his new master would have won him fairly and squarely, but from amoral commercial opportunism. What incenses him, and the reader, is not the traffic in slaves, nor the English colony’s reliance on slave labour, but the treachery of specific individuals. True, Oroonoko comes to distrust the Whites because he witnesses a number of them swearing to their Christian God only to break their oaths for commercial reasons, suggesting they are godless men of inferior quality, not worthy of anyone’s respect. Yet Oroonoko also comes to despise his fellow slaves, whom, he concludes, through their meekness and lack of pride, deserve their slavery. Time and again he stresses the importance not of universal human dignity, but of a king never to betray his oaths; the measure of a man, for him, is his ability to keep his vows.

Such an outlook is intrinsically elitist, not egalitarian, and is well in keeping with Behn’s high Tory politics. Her fiction consistently portrays royalists and ill-used nobles in a positive light, and Parliamentarian republicans as petty, small-minded, and evil. Byam may have once been a royalist, but he is contemnible because of his usurpation and venal mismanagement of the colony; it is his personal qualities, or lack thereof, that establishes his worthlessness. Conversely, George Marten may have been a Cromwellian, but his fair and noble behaviour elevates him above Byam. Trefry, a former republican, is also deemed a better man. In turn, Oroonoko is a natural king, but, because of Byam’s weakness and corruption, he ends up being outrageously mistreated and killed. And despite his gruesome and gory death, in spirit he remains a king to the last.

Imoinda’s characterisation is consistent with this line. Behn clearly rejected the idea of women having a purely domestic role: though praised for her beauty and modesty, Imoinda is no wilting lily; she takes arms voluntarily and is prepared to die fighting alongside her lord, even while pregnant. Like Oroonoko, she also embodies the warrior spirit. Accordingly, she accepts death gladly, when that is the only noble avenue left. Behn establishes a definite hierarchy here, but it is one based on loyalty and strength, not on meek submission. Male dominance does not demand here female weakness; on the contrary: female concupiscence and strength are, in fact, indicative of masculine glory, for it takes a dominant male to gain the respect and loyalty of a formidable woman. In a way, femininity obtains its power from masculinity, and masculinity from femininity. A number of trendy feminist authors have been interested in this novel, but I would argue that, to the extent that modern feminism—particularly since the second wave—has been founded on a degree of misandry, Behn presents us with an anti-feminist conception of femininity, which is assertively traditional.

It has been said that Behn wrote the novel—30,000 words—in a single sitting. Its coming into being a quarter of a century after her travels in Suriname, suggests it may have been instigated by the political developments of 1688—what would end up as the Glorious Revolution. Behn’s portrayal of royalty as emanate, natural, and divine would have placed her on the camp of Robert Filmer, also a Tory, against whom the Whigs Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and his friend James Tyrrell would pen their objections. Unsurprisingly, Oroonoko is described as fanatically anti-democratic.

Egalitarian academics have both criticised the novel for racism (by making Oroonoko’s accomplishments a function of his European traits) and praised it for being anti-slavery (though the abolitionist movement would not be created for another century). They also would have students read Oroonoko alongside Montaigne’s essay, ‘On Cannibals’, to shoehorn the idea somehow that the novel is about condemning Western civilisation as corrupt, vis-à-vis the noble savage, though the text clearly refutes this idea by Oroonoko’s being so very Western. They even would have it seem that the novel is an argument for education as the source of human worth, though Oroonoko’s education is evidently an expression or extension, not the source, of his regality, which rests on his innate ethos and physical perfection. This makes Oroonoko seem hampered by contradictions. Yet, as should by now be evident from the above, these result from attempting to read the novel through egalitarian goggles. Remove the goggles, and the contradictions disappear.