February 12, 2010

February 11, 2010


Let me start my review of Clint Eastwood's latest film with an admission. I do not think there is a reviewer alive who could see this film and not be swept away with its portrait of Nelson Mandela. Whatever else we disagree on, one thing that many people share is a desire for a colour blind society in which white, black, brown and yellow women and men could succeed and prosper as much as each other regardless of the colour of their skin. How we get there is another matter and not one I want to get into- but any film that lauds the principle that the world ought to be colour blind and that South Africa in particular in 1995 should have been colour blind will instantly get cheers from Gracchi. Dispassionate analysis of this film's theme- the forgiveness shown by its Mandela to his white opressors and the courage that it took for some White South Africans to realise that the system they lived with for years, Apartheid, was a pernicious and unjust one- will reveal it to be sound. In a sense this makes the film's job easier and harder: both because we immediately have an emotional connection to it and because it has to do more than just persuade us that racism is wrong and forgiveness is right, but amazing.

This film is about the story of South Africa's Rugby World Cup- the moment when Francois Pienaar held the trophy aloft and Nelson Mandela wore a springboks cap- both neat symbols of a South Africa that might become a rainbow nation. It tells the stories that lead to that moment: the difficulties that Mandela had persuading his comrades in the ANC to accomodate Afrikaaners- both in the sense of the Afrikaans security guards joining the President's security detail and in the sense of blacks embracing the Springboks, an emblem at that point of Apartheid. Alongside that we have the story of black liberation- everywhere in the film is the sense of blacks beggining to 'own' South Africa, most pointedly in Pienaar's famous statement that 43 million South Africans had cheered and 'owned' his team and their victory. This is a story of triumph and magnanimity- and at the centre of it is Mandela himself, a man who has become elevated to modern sainthood, whether legitimately or not.

If that were all then this film would not be as good as it is. At the heart of it though is another point about symbols. Mandela teaches his followers that the Springboks were as important to the Afrikaaners as economic development and foreign ties. The Springboks were a symbol or are a symbol in the world of the film that Mandela's South Africa will not be Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The point that Mandela makes repeatedly to those who doubt his stance is that if you embrace a people's imagery, you embrace them. Politics is conducted not in the realm of tax cuts and rises but in the realm of imagery- all the way through the film Mandela's principle concern is with the use and form of imagery. He wishes to give his new state an iconography which will subsume (not as some of his followers want, replace) the old iconography. So the Springboks will take to the field wearing the green and gold but will sing an African not an Afrikaans song. Mandela's efforts appear, in the world of the film, to succeed and that is perhaps the real importance of this film in that it is a film about the power of an image to establish a constitution.

We might take this analysis to another level in that Mandela himself as the film continues becomes an image of the new South Africa. Pienaar recognises this in Mandela's cell on Robben Island, this man endured so much and forgave so many for it. Mandela, as played by Morgan Freeman, is a charming man, a witty man but a profoundly reverent man. He stands up for forgiveness against his own people and his own advisors. He believes in a leader who leads by example. Mandela becomes a key image and no more so than at the end of the film where his appearance on the field is the counterpoint to the New Zealand Haka, he has become the ritual dance of reconciliation within the new South Africa.

Does it have any failures? Well yes it does. South Africa's history has not been an uncomplicated journey from Apartheid to the rainbow nation- it has not possibly arrived there yet. It would have been better to see some of that complication visible in the film. The victory in 1995 was not neccessarily the start of a wonderful era- it was the expression of a hope which remains important but which has not yet been fully achieved and could easily fall away. The neatness of the ending to what is afterall a tale of contemporary history presumes that history has an end- that a process does not continue when of course it does continue. South Africa has had no eucatastrophic moment of racial harmony. Very few of the other ANC characters are developed apart from Mandela and though the story is partly told through his security detail, emphasizing his vulnerability, there is no sense here of a cinematic image that reflects forward into the times of Mbeki and Zuma for South Africa.

I do not mean to carp though- there is something noble about the film and if it has imperfections (this is no character study), it isn't trying to have those perfections. Take it for what it is, a film about a great moment and a good man- and forget the rest. Whatever happens next in South Africa, the film's vision of a multi-racial South Africa deserves celebration and this is the carnival film with which to do it.

February 09, 2010

Martin Wolf's father

Recently reading the Financial Times, I came across this comment in an old column by Martin Wolf, their leader writer:

I have recently been thinking a great deal about my long-dead father. I have been writing a memoir of his life for an exhibition being organised by Vienna’s Exilbibliothek (“Exile Library”) in honour of what would have been his hundredth birthday. But I have also been thinking about him because he would have fully understood what is at stake today. Born in what was then Austrian Poland on April 23 1910, my father’s life began just after the end of the “noughties” of the 20th century, of which I wrote last week. Moved by his parents to Vienna in 1914, he lived through the first world war, the hyperinflation of the early 1920s and the Great Depression, before leaving for London, just ahead of Hitler’s arrival, in 1937. There he survived internment as an enemy alien and the second world war. Nearly all his relatives, apart from his immediate family, were killed in the Holocaust. The same was true of my mother’s family. While she and her immediate relatives escaped by trawler from the Netherlands in May 1940, her wider family was destroyed.As a central European intellectual born in 1910 – he was a playwright, journalist, broadcaster, documentary filmmaker and writer of television dramas, in his native language, German – my father lived in historic times....

At an emotional level, these views shaped how I have responded to the financial catastrophe of the past few years.

What I find interesting about this passage is not neccessarily the views- I'm sure plenty agree and plenty oppose Mr Wolf's specific cures for the financial crisis- but the influence of Mr Wolf's father on those views. The reason I quoted the passage at length is that here we have a very cerebral commentator on current events talking in very emotional language- talking with pride about his father and to a lesser extent mother- and with sadness about their fate and affirming that it has influenced him on a deeper than rational, an 'emotional' level in his response to the present crisis. I think what this shows is something I am preoccupied with, which is the length of history. The crisis of today is 60 years on from that of the forties- I never knew my grandfather who fought in the war, I never knew my other grandfather too who tried to fight but was told he could not. But it is still in living memory 60 years on- to put that in context it means that the English Revolution was fought in the context of the Armada, the French in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Reunification of Italy in the context of the French Revolutionary War and the Reunification of Germany in the context of Napoleon. Living memories like Mr Wolf's today stretched back that far: Bismark might talk of Napoleon and his father like Mr Wolf does of Hitler and his.

I don't mean to labour the point but it is that we have a sense of history as discrete moments: in the future if we get that far the Presidency of Barack Obama and the current crisis will be one of those but what Mr Wolf's account shows is that for our times and for previous times, you can't understand the discrete without seeing it in a landscape of events. Obviously there are many stories that can be made out of these events: there are several ways of interpreting the thirties today and there were several ways of interpreting the past in the past, but you have to understand that people do not see events in a singularity but in the stream of their own lives if you are to capture those events. Mr Wolf's column may be brilliant or awful economics or politics, but what it does, whichever it is, is teach a very good history lesson: in order to understand history we cannot forget the histories of the people we study.

February 08, 2010

An old fashioned mode

One of the participants in Elizabeth Baines's reading group criticised a novel recently (I am plucking one sentence from a very interesting blogpost about what seems to be a fascinating discussion). She said it was put in an

an old-fashioned long-winded mode which nowadays she just can't stand any more.

The phrase interested me. Firstly because it opens up a possibility- that no idea of the beauty of a text can ever be separated from its time- ie that fashions change and that that means that what was acceptable for people to laud a work for in 1900 has become a flaw today. Secondly it opens up the reversal of that possibility- that a virtue in a novel by Dosteovsky has become a flaw in a novel written today. There may be something in that- afterall Dosteovsky, my representative classic author, did whatever he did for the first time- copying is not a creative virtue. But there is a deeper sense in which this is interesting- in the sense that it is acceptable for Shakespeare to use 'thou' but not for Zadie Smith.

I wonder if this can be explained if we expand what we mean by conventions within story writing. Let me expand: novels tell a story through a set of conventions- the most commonly known are a set called languages, these are generally accepted norms of communicating in that community. In a sense though the structure of the story, the way it works, the types of incident and the types of explanation are also conventions- like the camera movement in cinema- and those become acceptable and unacceptable and are anchored to a period of time as much as language is or camera work is. In this sense Elizabeth Baines' contributor is exactly right: having long philosophical passages in novels might be as misplaced as seeing a modern English novel written with thee and thou used instead of you. That brings us though to a question that I have never thought about as much as I should which is the ways that conventions change, the ways that languages slip and the ways that innovations in the convention of writing are accepted.

February 07, 2010

What is a person?

It isn't easy to define what a person is when you actually think about it seriously. Am I the wrathful Gracchi that woke up this morning at 9 o'clock or will do so tommorrow at 6 (something that makes me shiver in repulsion at this moment) or the sleepy headed Gracchi that will recline over his book at 10 or 11 tonight? Which one is more really me? Its not something that we tend to think about that often- one of the benefits of existing is a tendency to ignore big questions- but it is important because when we come to describing other people it becomes difficult to avoid the fact that people are not single entities, they are spreads of characteristics. Two blog posts recently have made me think about this and I think are worth both linking to and giving some consideration of: both are by two of my favourite bloggers in the UK and both bring out I think the difficulty of the simple puzzle of knowing someone else.

Take for example this piece on Brian Clough- there are two key ideas here that I think are central to any evocation of someone as a person and undermine the whole of idea of the singularity of character. The first is that the author, James Hamilton, one of the best British bloggers, brings out the idea that Clough was not a behaviour but a combination of behaviours deployed by an individual to meet an end. His character was a fusion between the tactical behaviours and the underlying character who gave them a central body. Furthermore those two aspects- the tactics with which Clough controlled a conversation and the personality that forced him to wish to control it were always in dialogue. The former directed the latter as much as the latter directed the former. And both of them were in dialogue with another thing- the setting in which Clough found himself- a historical and industrial (if football is an industry) setting which allowed Clough to express his personality in these ways. Personality becomes a dialogue of desire and possibility, of strategy and tactics, of history, industry and all the rest rather than something static and something enduring.

Even though if we think we understand all of these things, Mercurius Politicus raises another question which is about the limits of our knowledge. Ultimately for characters who existed prior to the twentieth century getting hold of their actual words is not easy- even then we don't know whether what someone wrote was written by another or suggested by another. We don't know what was off the cough and what was deliberated over for years. Establishing someone's words is only a first step in the long and difficult journey we have to establish the spread of characteristics that makes up their character. Both these posts show how difficult it is to study human beings: we are by our nature elusive and because our fundemental nature is to live in time, we are also in constant flux. It is useful to talk about character and self when we analyse the world because without those rocks, we are cast upon a darkened sea without a light, but we must always remember the uncertainty in our speculation about character. Both James and Mercurius show the rocks are neither as solid nor as certain as we might assume.