Monday, 22 November 2010

There's Usually a Catch

I love Dickens, despite his sentimentality and often unlikely plots. It seems to me that you just have to put up with those flaws, if you want the stuff in his writing that you admire. In the same way, I love Vienna, while recognising that one of the things I most like about it - its calm, peaceful orderliness - is largely a product of an aspect of life in Vienna that drives me mad - the bossiness of its inhabitants, who will not brook any social conduct that is not good-mannered and sedate, even from the very young (although small fluffy dogs may do anything they like, of course.)

Similarly, John Manifold, as well as writing The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth A.I.F. and many other fine works, was also a lifelong Communist, unmoved by the Hungarian uprising and all other evidence of the ghastliness of the Soviet regime. The arguments that can be made in his defence are: a) that he went to Cambridge at the wrong time; b) that he lived in Germany during the rise of Nazism; and c) that he was probably reacting against his wealthy, privileged background. I do vaguely understand b), since I am probably an example of the same process working in reverse: having been exposed to Soviet countries and also Communist China at a very young age, I have been ever since a lifelong conservative, unable to view the Left with anything other than suspicion.

It is an interesting thought though - how much can we forgive in our artistic heroes? There has been much fuss about Larkin's private remarks. His poems have not changed, but some people appear to think that the recent revelations have somehow devalued them. If Shakespeare turned out to have been a murderer or overly fond of sheep, would it alter his plays? I like to think that the true villains of the world - the Hitlers and Pol Pots - would be incapable of truly great works of art. Certainly, Hitler's failure to impress the artistic establishment of Vienna is often cited as a motive for his later acts.

Does it alter our perception of the good poems to know that John Manifold's political judgment was hopelessly bad? Does this poem that he wrote to mark the death of Stalin transform his other works to drivel or is it just an extremely embarrassing mistake? It is the rare person who does not flinch occasionally, remembering some carefully buried, almost forgotten moment of foolishness, but Manifold's error was never acknowledged or remedied, at least publicly. On the other hand, I've never turned to poets for advice on how to vote.

Death of Stalin

North to the reindeer herds, the snowbound dark,
Mammoth-tusk carvings and enormous pines;
South to the great canals, the silk, the vines,
The turbanned heads as brown as wattle-bark

East where the slant-eyed fishermen embark,
And tigers prowl between the silver-mines;
West to the wheatlands where the roaring lines
Of tractors wipe away the invaders' mark;

Such is his vast memorial's extent!
Here - like a fighter-plane, his petrol spent,
But straining dauntless towards a friendly drome

Whilst all his victories yet blaze in air -
Here at the dawn-lit first perimeter
Of Communism Uncle Joe reached home.

John Manifold, March 1953.


  1. Interesting topic! How should we feel about Wagner's anti-semitism?

  2. I knew he was liked by the Nazis but I hadn't realised he was an anti-semite himself. I've always felt unsophisticated for not liking him, but now I feel vindicated and can go off and listen to Mendelssohn's String Quartet No 6 in F Minor again instead, which is what I wanted to do all along

  3. Blimey. Uncle Joe, eh? Maybe Manifold should have written a companion piece prasing the gloriousness of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, or, err, almost anything else that the bastard did.

  4. He probably did. There's a whole section in his collected poems that doesn't bear close scrutiny.

  5. Now that, zmkc, neatly sidesteps Polly's question!

    And then there's TS Eliot, also apparently an anti-Semite. I try not to think about the issue of the author behind the work - intellectually, I don't think we should - but emotionally it is a different thing. I still like Eliot's poems though.

  6. I think the problem arises these days from the tendency to pay as much attention to artists' personalities as to their art - writers doing endless publicity et cetera.

  7. Eliot was an anti-Semite. Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, for example, contains disgustingly anti-Semitic lines.
    But it is possible still to admire the bulk of Eliot's poetry, I think.
    This is an interesting insight:

  8. Can you go and adjudicate on an apostrophe on Absent Proof, when you have a moment.