INTO THE DARK CHAMBER: THE NOVELIST AND SOUTH AFRICA
Date: January 12, 1986, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 13, Column 1; Book Review Desk Byline:By J. M. Coetzee; J. M. Coetzee, whose most recent novel is ”Life & Times of Michael K,” teaches at the University of Cape Town. Lead:
WHEN a colony is founded, wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in ”The Scarlet Letter,” ”among [ the ] earliest practical necessities [ is ] to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Prisons – Hawthorne called them the black flowers of civilized society – burgeon all over the face of South Africa. They may not be sketched or photographed, under threat of severe penalty. I have no idea whether laws against visual representations of prisons exist in other countries. Very likely they do. But in South Africa such laws have a particular symbolic appropriateness, as though it were decreed that the camera lens must shatter at the moment it is trained on certain sites; as though the passer-by shall have no means of confirming that what he saw – those buildings rising out of the sands in all their sprawl of gray monotony – was not a mirage or a bad dream.
This sunny, profane satire centers on the 60th birthday party of a ruthless yet sporadically charming fashion industry billionaire, Sir Richard “Greedy” MacCreadie (Steve Coogan). David Mitchell plays Nick Morris, a shy, self-effacing but ultimately contemptible writer hired to act as Greedy’s hagiographer. The build-up is promising, layering flashbacks to Greedy’s rise into the oligarchy with Morris’s information gathering and the preparations for the party, an elaborate affair set against Greece’s pristine shores.
Greedy’s staff struggles to pull it off, particularly with regard to the decidedly unscenic presence of Syrian refugees camped out nearby. The fact that all of Greece’s beaches are public makes it ultimately impossible to legally eject them. This is but one obstacle among others, including a nauseated lion, EU labor regulations, and the reluctance of certain coveted celebrities to attend the celebration.
Without giving too much away, at the story’s climax writer/director Michael Winterbottom satisfies one of the audience’s vengeful desires only to pull his punches, denying us the knockout blow. This lackluster denouement has as much to do with the limits of realism in representing the enormity of global capitalism as it does with the film’s liberal politics, which are capable of condemning injustice while ultimately doing nothing about it. In this sense Nick Morris is Winterbottom, clearly aware of the savagery of the people and economic forces he describes yet lacking the wherewithal to intervene decisively against them.
A story of underclass vengeance against the system that fattens the .001% at the expense of the health and dignity of workers would necessitate a leap into the surreal, some means of representation that could give commensurable form to the incommensurable totality of the Free Market. Even so, Greed is funny and dark, and definitely worth watching.
Far from a question of liberal politics, today’s cultural liberalism is identified far more by a moral framework of consumer choices, consumption habits, personal behaviors, and an obsession with displays of multicultural tolerance and surface-level diversity than any of its overtly political positions, which in reality are a largely settled matter. In fact, pretending those liberal political positions haven’t been settled and are instead under some sort of constant threat tends to be another primary feature of today’s hegemonic cultural liberalism.
Excerpt (pages 83-105, 220-21) from David Cowart, History and the Contemporary Novel (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989). Copyright 1989 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Winston Churchill, commenting on the atomic bomb, remarked that “the stone age may return on the gleaming wings of science.” In Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban imagines Churchill’s prophecy as fulfilled and looks to the moment in the postholocaust future when humanity, well into its second Iron Age, begins once again to pursue knowledge that will destroy it. Hoban conceives of history as something tragically lost in this blighted future, and in part his story concerns a culturewide yearning to know the more splendid past. He imagines a primitive society surrounded by evidence of its more civilized origins. Thus two antithetical conceptions of past time—primitive and civilized—coexist within the novel and constitute a dialectic in terms of which Hoban examines “the terror of history”—Mircea Eliade’s phrase for the suspicion or conviction that history answers to no transcendent rationale.1
What is the shape of History? We’re taught to think of Time as an arrow, with the Past unspooling behind us and the Future twinkling in the distance as we ride the Present like a crowded bus down a straight road. Aristotle once argued that humanity experiences the world as a series of Nows. It’s easy enough tag this split second of existence but as soon as we’ve done so the moment has passed into Then.
Here’s the documentary on the Punch and Judy show:
This is a short film of a Punch and Judy show in 1901. By this time the genre had been gentrified somewhat, pruned of its more disturbing elements in order to meet middle- and upper-class sensibilities.