The superstar messiah of the New Left

"Don't underestimate how far ideology has penetrated our daily lives," says Slavoj Žižek.

Speaking at Cadogan Hall on Friday, the self-proclaimed "radical leftist" philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave a remarkably ebullient lecture on pessimism. The Marxist intellectual sought to convince his audience in Knightsbridge that "ideology is still alive and kicking" and that history has not ended.

This year has seen a serious academic reappraisal of Marx, with Terry Eagleton and Eric Hobsbawm both publishing books on the continuing relevance of capitalism's fiercest opponent. Introduced to the 500-strong audience as "The superstar messiah of the New Left", Žižek was received with reverence. No-one was there by mistake.

A consummate performer, Žižek treated the crowd to a series of entertaining anecdotes, using references to popular culture to show how ideology is sewn throughout the fabric of our lives. "The film Black Swan", he said, "resuscitates one of the most unpleasant myths of anti-femininity. If as a woman you are to follow your career path, you will pay the price of death." Laughter rumbled through the auditorium, but Žižek was serious. "Do not concede to the enemy too much."

His analysis of contemporary ideological trends emphasises our ability to accept profound contradictions in society. What he terms the "fetishist function of ideology", the focus on a singular component of life, is explanation for our ideological delusions. Žižek cites the managers of big businesses in the US who take Buddhist meditation classes in their lunch break, before playing the stock market in the afternoon. The fetish is the delusional belief in one's "good" inner-self, despite the evidence of one's actions. "This", he said, "explains why and how most of us believe scientists, that something catastrophic is going to happen, but we are not prepared to act upon it."

Žižek is at his most urgent in his denunciation of capitalism and the dangers of allowing market forces into diverse areas of society. "We are living in a strange time, when public space for debate is becoming more privatised . . . The education and legal systems are the hegemonic organisations as the state presents itself more and more as a market oriented operation," he said. "Just as in voting we are consumers looking for the best deals."

Reflecting on the decline of sex in Hollywood movies, Žižek atttributes it to the perception of love as a dangerous ungovernable force that doesn't sit comfortably in the market. "We want love without drama." And he believes we are being sold it.

Nevertheless, "change is in the air," he said. "Greece, Spain, here a little bit." Many in the audience shifted uneasily. "It's wonderful. Spain depressed me though. Making demands of democracy from above rather than saying 'we will do it.' We live in hopeful times, but very dangerous times... But it's not the revolution, it is the day after. The left does not have one idea."

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496