Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

 

Film

Independent Cinemas - Berberian sound studio, 31 August

Following up his lauded debut, Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is being called the stand-out film at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a reserved but prominent sound engineer employed by director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to create the soundtrack to his hammy horror film. In the claustrophobic studio, Gilderoy sets to the gruesome work of mutilating vegetables in facsimile of on-screen violence, yet as his psychological strain makes itself known boundaries start to blur.

Art

Southbank Centre – Unlimited, 30 August – 9 September

The Olympics and art have had a close relationship ever since 1912, when art competitions figured as part of the games. Timed to coincide with this year’s Paralympics, Unlimited is a Southbank exhibition that has invited deaf and disabled artists to push themselves to reach previously unattained goals. Consisting of 29 commissions, Unlimited's range includes dance, live arts, visual arts, music and theatre.

Book

Mortality – Christopher Hitchens, 1 September

When author and former New Statesman staffer Christopher Hitchens died last December, a wave of tributes came from public figures as diverse as Tony Blair, Richard Dawkins and Martin Amis. His 13th and final book, Mortality, is published this Saturday. An exploration of how his cancer was "deporting" him “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady”, Mortality is a haunting account of one man lucidly examining his on coming death.

TV

BBC1 - Dr who 1 September, 7.20

In this weeks New Statesman, Alwyn W Turner examines the Daleks’ history as SF representations of the Nazi in time for the new Dr Who series, which will land on British TV screens this Saturday. At the ripe old age of 49, the cry of "Exterminate!" is getting a little tired, though we’ve been told that celebrated writer Steven Moffat has found an original angle to teach old Daleks new tricks - for the first time in the show's history they need Dr Who’s help.

Festival

Granary Square - King’s Cross Ice cream Festival, 1-2 September

Did you know that Carlo Gatti, the man who brought who brought ice cream to England, lived in King’s Cross? From his house he sold his famous "penny licks", which will be brought back by the Kings Cross Ice Cream Festival this weekend. As well as celebrating the history of the treat, the free festival will showcase the best of London ice cream and offer visitors the opportunity to be inducted into the craft all the way from milking the cow to the first lick.

Ice cream eating, which there will be plenty of opportunity to do at Kings Cross Ice Cream Festival (Image: Getty)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era