Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

From Death to Death and Other Small Tales, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 15 Dec-8 Sept 2013

Presenting masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the D Daskalopoulos Collection, one of the most private important collections of modern and contemporary art, this exhibition offers the visitor 130 works.

The focus of the exhibition is the importance of the body as a theme in 20th and 21st century art practice. Visitors will be able to see works that have not previously been available to view in Scotland. The D.Daskalopoulos Collection has developed since 1994 and artists include Marcel Duchamp, Tracey Emin and Marina Abramovic.

Comedy

Josie Long, Romance and Adventure, BAC, London SW11, 19-21 December

The comedian is on tour with her sixth comedy solo show, Romance and Adventure, which was also nominated for the Edinburgh comedy award for best show (the third year in a row she's received that nomination). The show promises high-end adventure pursuits and even a moment when Josie will pretend to be some kind of posh Godzilla on the rampage. Focusing on the issues facing those turning 30, including the struggle to keep going when you are tired and the myriad doubts one faces.

Theatre

Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, London WC2, until 2 March 2013

Having opened in the West End a few days ago, this production has already received rave reviews in the national newspapers for the star performance from Simon Russell Beale. The play, directed here by Michael Grandage, is a comedy set against the murderous backdrop of the Malaysian campaign at the end of the Second World War. Private Steven Flowers is sent to the Song and Dance Unit in South East Asia where he meets Captain Terri Dennis, played by Russell Beale. Private Flowers soon learns from the flamboyant captain that becoming a man is more than just the uniform.

Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 9 February

This all-female production of one of history’s most prominent figures in Shakespeare’s play has likewise been successful among critics. It is Phyllida Lloyd’s first appearance as director since the Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, and it is a return that is certainly lauded. Although Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry’s casting in Twelfth Night in an all-male production appears to have gained more headlines, the Donmar’s show is set to be a hit with the focus on the all-important issues of power and corruption.

Music

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, Barbican Centre, London EC2, 19 December

As part of UBS Soundscapes, the London Symphony of Orchestra will be performing next weekin the Barbican Hall. They will perform Szymanowski’s Symphony No 4 ("Symphonie Concertante"), his Violin Concerto No 2 and Brahms's Symphony No 4, conducted by Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev. Gergiev will be conducting several performances between 19 December and 31 March 2013.

Tracey Emin, whose work will feature in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's latest exhibition on 15 December onwards. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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