Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, cinemas nationwide, 14th June

Whedon had a 12 day break after filming The Avengers, so what did he decide to do? Make a feature-length film of course! Filmed in black and white, Much Ado About Nothing unites the original Shakespearean language (spoken in American accents) with the modern day. Surprisingly, it has earned a reputation with critics as “the must-see film of the summer so far”, with one critic saying that “it ought not to work, but it does”. The film is released nationwide today.

Exhibition

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace, V & A, 18th June- 20th October

Presented as a walk-in story at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Memory Palace brings a new fiction book by the author Hari Kunzru to life. It is visualised through a set of 20 commissions from a range of people including internationally renowned illustrators, graphic designers and typographers.  The exhibition opens on Tuesday and is open until Sunday 20th October.

Concert

Pet Shop Boys, The O2, 18th June

The internationally acclaimed Pet Shop Boys bring their Electric tour to London on Tuesday. This tour highlights the duo’s electronic music and style, but they will perform songs from across their entire career, up to and beyond their current album "Elysium", which has been received with much critical approbation.

TV

The White Queen, BBC 1, premieres 16th June

This 10-part remake of acclaimed author Phillipa Gregory’s series The Cousins’ War premieres on Sunday. It is set in 1664, around the time of the Wars of the Roses, in what has become a turbulent part of British history. Filmed in Bruges, the series tells the story of a woman by the name of Elizabeth Woodville, who was relatively unkown until Gregory brought her into the public eye. Following the success of the dramatisation of her novel The Other Boleyn Girl, fans and critics alike await The White Queen with much anticipation.

Festival

Meltdown Future Sounds 1: Baltic Fleet, The Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall, 16th June 6:00pm

As part of the Festival of Neighbourhood and Meltdown at the South Bank centre, marking  Yoko Ono's long-standing support of young and emerging artists, Baltic Fleet will be making their first of two appearances tonight at 6pm. Baltic Fleet are described by Time Out as being “Modern post-punkish sombre pop that's both melodic and kraut-rocking', and they are the winners of the 2013 GIT Award. Entry is free for this event.

 

Joss Whedon's take on Shakespeare's "Much Ado" is a surprise hit with critics. Photograph: fastcocreate.com
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