Thursday, April 06, 2006

Wrecking the House

Third in an occasional series on the poetry of Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice was one of the “Thirties Poets”, the generation of British poets who were too young for the Great War, mostly too old for the Second World War, and matured between the wars. It was the Age of Socialism, and the intelligentsia of Europe were caught between the two great Socialisms of their day, the Scylla of Hitler and the Charybdis of Stalin.

Socialism was scientific. It lumbered into the new era along with radio and the aeroplane, carrying the irrefutable imprimatur of Science, and would be implemented by the boffins in their white lab coats, for the good of us all.

Soccialism was inevitable; it was the Future; it was coming, and everybody knew it. The only question was what type of Socialism we would get. Could we avoid the jackboots? Or might we have the real, humane Socialism, the kind dreamed up by the Fabians in the salons of Bloomsbury?

I first read the Thirties Poets during my high school years in England back in the ’60s. They seemed quaint then, and they are even quainter now. There was social/political content in most of them that dated very quickly.

MacNeice was an exception; much of his poetry did not neglect the timeless themes. However, he was a child of the ’30s, and he wrote his share of forgettable verse on the topics of the day.

W.H. Auden is better remembered, and was perhaps the leader of the group. He and MacNeice were friends and colleagues, and their poetry sometimes seemed to be synchronized.

I present here two of their poems on the same topic, a Thirties topic: the scientifically-based and arid regimentation of modern society.

The two works are similar in diction and tone. But Auden’s is light-hearted and ironic, where MacNeice is angry. First, the Auden:

The Unknown Citizen
By W.H. Auden

(To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word,
               he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were
               normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that
               he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital
               but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages
               of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for he time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there
               was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for
               a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered
               with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Note the appearance of all the important modern topics in this poem: social psychology, organized labor, consumerism, popular culture, and, above all, the omnipresent State, watching and regulating everything.

And even Eugenics makes an appearance! Talk about quaint: a belief in Eugenics, in the utter scientific truth of it, was so widespread among the educated classes in those days that it was hardly questioned. It numbered among its enthusiasts Adolf Hitler, Calvin Coolidge, Margaret Sanger, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. But from today’s vantage point it might as well be the geocentric model of the cosmos, or phlogiston, as far as science is concerned.

Now for a slightly different take on the same topic. MacNeice’s poem is a little later (note the reference to television), but it partakes of the same spirit:

Jigsaw II
by Louis MacNeice

Property! Property! Let us extend
Soul and body without end:
A box to live in, with airs and graces,
A box on wheels that shows its paces,
A box that talks or that makes faces,
And curtains and fences as good as the neighbours’
To keep out the neighbours and keep us immured
Enjoying the cold canned fruit of our labours
In a sterilised cell, unshared, insured.

Property! Property! When will it end?
When will the poltergeist ascend
Out of the sewer with chopper and squib
To burn the mink and the baby’s bib
And cut the tattling wire to town
And smash all the plastics, clowning and clouting
And stop all the boxes shouting and pouting
And wreck the house from the aerial down
And give these ingrown souls an outing?

This poem verges on the “Visualize Industrial Collapse” mindset – “For the sake of community and culture, modern technological society must be destroyed!”

The funny thing about these poems is that the phenomena they decry – the regimentation, conformity, and mechanistic mindlessness of mass technological culture – were the mainstay of Socialism. When Stalin wanted to build the New Soviet Man, he didn’t envision the fellow as an individualist. Masses of dedicated workers, toiling for the sake of the collective, living in barracks or on in the kholkhoz, all engaged in Right Thinking – what could be more conformist than that?

The Left has been denouncing conformism ever since those days. Recall the way the bien-pensants of the ’50s derided the “Organization Man”, or how my fellow hippies and I looked down on “Mr. Jones”, working a 9-to-5 and living in the suburbs. Then there’s Pete Seegar with his “Little Boxes”, repackaged by John Cougar Mellencamp as “Little Pink Houses”. Nowadays modern marketing, from CNN to MTV, tells me to be an “Army of One”, and “have it my way.”

How is it that so many dedicated individualists, constantly striving for authentic originality, have ended up looking and sounding exactly the same? Did you ever look at the hairstyles and costumes of the fans at a Dead show?

It was true in my day, and it’s still true: within their specific subgroups – Goth, grunge, stoner, whatever – young people couldn’t be more alike if there had been an Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt all look exactly the same.”

The people who launched this anti-conformist meme, those intellectuals back in the ’20s and ’30s, were appalled by vulgar mass culture. But it was their Socialism which had brought it about, regimenting the benighted proletarian masses while raising their standard of living. The elite folk, the upper-middle-class and upper-class Socialists, were appalled by the results of their ideology.

Those non-U chaps, the fellows who used to live in fetid slums, or in the hovels on our country estates – we just wanted to help them out, but now look at them! All that vulgar modern plastic, so lacking in taste and refinement! So mindless!

They’re not like us.

So let’s knock it all down and start all over. Why shouldn’t we? After all, we’re the people who were born to run things.

The Science of Eugenics backs us up on that.


David Foster said...

I've heard the theory that: 1930s leftism was focused on economic improvement for the masses; science and technology were means to that end. Circa the early 1950s, it became clear that capitalism was delivering much better economic benefits to the masses than the leftists had ever thought possible; hence, their focus changed to aesthetic factors (as in "little boxes") and even to a hostility toward economic growth.

unaha-closp said...

The 50s boom was the result of facism and communism smashing each other into a bloody pulp in the 40s, whilst capitalism managed to profit from the sidelines and then jump in win the war in the end.