Friday, 3 May 2013

We are all vermin now.

So the British prime minister pronounces, ‘We are all Thatcherites now.’

Here, surely, is a species of Doublespeak parroted by the chatterati that is as brassnecked as any utterance by those who presume to misappropriate this familiar one-size-fits-all, catch-all-catchphrase for their own ends.

Consider the case of British novelist Zadie Smith, who writes of 21st century alienation in England as akin to Kafka’s existential crisis of the Jew: ‘What is Englishness? … Were all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.’ *

So we are all verminous bugs now, are we?’

I truly regret coupling the names of Margaret Thatcher and Franz Kafka in the same breath (mind you, their surnames are powerfully trochaic), yet I must protest the heavy-handed usage of a remark that originated with a British Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1888, if I am not mistaken … ‘We are all Socialists now.’

How ironic, then, that three masters of German letters should be a ghostly triumvirate summoned up – by association – at the promptings of an angst-ridden professional soul-barer to endorse the naïve platitudes of her earnest schoolgirl thesis.

Did not Goethe towards the end of his life say that a person should be, ‘ein gemäßigter Liberaler, wie es alle vernünftigen Leute.’ (Quoted as: ‘Any sensible person is a moderate liberal’) 

And did not Thomas Mann echo his words and say, with good reason, ‘Jeder vernünftige Mensch ist ein gemäßigter Sozialist.’ (‘Any sensible person is a moderate socialist.’)  

Kafka knew the works of Goethe inside out and venerated his writings so I believe it is distinctly flawed thinking for Zadie Smith to invoke Kafka’s name to support her disloyal and extremist notion of chronic sociopathy in Great Britain, the cradle of Liberalism (Locke, Mill, Cobden, Wollstonecraft, Stopes, et al).

As we know, Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ And now it appears the darling of thinking women’s reading groups agrees with her.

I asked my mother, when she was nearing the end of her life and infirm, how she placed herself as a participant in English society. She looked up from her knitting and said, ‘You know very well the pattern I follow, dear. The tenth balaclava this is I am knitting for the lifeboatmen. [She was a supporter of the RLNI.] Am I not part of your national life? [Then, with a dig at me for my not-so-frequent visits.] I am of society. Yes. Even if your mother is never seen by it.’
As Mother was only too aware, my paternal aunt had lambasted my father in a fierce letter (from Berlin, November 17, 1929) accusing him of becoming a stereotypical arch-Englishman (Stock-Engländer) ... of having ‘gone native’, so to speak ... so the question of national identity had clearly exercised the sister of my father, who in his own characteristically quiet yet dogged way had resolved his own existential crisis, at least then... it was a different problem after WW2.

Authentic voices.

However, this absurd breast-beating of Zadie Smith – moreover, a public agonizing in peacetime England raises other questions, which I have persisted in pursuing with a most distinguished literary editor of one of London’s quality daily newspapers.

I had referred ‘... to certain solipsistic postwar poets who, in my own view, exhibit a maudlin notionality of identification with Holocaust victims that devalues the scale of human suffering.’ 

These remarks were prompted by Zadie Smith’s reference to Sylvia Plath, in her Kafka essay, in which she writes, ‘For there is a sense in which Kafkas Jewish Question (What have I in common with Jews?) has become everybodys question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts. Sylvia Plath hinted at this: I think I may well be a Jew.  

Well, the crazy conclusion to all these musings is that though I had NOT specifically mentioned Sylvia Plaththe distinguished literary editor guessed whereof I spoke.

He wrote: ‘Wherever you stand on maudlin identification, its a very old argument, and Im not sure its worth reviving. And Im afraid her poems are always going to be a bit more interesting than Karen Gershons, arent they?’ **


MORAL : Germans have a word for a denigrating self-loather: a Nestbeschmutzer (a besmircher of one’s own nest). Zadie Smith’s self-styled alienation is hard to swallow, in my view, when she is gifted with the greatest boon ever conferred to unify a nation: the pure reason of the English language as a medium of connexion rather than of estrangement. Alienation? She did not have the misfortune to be cursed with the split personality of futurist L v. K, who was born in 1902 in Elsass/Alsace. Up to the age of 16 his studies were in German until the political overthrow of 1918 and his teachers changed to French, an agonizing relinquishment of the language he loved. See my The Eleven Surviving Works of L v. K at the South Bank Poetry Library for a tragedy of true alienation ...

Divided loyalty?*** I suggest Zadie Smith examines the example of Anglophile Adam von Trott zu Solz before she makes that claim.  

Better to be a Stock-Engländer than an Ungeziefer

** For the poems of Karen Gershon, a Kindertransport refugee, see

*** Oh, and maybe, too, Zadie Smith should listen to actor Richard Burton – a Welsh speaker – conjugating the verb ‘to be’ . . . ‘I will teach you the greatest poem in the English language, the present tense of the verb “to be”: I am, thou art, she is, he is, we are, you are, they are . . . ’ 

No comments:

Post a Comment