Orwell: Animal Farm

Somehow Animal Farm escaped from the boxes where most of my books still reside, and I picked it up and started reading it on a whim. I had read it in high school and not since. I don't recall having a very strong opinion or impression of it, beyond the obvious satirical-polemical intent. And it's referred to often enough in political discussions that I didn't feel like I needed to re-read it. After all, it's a pretty slight book, once and maybe still favored for book reports by un-bookish students. How much more can there be to it than the grim news that revolutions, in this case a clearly left-wing revolution, can turn repressive? (I imagine everyone knows this, even if they haven't read the book, but just in case you haven't: it's a sort of allegory in which farm animals stage a revolution, drive out the human farmer, and set up a regime which quickly turns into a new form of oppression in a very Soviet style.)

It's better, both funnier and sadder than I expected. The justification for the revolution, the genuine oppression to which it's a response, is made clear. The rebellion begins with a stirring--really--and presumably sincere speech from an old pig, but he dies soon afterwards, and the revolution is made by others. The animals, both as species and as individuals, are sketched in a way that makes me think Orwell had a fair amount of knowledge of and sympathy for them, especially the horses.

Several pigs--Snowball, Squealer, and Napoleon--are the clever scoundrels who take advantage of the revolution to rule others for their own benefit, though Snowball is subject to a Trotsky-style expulsion and thereafter blamed for everything that goes wrong. I don't know whether it's true or not that pigs are actually quite intelligent--what little contact I've had with them argues against it--but that of course does not in the least prevent them from acting in the way that has caused us to make "pig" an insult. 

The dogs are loyal but malleable, and loyal to the wrong person, soon becoming Napoleon's bodyguards, enforcers, and executioners. The cat (singular) looks out for number one. There are three horses, two big draft horses named Boxer (male) and Clover (female), and Molly, "the foolish, pretty white mare who drew Mr. Jones's trap." Boxer is pure nobility, "as strong as any two ordinary horses put together," and not only a more productive worker than anyone else, because of his strength, but more diligent as well. But he's not very smart. He believes everything the pigs tell him, even when he thinks it doesn't really sound quite right, and his response is always a resolution to work harder. So he works himself nearly to death, and then is despicably betrayed. Molly only cares about sugar and ribbons for her mane, and is soon lured back to human service. 

The hens and cows mostly do as they're told, most of their attention absorbed by the production of  eggs and milk, and aroused to anger only when that is interfered with. One rooster becomes a gaudy sort of mascot for the pigs, marching at the head of parades. An old donkey named Benjamin is the only one who seems to see what's happening, but he's a cynic and doesn't do anything about it. 

And then there are the sheep. Next to the pigs, the sheep are the worst. They are fools, the useful idiots once praised by Lenin (or one of those guys). Having reached the limits of their intelligence in learning to repeat "Four legs good, two legs bad," they bring to an end any meeting of the community in which disagreement with Napoleon is expressed, or seems about to be expressed, by drowning out with their chanting of their six words the voice of anyone whose speech threatens to be "problematic," to use a word favored by our own sheep. I never have thought very highly of protests that involve marching and chanting simple slogans. And now whenever I see a crowd of students shouting down a speaker I'll think of those sheep.

It's really quite brilliantly done, and might have remained popular even if it had not remained relevant. The probably-most-quoted bit from the book has been on my mind lately: "All animals are equal. But some are more equal than others." Examples of this syndrome appear in the news every day. There are the many politicians and officials who, during the COVID pandemic, laid stringent restrictions on the rest of us which they felt free to ignore.  There are the wealthy climate activists who demand sacrifices of us while showing no inclination whatsoever to stop flying around in private jets and in general living at the upper end of wealth and privilege. And there is the current flap over the illicit possession of classified documents by important politicians: from what I've read, immediate dismissal and loss of security clearance is the least that would happen to an ordinary government employee who so much as leaves the building with classified documents, and jail would be a definite possibility. (Maybe you remember the case of Sandy Berger, who just flat-out stole classified documents, for reasons which as far as I know have never been definitively revealed, and who actually had his security clearance restored after a three-year suspension.)

But these are just more or less typical human behavior: one set of rules for the rich and powerful, another for the masses; business as usual. So comparisons to what's happening today are loose. Certain parallels are clear, but we've had no revolution, and comparatively little physical violence. What strikes me most in the way of resemblance to our own situation is the conversion of falsehood into truth. I say "conversion" instead of "substitution" because that's the real difference between totalitarianism and ordinary lying. I said many times during the Trump administration that those who took his blatant falsehoods as a sign that we had entered 1984 territory had either not read the book or did not understand it.

What makes the regime of 1984 so powerful and frightening is that it has the power to make you acquiesce in its lies. The pigs rewrite their own history, and punish anyone who tries to point out the change. If someone tells you an obvious transparent lie, and you know it's a lie, you can ignore him or scoff at him or point out the lie or whatever else suits you. But if he has the power to destroy evidence of the truth, and not only to punish you for contradicting him, but to force you to say you believe him on pain of losing your livelihood, or worse, you are in a very tough position. Today's progressives are much more willing and able to do this than Trump ever was or could dream of being, given the forces opposing him. The offense, which would be a crime if the progressives had their way, of "misgendering" is maybe the best example, but there are many others.

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The adventure of the Chinese ballon (sounds like a Hardy Boys title) made me think of this song.

 


Dixon; Shakespeare

Dixon, as you will have guessed, is Franklin W. Dixon, the author's name on the cover of the Hardy Boys books. He did not actually exist, at least not as the author of those books, which were a group effort, and not always the same group. Usually there was at minimum an outline written by one person and a manuscript produced from the outline by another. You can read an overview of the various people involved here, and details of who did what in each book here. It was all done at the direction of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Knowing that, you won't be surprised that the same company produced the Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Bobbsey Twins, and other similar books. Goodbye to Carolyn Keene.

All of that suggests something less than a sincere creative effort on the part of a Mr. Dixon, and I'm glad I didn't know that when I was ten or twelve years old and discovered the books.

I used to spend the night sometimes at the home of my maternal grandparents, and the little room I slept in had a bookshelf which held a number of books belonging to my uncle Al. He was the youngest of three, and only a dozen or so years older than me. I had been sleeping in that room for a while but apparently had not thought the grown-up-looking books would be of interest to me until one day I picked up one with the intriguing title of What Happened At Midnight. I was quickly hooked, and eventually read all of the two dozen or so on the shelves in that room. As best I can remember in consultation with a chronological list of the books, I read every title from the first, The Tower Treasure, published in 1927, through The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, published in 1949 (though of course I had no idea of their order of publication, or interest in it, but just picked up another when I finished one). 

It seems there were at least two that I took home and never returned: The Disappearing Floor (1940) and The Clue of the Broken Blade (1942). How they managed to stay with me from my late teens  until now is a mystery. Perhaps they didn't stay with me; perhaps they just stayed at my parents' house for over thirty years and I appropriated them when they moved in 2000.

A few weeks ago, partly because those two books had surfaced even though most of our books are still in boxes after moving (awaiting final determination of bookshelf placement), and partly with the thought that it might be a pleasant exercise in nostalgia, I decided to read one of them and picked up The Clue of the Broken Blade.

What a disappointment. The book is colorless and lifeless. Frank, Joe, and their father are blanks. The prose is not just wooden but ill-made, like furniture banged together crudely from the pieces of a shipping pallet. The plot seems barely coherent but that may be partly my fault, as I chose to read one chapter a night in bed, when my mind is pretty sluggish at best. I could not find in my reaction any trace of the enjoyment I had at twelve or so, or even a perception of the reasons for it, even though if no longer operative, as might happen with an old episode of Gunsmoke. I must have thought the story was exciting and suspenseful, and I know I liked what Frank and Joe represented, and wanted to be like them. Maybe, just maybe, if I had not been reading when drowsy, I would still have felt some sense of the mere what's-going-to-happen appeal of the plot. But the best I can do is assume that I must have felt it at the time. 

The most I can say in favor of the book is that the simplicity, naivete, sincerity (by which I mean the absence of irony), and absence of vulgarity were mildly refreshing in contrast to much or most of what's offered to, or pushed at, young people today. But it's so very unreal--and maybe that sheds some light on what's happened over the past half-century. 

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At the opposite extreme: two unrelated incidents caused me to watch a 1980 BBC production of The Winter's Tale. First, a recent issue of The New Criterion includes an article on that play by Anthony Daniels. He's always an interesting writer, but although I had read the play some years ago (twenty or so, maybe?) I didn't remember it very clearly, and I didn't want to read the article without better knowledge of the play. And my Shakespeare is still packed away in one of a dozen or so large heavy boxes stacked in a hallway, and I don't know which one. 

Second, a comment on some post somewhere online informed me that subscribers to the BBC's streaming service, BritBox, have access to the BBC Television Shakespeare, which includes essentially all the plays--thirty-seven of them, and I say "essentially" because there is apparently still some scholarly disagreement about a couple of them. I had not known that the series even existed, much less that I had access to it. 

So I immediately looked for, and found, and watched, The Winter's Tale. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed it. I was almost rapturous. The marvelous Mozart-like flow of language was a non-stop pleasure. It was just as well that I didn't have the text handy, with notes, because I would have been constantly stopping and starting the film to figure out some knotty figure or to explain an unknown or obsolete word or usage. After twenty minutes or so I decided to just let those go by, since I could follow well enough without them, and surrender to the flow. 

And the story: this is a late play, and it seems to share with The Tempest a sort of mellowness, neither tragedy nor comedy, and it ends with events described by that term Tolkien gave us, eucatastrophe. The "catastrophe" part of that, as we commonly use the word, is applicable: it could almost be termed violent in its reversal of what came before. And a critic could fairly call it dramatically unconvincing, or worse. 

Moreover, the play is oddly constructed, and fairly criticized for that. It's in two parts, and the first part is a sort of mini-Othello story, the second part a sequel which takes place some years later, and redeems the tragic first part. This makes for something of a stitched-together quality, and it can't be considered one of Shakespeare's best. But I was greatly moved by it, and will certainly turn to it again. I guess I'm something of a pushover for a story which has that general arc. I like to think that's because it is fundamentally true to...well, I shouldn't say "true to life," because in general use that  phrase implicitly refers to earthly life, but true to the deepest realities. At any rate I was greatly moved, and will certainly turn to this play again. 

And I hope this video will continue to be available so that I can turn to it. A list of the play's productions (on Wikipedia, I think) called this one "orthodox." That's probably not meant to be a compliment, but it's fair enough: there is nothing gimmicky about the production, nothing that smacks of someone trying to put his own personal stamp on the work, or to render it somehow more fitting or engaging or palatable to a contemporary audience. In this case "orthodox" means excellent acting and appropriate, fairly simple, stylized but unobtrusive staging. I could quibble with this or that detail of either, but it would be just that, quibbling. 

Somewhere online in the past day or two I saw an advertisement for a Shakespeare in modern language. Well, it's true enough that in many cases the plot alone of many of the plays, and the plain matter of much of the dialog, has plenty of appeal. Still, that seems like Raphael in monochrome. 


Some Music

This is another trip into the only partially explored territory of music I bought in MP3 format when it was very inexpensive at eMusic.com, and I could experiment in a way that I never could have before. 

His Name Is Alive: Livonia

To some of us, the phrase "4AD in the 1980s" suggests magic. 4AD, in case you don't know, is the name of a record company, and in the 1980s it released some of the most wonderful popular music ever made, including most of the work of the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. And that continued into the 1990s and beyond. (I'm not dismissing later releases, but I haven't heard many of them.) Most likely it was those associations that were responsible for my having bought no less than seven albums and/or EPs by His Name Is Alive, a band I had not previously heard of. 

I decided to start with their first album, Livonia, released in 1990. Livonia is the name of the town in Michigan where the apparent mastermind of the project, Warren Defever, grew up. From what I've read "project" is a better term than "band," as it seems to involve a constantly shifting cast of musicians with Defever as the only constant. You might expect--at any rate I expected--that an album named for the midwestern home town of the writer would be a rootsy sort of thing, an Americana sort of thing, straightforward light rock or folk-rock with lyrics reflecting on the writer's origins. But it's every bit as other-worldly and mysterious as anything else in the 4AD lineup. 

If you aren't listening closely much of it will seem simpler than it is, and fairly uniform throughout: a single female voice, usually with a noticeable amount of reverb, singing pretty tunes with lyrics that tend to run from the vague to the cryptic, though sometimes evocative. But when you turn it up and listen more closely you hear an elaborate background of mysterious and distant sounds: voices, instruments, noises. 

It's difficult to pick one track as a good example, but this one, "If July," will do.

They follow me here then I know what I have
If I swallowed it whole they'll show me the path
Pretending to pray this is missed once a day
Please allow faith to find what's new is her first name

I look forward to hearing more of their work. According to AllMusic, music meriting at least four stars has continued to be released under this name until at least 2015. Of the more than twenty albums listed, the most recent I have is Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth  (I love the title), from 2001. There are over twenty albums altogether. There's bound to be some great stuff in there. 

One song on Livonia, "How Ghosts Affect Relationships," begins with a line from Yeats, "I dreamed that one had died in a strange place," from "Dream of Death." I wonder if I missed other literary allusions in the lyrics. 

Faith and the Muse: Elyria

This is not a 4AD release. But the second song on the album, "Sparks," certainly sounds like it could have been. Specifically, it sounds remarkably like the Cocteau Twins, so much so that you might mistake it for them if you heard it from across a room. But it's the only track that sounds like that. The rest of the album is as extravagantly varied as Livonia is consistent.

If it fits into any box, it would be the one labelled "Eclectic." It could quite justifiably be called progressive rock, if that term is meant to include complexity of any kind, not just the instrumental virtuosity with which it's often associated. It's big, romantic, dramatic, and ambitious, encompassing some fairly hard rock, the complex artsy work (musical and lyrical) of women like Kate Bush and Loreena McKennit, folk music (including one actual folk song, "The Unquiet Grave") and vaguely medieval-renaissance classical music. Goth and darkwave need to be mentioned in there, too. I've seen some photos of them in which they're seriously, almost comically, goth. 

One remarkable track is a song by the Elizabethan composer-poet Thomas Campion (an old favorite of mine), "When To Her Lute Corrina Sings." The tune, which I think is not Campion's, is straightforward, but the accompaniment is very dissonant piano and cello (I think) that sounds like it could have come from "Pierrot Lunaire" or some other early 20th century work.

Possibly the most effective description of the music is that it sounds like what you might expect of someone who looks and dresses like this (and is an extremely gifted musician).

Monica_Richards

(From Wikimedia Commons)

Why, knowing nothing much about this band, did I buy four albums by them fifteen or more years ago? I suspect it had something to do with their name. That's intriguing, isn't it? Faith and the Muse. Maybe I thought they dealt with Christian themes, especially as one of the albums is called Evidence of Heaven. But there's a simple explanation for the name and it has nothing to do with the noun or the concept "faith": the group is primarily two people, William Faith and Monica Richards, the latter (pictured above) presumably being the muse.

I'm not including a video clip because to pick one would not be truly representative. But there are plenty on YouTube. Some may find the music pretentious and overblown. Personally I like it very much. 

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Speaking of music, the past couple of weeks have seen the deaths of two well-known figures from the '60s, Jeff Beck and David Crosby. Beck, if you don't already know, and if you don't already know you probably don't care, was one of that trio of flash guitar players who passed through the Yardbirds, and later achieved personal fame as very visible members of much better-known bands (Cream, Led Zeppelin), and later on their own. I strongly suspect that he was, in the end, the best of the three, as the other two (Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page) seemed to more or less rest on their accomplishments, musically speaking, of the '60s and '70s, while Beck continued to be adventurous. (By "best" I mean produced more worthwhile music over a longer span of time.) Much of his work was in the jazz-rock fusion genre, which is definitely not a favorite of mine. But if you fancy electric guitar at all you should hear, really should hear, Live At Ronnie Scott's.

Hear and maybe see, as it's available as both audio and video. The benefit of the latter is that you get to see Beck and a very impressive band at work; the drawback is that Beck has some annoying physical mannerisms. And, as he was 64 at the time, I suspect that black hair is not all his. And why is a guy at retirement age still wearing that sleeveless shirt-vest thing? It's funny, really--as adventurous as he was in his music, he seemed to want to continue to look exactly like he did in 1970 or so. 

Guitarists and guitar fans sometimes talk about the great music Jimi Hendrix might have made if he hadn't died so young. Maybe he would have. Or maybe he would have been one of those '60s stars who faded after the age of 30 or so. That's more or less how I think of David Crosby: for me he is significant mainly as a member of the Byrds. Personally I prefer their work and Buffalo Springfield's to anything I've ever heard by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and/or Young, together or separately, with the exception of some of Young's solo work. CSN and CSN&Y made some undeniably brilliant music, but I never really cared about it in a way I did that of their earlier bands.

This brief obituary of Crosby at The American Conservative contains a strikingly accurate summary of what happened to the hippies: "the counterculture‚Äôs collapse into Clintonite politics." I can't think of anyone I knew from those days who isn't now a conventional, often near-fanatical, Democrat.