Sean Ledwith reviews Tony McKenna's latest book, Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art
This is the third of Tony McKenna’s collections of essays in which he aspires to demonstrate that a Marxist framework is the best way of comprehending the cultural and political challenges being generated in the era of late capitalism. Like his previous two similar volumes, Toward Forever is a dazzling display of erudition and insight that never fails to offer stimulating lines of thought on a remarkable breadth of topics.
McKenna’s achievement in his previous collections has been to persuasively argue that a dialectical method, rigorously but deftly applied, can explain the potency of many of the pre-eminent cultural products of our time. He has analysed how the successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Hunger Games to name but a few are explicable in terms of the peculiar anxieties and tensions of the post-2008 crash world.
McKenna has also usefully revisited more traditional subjects that have received attention from other Marxist commentators such as the Greek myths, the novels of Balzac and Hugo, and the art of Rembrandt and Blake. In addition, McKenna has supplied valuable analyses of some of the key political personalities that have shaped 21st century politics so far such as Chavez, Corbyn and Trump.
The most striking quality of McKenna’s overall approach is the ability to contextualise this remarkable variety of subjects within the prevailing relations of production of a particular era without undermining the crucial role of human agency.
He should also be commended for a willingness ‘to boldly go’ into areas of concern that more hidebound analysts on the left might regard as unworthy of attention. Whatever we might subjectively think about the comedy of Ricky Gervais or film versions of Batman, they are hugely popular cultural artefacts that evidently tap into some element of the zeitgeist that a coherent Marxist world-view should feel obligated to explain. McKenna’s mentality is an appropriate adaptation of Gramsci’s famous exhortation that the left should consider ‘everything that concerns people’ if it wishes to retain relevance in the crowded digital marketplace of theoretical paradigms that compete for our attention.
Toward Forever replicates the tried and tested formula that McKenna utilised in his first two collections. He covers a stunning diversity of topics including The Sopranos, The Wizard of Oz, the art of Goya and the epidemic of suicides in contemporary Japan! There is also a sympathetic and moving account of the rise and fall of the Syrian Revolution that, for a time, looked like it might able uproot the callous brutality of the Assad regime before being overwhelmed by the intervention of regional and global players with their own opportunistic agendas.
A historical materialist approach to culture
The breadth of McKenna’s range in no way affects the depth of his analyses of these subjects; in fact, the cumulative effect is to powerfully show that a non-reductionist version of Marxism is unrivalled in terms of explanatory power by any other theoretical framework. In a piece on contemporary art in this volume, he touches on this unique capacity of historical materialism, in the right hands, to illuminate the scope of human activities:
The truth which resonates in this type of art is the same truth which lives in the pages of Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The difference is that the truth of art in an emotive and intuitive manner; a semi-conscious and fantastical way which reduces the forms of social reality to the interplay of imaginary characters in a novel or colours on a canvas. (179)
McKenna’s conception of the role of culture within historical materialism is a compelling reformulation of Kantian aesthetic theory. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment theorised the power of art as its ability to take us tantalisingly close to the noumenal realm, or those aspects of the universe such as God or the infinite which we can sense but never truly access.
In McKenna’s more grounded version, cultural products of the highest calibre help us tune into the subterranean dynamics of the historical process which are often clouded by our quotidian concerns but which can be discerned with a wider perspective. In his characteristically elegant words:
Art is the expression of the truth of the political consciousness which has not, yet, descended from heaven to earth; it contains the truth of the social world but only through the distorting prism of its fantasy. (180)
The other refreshing quality of McKenna’s output is a writing style that is a sheer pleasure to read even if the subject is not necessarily what a reader may be interested in. He unpacks ideas with a crystalline clarity and fluency that puts to shame other Marxist cultural commentators who appear to think cluttering up their text with academic jargon is an indicator of merit. McKenna is one of the best writers on the British left today as he makes the effort to understand why certain cultural products are popular and then communicates his analysis in a way that any reasonably educated person could comprehend.
The need to make sense of history and the hope of changing it
Dan Brown’s best-selling 2004 novel The Da Vinci Code may seem like an unlikely choice for such an exploration of the utopian undercurrents in contemporary capitalist culture. However McKenna’s analysis of the book here is the perfect illustration of his ability to analyse examples of popular culture in a way that sheds light on the historical process and explains why a book about Christianity could have such a huge impact in our long-established secular society.
Of course, most Marxist aestheticians would probably dismiss the novel as throwaway trash to be picked up in airport terminal to kill a few hours on holiday and nothing more. McKenna is not blind to Brown’s notorious literary limitations and he effortlessly skewers the wafer-thin characterisations and plodding style of the prose. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code sold millions, has been translated into forty languages and spawned a booming sub-genre of semiotic mysteries set in a shadowy world of cryptology, religious cults and charismatic historical personalities.
So why would a poorly written potboiler with two-dimensional characters about the early history of Christianity become a smash hit in the first decade of the 21st century? McKenna’s persuasive answer is that the book provides putative answers in a world that appears to be spiralling out of control, run by politicians who are pitifully short of solutions to its multiple problems. Those answers in DVC may be untenable and little short of ridiculous to many, but at least they provide a narratalogical coherence to thousand years of history.
The notion that the Catholic Church and the Priory of Zion have been fighting out an ideological contest for hegemony within Christianity is based on the flimsiest of historical evidence, but for millions of readers it allows for the apparent carnage and chaos of world history to be reconfigured and made comprehensible.
The postmodern aversion to grand narratives that has permeated our discourse since the 1980s has created a vacuum in the heart of Western culture that leaves many people longing for an over-arching understanding of a world that appears to be accelerating towards the precipice. The Vatican might not be everyone’s choice for the guiding brain of two millennia of history but it is easy to see why any form of purposeful intelligence could be more comforting than the uncontrolled playing out of blind historical forces. The Da Vinci Code cleverly manipulates not just this elemental need to make sense of the past but also our hope that human beings in the present have the ability to alter the trajectory of events.
At the climax of the story, the character of Sophie Nevue comes to a realisation that her estrangement from her grandfather is linked to a conflict which has been taking place on an ideological plane for centuries. McKenna argues this conjoining of the micro and macro levels of analyses is profoundly affecting and chimes with a longing for an understanding of our place in history that all human beings feel. The fact that this device occurs in an apparently disposable piece of pulp fiction only adds to the book’s underrated achievement.
McKenna sums up the appeal of DVC:
It contains within its aesthetic a profound truth about the reality of history and ourselves as historical beings-immersed in its flux, shaped by its rhythms and yet often unaware of its elemental pulse and presence in the backdrop of our lives, until suddenly the stability of the present seems to fissure and crack.as history erupts once more, and new epochs, new adventures and new freedoms are born. (136)
This linking of the personal and the political is what McKenna finds to be decisively absent from the critically acclaimed and multi-Oscar winning 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh, the movie centres around a quest for justice by bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, played with searing power by Frances McDormand.
After her daughter is raped and murdered, Hayes launches an uncompromising attack on the defective local police department which has conspicuously failed to make progress in the identification of the culprit. This brings her into conflict with the cancer-ridden Chief of Police Willoughby, portrayed movingly by Woody Harrelson.
McKenna insightfully contends that although the premise and the collision of wills between the two protagonists are intringuiling poised, the film’s potential cinematic greatness is squandered as Willoughby’s unexpected demise before the halfway point robs the storyline of a level of complexity that it might have attained if their relationship had played out fully. The police chief takes his own life, unwilling to endure the crumbling of his physical and mental powers as the cancer spreads within his body.
Inevitably, Willoughby is posthumously sanctified in the story and the opportunity is lost for his character to confront the misogyny and racism of the institution he has represented for decades. McKenna uses this misstep on the part of McDonagh to argue an essentially dialectical process of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict is the root of great stories in any medium:
This film throws light on the most fundamental task for any writer; that is, to unspool the thread of necessity which runs through both character and plot. Aesthetic skill lies in the ability to create characters which are grounded in fundamental social-historical contradictions and whose lives attain a richness such that, after a while, it feels as though you-the writer-are simply a passive observer, merely recording the details of those lives as they unfold out in front of you in the form of an independent existence. (190)
Arguably the greatest stories ever produced by the human race are the cycle of mythological adventures based around the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Our appetite for re-enactments and updates of the dramatic lives of characters such as Oedipus, Achilles, Jason and Helen of Troy is seemingly never-ending and has produced some creative iterations in the 21st century already.
In an essay on the novels of Madeline Miller, McKenna perceptively notes how fourth wave feminism, expressed in the global MeToo movement, provides the essential ideological context for the success of recent fictional recreations of female Greek protagonists such as Penelope and Briseis, by authors such as Emily Wilson and Pat Barker.
Miller has added to this distinguished sub-genre with two books, Song of Achilles and Circe. In the latter, published in 2018, she takes a relatively marginal character from Homer’s Odyssey and re-imagines Circe’s backstory and life after her encounter with the famed king of Ithaca, Odysseus. The key to Miller’s evident resonance with millions of readers, McKenna argues, is a nuanced exploration of the dialectical conflicts that occur within the psyche of every human being. In Circe’s case, she is psychologically torn between the world of the immortals that she is raised in, and the world of mortals such as Odysseus that she encounters as she grows up. In McKenna’s words:
Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor-an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. (148)
Such an opposition is no longer central in our era but an alternative clash between the prevailing patriarchal capitalism and the liberated sexuality of an embryonic postcapitalist society is evident on a regular basis in the news headlines. As an American author, Miller has spoken explicitly of how she was traumatised by the elevation to the White House of a crassly racist and sexist President in 2016; but also how she has been inspired by the political resistance that Trump has provoked in the forms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other figures of a rejuvenated US left.
McKenna justifiably explains that these expressions of anti-capitalist insurgency are the context to the powerful impact of Miller’s evocative renditions of archaic Greece:
Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient, epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements which were also shaped by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. (159)
In his closing chapter on the art of Goya, the author optimistically describes a detail from a painting from the 1820s called The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, the Spaniard’s last masterpiece:
…in the far-right corner there is a retreating patch of shadowy cloud, but directly outlining the young woman’s head – creating a halo-like effect – is a burgeoning blue fissured with delicate white light. It feels as though a night-time storm has come and gone and now, breaking through, comes the silvery, morning light of a brand new day. (236)
As the world continues to groan under the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that McKenna’s thesis that great cultural products presage the coming of a more enlightened social order turns out to be valid. Even without viral threats, climate change and global immiseration mean that the mass of humanity is becoming increasingly desperate to see that silvery, morning light breaking through.