Saturday, February 17, 2007

Weekend pickings - Amrita Sher-Gil, the Spanish Civil War, Gaydar

Amongt the many things for which she is better known, Amrita Sher-Gil is the inspiration for Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor's Last Sigh. Six months before her death, she wrote to her sister: 'I...have passed through a nervous crisis and am still far from being over it. Feeling impotent dissatisfied irritable and unlike you not even able to weep. There seem to be forces at work - elemental forces - disrupting, throwing things out of equilibrium. The chaos and darkness of the lives of individuals - the wars, earthquakes, floods all seem to be indefinably interconnected. We are not alone. I see it everywhere.' There were elemental forces at work. Everyone died in 1941. Tagore, Woolf, Joyce, and Amrita Sher-Gil. And other people have died at the age of 28. There's something profoundly resonant about what Rushdie has to say: 'She was denied old age, bleak or otherwise, but neither her exuberant, magnificent self, nor the work it made, contained anything for which she needed to apologise...As Moraes 'Moor' Zogoiby wrote of his mother Aurora: "Even now, in the memory, she dazzles, must be circled about and about. We may perceive her indirectly, in her effects on others ... Ah, the dead, the unended, endlessly ending dead: how long, how rich is their story. We, the living, must find what space we can alongside them; the giant dead whom we cannot tie down, though we grasp at their hair, though we rope them while they sleep."'

***

Eric Hobsbawm on artists in the Spanish civil war:

The major question at issue in the Spanish civil war was, and remains, how social revolution and war were related on the republican side. The Spanish civil war was, or began as, both. It was a war born of the resistance of a legitimate government, with the help of a popular mobilisation, against a partially successful military coup; and, in important parts of Spain, the spontaneous transformation of the mobilisation into a social revolution. A serious war conducted by a government requires structure, discipline and a degree of centralisation. What characterises social revolutions like that of 1936 is local initiative, spontaneity, independence of, or even resistance to, higher authority - this was especially so given the unique strength of anarchism in Spain. In short, what was and remains at issue in these debates is what divided Marx and Bakunin.

Obdurate Communist that he is, Hobsbawm is very clear that 'Wars, however flexible the chains of command, cannot be fought, or war economies run, in a libertarian fashion.' He insists that, contra Orwell (and, more recently, Ken Loach), the only choice was between the Fascists and the Communists. The Spanish civil war was not, and should not have been what Orwell wanted it to be - a struggle against both the ultra-right and the Comintern. I have to say I'm with Orwell on this one. Here is Orwell on the precise issue that Hobsbawm stakes his position on - the impossibility of winning the war the anarchist way.

A modern mechanised army does not spring up out of the ground, and if the Government had waited until it had trained troops at its disposal, Franco would never have been resisted. Later it became the fashion to decry the militias, and therefore to pretend that the faults which were due to lack of training and weapons [thariel: which Stalin refused to send the anarchists] were the result of the equalitarian system. Actually, a newly raised draft of militia was an undisciplined mob not because the officers called the privates 'Comrade' but because raw troops are always an undisciplined mob. In practice the democratic 'revolutionary' type of discipline is more reliable than might be expected. In a workers' army discipline is theoretically voluntary. It is based on class-loyalty, whereas the discipline of a bourgeois conscript army is based ultimately on fear...In the militias the bullying and abuse than go on in an ordinary army would never have been tolerated for a moment. The normal military punishments existed, but they were only invoked for very serious offences. When a man refused to obey an order you did not immediately get him punished; you first appealed to him in the name of comradeship. Cynical people with no experience of handling men will say instantly that this would never 'work', but as a matter of fact it does 'work' in the long run. The discipline of even the worst drafts of militia visible improved as time went on. In January the job of keeping a dozen raw recruits up to the mark almost turned my hair grey. In May for a short while I was acting lieutenant in command of about thirty men, English and Spanish. We had all been under fire for months, and I never had the slightest difficulty in getting an order obeyed or in getting men to volunteer for a dangerous job. 'Revolutionary' discipline depends on political consciousness - on an understanding of why orders must be obeyed; it takes time to diffuse this, but it also takes time to drill a man into an automaton on the barrack-square. The journalists who sneered at the militia-system seldom remembered that the militias had to hold the line while the Popular Army was training in the rear. And it is a tribute to the strength of 'revolutionary' discipline that the militias stayed in the field at all. For until about June 1937 there was nothing to keep them there, except class loyalty. Individual deserters could be shot - were shot, occasionally - but if a thousand men had decided to walk out of the line together there was no force to stop them. A conscript army in the same circumstances - with its battle-police removed - would have melted away. Yet the militias held the line, though God knows they won very few victories, and even individual desertions were not common. (George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, pp. 28-9 [Harvest edition])

It's a testament to the strength of Orwell's argument that Hobsbawm can say nothing, after all these years, to address this fundamental issue - except to reiterate, almost as an article of faith, the impossibility of simultaneity of revolution and war. Revolutions deferred never happen. The irritating thing of course is that Orwell's leftist critique of Communism was picked up by the right during the Cold War, elevating him - as Hobsbawm explains - from an awkward, marginal figure to the iconic status he enjoys today. But intellectuals cannot control what will be made of their work. They just have to tell it as it is and pray that they will be read in context.

***

Gary Frisch, the co-founder of Gaydar, died last Saturday after falling from the 8th floor balcony of his London flat. It's unclear whether this was an accident or a case of suicide. Either way, it must be a unimaginable tragedy for all those who knew and loved him.

Inevitably, there has been much discussion of the phenomenon that is Gaydar and how it has transformed gay life in Britain and elsewhere. With 4 million customers in 23 countries, Gaydar is probably the largest dating website in the world. The figures speak for themselves and there have been many deeply appreciative and moving testimonials to the website's dead founder from people who say it has changed their lives for the better. Gaydar has undeniably made some things better. You don't have to go cottaging anymore, with all the risks that that entails - unless of course that's your fetish - when you can trawl the internet for sex from the safety of your home. And the anonymity of online interaction is something that people in the closet want, need, value. Gaydar has given us a safe, non-judgmental space in which to find sex.

But I don't at all buy the argument that Gaydar has fostered a sense of community amongst gay people or had any vaguely progressive political implications. In fact it's precisely the privatisation of sexual interaction that it allows that seems to undermine the development of anything that could meaningfully be called 'community'. Why go to queer bookstores or support groups or even bars when you can shop for what you want on the sexual equivalent of eBay? (It's not very far off from the privatisation of protest actually - no need to join trade unions or social movements anymore, no need to get into that thing called the public sphere, no need to create one if it doesn't exist, anyone can be an activist - buy a white band or fair trade coffee and consume activism in the comfort of your home.) As for anonymity - sure, it helps the teenager struggling to come to terms with his sexuality to make his first tentative forays into a forbidden and stigmatised realm of desire. But it also allows the racist - who might not have the guts to say this to anyone's face - to say that he's not 'into' orientals before he's even seen your face (look at my face or something before you decide you're not into me dammit). People behave like automatons when they're horny, anonymity allows them to talk like automatons. It's amazing how quickly, how easily, the niceties - the fucking platitudes - of political correctness are stripped away in that zone of anonymity, where no one has to take responsibility for what they're saying. Don't mistake the rant for a case of sour grapes. Gaydar's great for a shag. As the website promises, you get what you want, when you want it, often pretty close to home. The great thing about the sexual marketplace is that there is something in it for everyone. (And if you find you're not in demand enough, why then just lower your price.) Even on a bad night, you can at least have a good wank. The invisible hand of the market always gets the job done.

I'm sorry Gary Frisch is dead and I feel for his friends and family. But his website has been a double edged thing. If it's enabled companionship and community for some, to many it's brought a kind of nihilistic pleasure that's frighteningly easy to become addicted to at the expense of truly meaningful relationships, careers, and life in general. Perhaps the suicide of its founder is as appropriate a time as any for this customer to draw a line under the whole sorry experiment.

I think I've just discovered queer rage.

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