#ArmisticeDay100 one week on

A week ago saw the international commemorations of Armistice Day: on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. There was the annual event at the Cenotaph in the UK followed by a service at Westminster Abbey, gatherings of world leaders in Paris, and services taking place at cemeteries and memorials in India, New Zealand and the USA amongst many other countries. I had a draft version of this essay ready last Sunday, but decided to wait until a week had gone by before I posted it. I was curious to see how the spirit of remembrance would pan out a mere week after the solemnities of the remembrance services, the public grief and mourning over lives lost and the thankful vows to ‘never forget’. After the week we have just seen, where the level of British political debate has been puerile, headlines have featured militaristic language of ‘plots’, ‘battles’, ‘fighting’, ‘rebels’, ‘calling in the cavalry’ etc. and the harassment of a prominent female investigative journalist became institutional, I am convinced that remembrance in this country is little more than an annual self-indulgent performance.[1] Additionally, and sadly, this did not surprise me in the slightest.

Of course, there is always a performance element to any kind of national event; however, above all others, Armistice Sunday really has become the biggest yardstick of nationalism with which to bash people around the head for a couple of days of the year, until business as usual resumes. Remembrance, we are told (and I firmly believe should), involve respect of difference, empathy, compassion and a renewed sense of hope in the potential of human beings to acknowledge the injustices of the past and to unite to do good, try harder and be better in future. Nowhere have I seen any of these played out in British politics this past week: the lack of respect, the spite, the selfishness that we have seen manifesting at Westminster has been galling. As such, I think it’s absolutely crucial that we deconstruct and re-think remembrance, so that we carry its spirit with us all year long and begin to conduct life as human beings with integrity and long-sightedness. As a species, we can live consciously and kindly, we can serve one another by embracing and protecting difference, and we can prioritise love, compassion and justice over greed, intolerance and hate.

As with many things in these polarised political times, there is much division over the poppy as a symbol of national remembrance. On one hand, it is a nod to John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is an emotive and powerful symbol representing sacrifice and loss for a cause greater than oneself. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as an uncritical expression of nationalistic pride; brought out once a year to remember the devastating effect of war on human life whilst governmental policy continues to pursue and fuel unnecessary conflict.[3] For literary critic Walter Benjamin, this thinking in binary opposition, that has incidentally become so inflammatory and toxic over the past few years, is inevitable if we are to understand our history, our present and our future through the use of symbols. The poppy will never go far enough to help us understand and remember history. Instead, we need to culturally embrace and elevate allegory.  As Benjamin writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.

Reading this on and around Armistice Day, there seems to be no more a fitting image of a ‘petrified, primordial landscape’ than the hellish ‘No Man’s Land’: stretches of Belgium and France that were muddy, pockmarked with shells (some still unexploded), land scoured with barbed wire and dead bodies churned up in it all. If this is the face of history, then we need to understand history in a much more multifarious and multifaceted way than a symbol can allow. Indeed, when we try to remember and observe the impact of such complex and destructive human inventions such as war, nationhood and self, this becomes crucial. I would argue that it is important to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War; it is important to remember the destruction and devastation that war entails; it is important that we share a collective grief and mourning over the past so that we can build a more progressive, peaceful future. I am very serious about peace and if the world is to take the principles of Armistice Day more seriously i.e. observe it beyond one day of the year, then we must look above and beyond the symbol of the poppy alone. A symbol cannot go far enough to explore the depth of experience that Armistice Day entails. To reflect on all the fallout of war, we need to go beyond the surface level of symbols and engage with allegory. In my opinion, one of the best ways to access the historical nuances and perspectives of allegory is through art: poetry, music, film and visual art. Art and creative expression take us away from the confining realms of the symbolic, widening and deepening our conception of historical event and history itself. It is essential that remembrance incorporates art.  In light of this, I want to begin by discussing a particular piece of music that can help us to explore remembrance in a way that provides a more comprehensive, broader and yet deeper understanding of the past that Armistice Day requires.

I first heard Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written in 1914, during the rather lengthily titled ‘A Solemn Commemoration of the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War’, which took place on 4th August 2014 at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the usual hallmarks of British national remembrance on display, from poppy wreaths, the soaring strains of Elgar and Bible readings to the royal family clad in a combination of black and military regalia, the service made room for poetry and music. The work of T.S Eliot, Wilfrid Gibson, Sebastian Faulks and Bach all made appearances and I was happy to see German prayers and poems featured too. Yet, it was Jennifer Pike and Daniel Cook’s haunting performance, on the violin and organ respectively that, in my opinion, brought an exceptional emotional weight to the service.[5]

The Lark Ascending (I’m thinking of the almost mythical Wessex as a backdrop to Hardy’s concerns with contemporary misogyny, hypocrisy and class limitation).

There is an elegiac quality to The Lark Ascending, making it suitably fitting for remembrance. Its mournful folk strains convey a sense of painful, intangible loss where we know that we are losing or have lost something, but we’re not entirely sure what.In light of this, how else can we think about remembrance, and what can remembrance also include?

War is an attack on critical thinking. In 1914, Europe was heavily armed, and the powerful ruling elites, who had spent years acquiring arms and stealing land and resources across the world, needed little excuse to start blowing each other up. What they relied upon, however, were young, fit men who would do the fighting on their behalf. The propaganda campaigns across all the nations and alliances involved in the First World War were sustained and convincing. In Britain, for example, 2.4 million men volunteered to fight before conscription was introduced in 1916. Men from Britain’s colonial territories were also convinced/forced to join the war; for example, 10% of New Zealand’s 1.1 million population volunteered to join the fight in Europe, with 18,000 eventually losing their lives.[7] The war was presented in a very simplistic way: ‘we’ are good, ‘they’ are bad, and, as such, young men were encouraged to enlist to assert and defend a strong sense of nationalistic pride. The posters and adverts appealed to unambiguous xenophobia, a misguided sense of glory and heroism and the war was likened to a big, grand adventure.

We can gain a clear sense that war was marketed to the young, and it was undoubtedly the young who suffered in their millions. At no point were they actively encouraged to look beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and explore the history and complexity of the war: young people were just encouraged to get involved, for quite literally fear of missing out and for fear of being accused of cowardice. For all that many young people today are called ‘snowflakes’ for challenging the orthodoxies and traditions into which they have been born, at least they have been encouraged to explore contexts and perspectives beyond their own. In a world of ‘dodgy dossiers’ (the Iraq War was nothing if not a shining example of critical thinking being swept aside for the sake of power and posturing) and fake news, we need to be more careful than ever with the information we consume. We must learn to question the information and stories being delivered to us, especially when they are being presented to us with a motion towards objectivity, and not allow facts and opinions to become so hopelessly muddled. Remembrance and critical thinking must walk hand-in-hand so that we do not slip and slide down the murky paths of bigotry, vested interest and power into catastrophic violence.

War is an attack on all of humanity: the total number of deaths resulting from World War One is estimated at 20 million, which was divided into 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians.

During services of remembrance, we are told that we must remember all wars; however, what we think of as ‘war’ is, in itself, very limited. ‘War’ conjures up images of strategic military campaigns and operations, trench warfare, spitfires, tanks and the ideological aim of attacking some form of an aggressor. I think, however, that the conception of ‘war’ needs to be broadened much wider. In particular, I think we need to acknowledge the role of brute force and military violence in the form of colonial atrocities. There must be a space for acknowledgment of colonial barbarism in our collective Remembrance. The pillaging and theft of human beings, their land and their cultural identities from across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Americas at the hands of European soldiers must also be acknowledged as the acts of war that they are. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey is a national focus on Armistice Day, but what about the unknown millions who were killed and raped at the hands of soldiers when their countries were colonised and destroyed? If invading another country with weapons and arms, claiming it as your own, butchering and oppressing the people there isn’t an act of war, I don’t know what is. To add insult to grave injury, Remembrance is savagely whitewashed. What is rarely acknowledged is how many indigenous peoples fought in a European war, hundreds of miles away from their homes: 1 million Indian soldiers served in the British army; 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans were brought to Europe by the French; and 2200 Maori soldiers were in the New Zealand army, plus many more ethnicities. This was all whilst military campaigns and bombardments were conducted across Africa by the colonial powers to divert attention, money and resources away from the Western Front.[10] The contributions to the ‘war effort’ of Commonwealth and other former colonial countries cannot be acknowledged without also acknowledging that those very soldiers were victims of colonial and cultural war. Britain, in particular, is very reluctant to have a frank and honest discussion about atrocities committed in pursuit of ‘Empire’. If we are to remember all wars properly, we must cast our perspectives wider, beyond the trenches, over the seas to lands that Britain had absolutely no right to steal from others; to peoples who bore the scars of foreign soldiers.

Finally, there is always hope.  Even after witnessing British politics revealing itself  to be the sorry shit show that it is one week one from the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we can be better. Through proper mourning and grief work, through a concerted, meaningful practice of remembrance, we can touch upon the prospect of better future. Elevating symbols like the poppy without acknowledging the deeper ambivalence surrounding the fallout of war, simply will not help us to learn from the past to produce a better future: here, a greater appreciation and understanding of art will always help. All wars have to end with diplomacy and conversations where we actively seek resolution: remembrance, therefore, should bring awareness to those very things, before arms are hastily taken up to begin with. Instead of blindly following the traditions of remembrance, remembrance itself must be an action. More specifically, it must be an explicit action of thinking critically and compassionately: weighing up arguments and perspectives, developing historical fluency and taking responsibility for all military atrocities.

 

[1] ‘The Papers’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_papers [accessed 19th November 2018].

[2] Additionally, a mere three days before Armistice Day, a report was published highlighting that 41% of children have seen adults bullying one another in the past six months. How can adults preach to child to not bully one another when the way in which adults relate to and speak to one another is wholeheartedly aggressive, disinterested and narrow-minded? ‘Bullying: Children point finger at adults’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46140135 [accessed: 18:35, Sunday 18th November 2018].

[3] Here I refer to the controversial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British government’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

[4] The full order of service can be found here: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/media/5205/ww1-vigil-service.pdf

[5] The original 1914 composition of The Lark Ascending was written violin and piano. Williams later reconstructed the piece for an orchestra that premiered in 1920 and has become one of the most popular pieces of music of all time.

[6] I think there may be room here for discussion of the pastoral with Sigmund Freud’s conception of ‘melancholia’: ‘One feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either […] This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness’ from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  Volume XIV (1914-1916) p.245.

[7] https://ww100.govt.nz/history-guide [accessed 21:28, 18th November 2018].

[8] ‘Reperes’, http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf [accessed 21:15, 18th November 2018].

[9] ‘Europe on the move: refugees and World War One’, Peter Gatrell, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/refugees-europe-on-the-move# [accessed 19th November 2018].

[10] ‘In 1914, the whole of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under European rule and Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires’, Experiences of Colonial Troops, Santanu Das https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops [accessed 16:29, 19th November 2018].

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Allegory

This article was first written in September 2015

The multi-faceted and heterogeneous nature of Alexander McQueen’s collections, as discussed in my essay on McQueen and the ‘abyss’, leaves it next to impossible to not say more about the Savage Beauty retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. McQueen’s clothes in both their physical and metaphysical composition, I argued, see them occupy an abyssal limit. As a result, what we are able to say about McQueen’s collections cannot simply end there. There are so many more things that can be argued and posited about his clothes, intertwined with what they present, represent and how they exist in a world created for them and by them. For the purpose of this essay, I want to suggest that McQueen’s work is greatly involved with death, history and, ultimately, allegory.

One aspect of McQueen’s work that I find particularly intriguing is the visceral historicity of his clothes. He used images of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to form the background of dresses in his last collection; he used silhouettes and tailoring from the Victorian period; and, perhaps most famously, used fiery red tartan in Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden, his 1995 and 2006 shows inspired by the eradication and cultural smudging of Gaelic and Celtic life in Scotland. These latter two collections were very personal elegies to a culture that has almost entirely diminished as a result of English colonialism, and incorporated fragments of tweed, tulle and antique lace with the tartan to help convey this semblance of trampled upon Scottish identity. Seeing these clothes on show at the V&A, clothes which project and embody history almost as a physical presence, helps to throw a fascinating light on the idea of the retrospective itself. We remember Alexander McQueen by looking at his clothes, which in turn are fragments and objects that remember and bear witness to the past.  As previously mentioned, Scottish history was a key concern in his collections, but so was McQueen’s multiple collection tributes to Isabella Blow. Blow was a renowned fashion editor who was Phillip Treacey’s muse and is credited with having ‘discovered’ Alexander McQueen, who took her own life just three years before McQueen’s own suicide.  Many of his most famous collections, including Dante and The Widows of Culloden were personally dedicated to her and remembered her very personal influence on his life and art. As a result, we can see that the retrospective creates a chain of history and layers of remembrance which the clothes are an active part of, if not absolutely integral to.

Widows-of-Culloden

This undoes the idea that clothes are merely passive symbols that reflect culture like a mirror, or simply transcend the drudgery of everyday life in a fluffy artistic cloud. Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel argue that fashion has ‘a silent language communicated through the use of visual or nonverbal symbols’.[1] Whilst their case is very convincing, that clothes and fashion form an arbitrary system of signs and signifiers, I would argue that clothes have a much more complex social relationship with people than by simply manifesting as symbols. Clothes certainly do help to ‘fashion’ the world we live in through their colours, silhouettes and materials, and because the only way in which we discuss clothing is through language. They are, however, also borne from language, history and experience which the concept of ‘symbolism’ simplifies and renders impotent.

Walter Benjamin sees the sentimental application of and the Romantic idea behind symbolism as tyrannical and ‘illegitimate […] destructive extravagance’ partly because it ‘fails to do justice to content in formal analysis and to form in the aesthetics of content’.[2] He argues that whilst insisting upon the unity of form and content, symbolism does not allow for a dialectical analytic approach and, therefore, neither form nor content are rigorously interrogated. Imposing the idea of ‘clothes-as-symbols’ onto fashion collections, and for my own purposes, upon Alexander McQueen’s collections, embodies the tyranny that Benjamin rejects. This is because by privileging the idea that the clothes we read and interpret are purely symbolic, we overlook the power structures in place that facilitated the clothes’ production and the way in which we receive them. Instead, I would approach McQueen’s collections as allegory because, as Benjamin argues:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.[3]

He suggests that symbolism idealises destruction, which can be seen in the way in which history is silenced and becomes a void when the idea of symbolism is arbitrarily imposed on language and literature, essentially saying that one thing is actually another and not conveying its own story or history. There is no potential for digression or for the multiplicity of ideas when such a dead weight is imposed on literature and, for my purpose, clothing. Allegory, on the other hand, gives us an insight into history’s fragmented state wrought with failure and sadness, and the individual’s existence within it and in relation to it, ultimately bringing us into contact with our own sense of mortality.

Through McQueen’s collections Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden with the ruined, hybrid compositions of tartan, lace and tulle, we are confronted with the death and destruction that were met by the historical peoples of Scotland. [4] More specifically, McQueen focuses on the experience of women, with his explicit reference to sexual violence and with the term ‘widows’ used to convey the heavy burden associated with womanhood, battle-loss and mourning. Importantly, this confrontation with violence and destruction presented in the clothing perhaps speaks for the continued death and destruction we experience in our own times. We are given a much more comprehensive and disturbing study in historical failure through fragmented form which expresses a fractured, mournful past instead of privileging an empty aesthetic idea. To emphasise this, McQueen, in Widows of Culloden, had his models wearing antlers, feathers and other animalistic paraphernalia in their hair and on their heads in addition to lace, tulle and tartan. These simultaneously detract from the historical argument being presented but also open up history to other perspectives, corporealities and existences. Allegory, although heavily involved with death and destruction ironically helps to expand our understanding of historical experience that cannot just be limited to human suffering, but giving light to the suffering of animals and the natural world.

History cannot be pinned down. It is fluid, interchangeable and slippery, which is what makes remembrance such a difficult and perhaps even a futile task. Thinking of art as allegory, however, opens up our awareness of history and means we never fall into the trap that we live in a world that is fixed, stable and where we can impose absolute meaning on anything, from literature and art to fashion. Allegory helps to dispel fallacy whilst creating fallacy, and McQueen’s clothing is all the more interesting, important and extraordinary as a result of the allegorical fragments and components that structured what we saw when they were first unveiled to us and to what we see now.

 

[1] Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel, The Second Skin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p.150.

[2] Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2009), p.160.

[3] Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.166.

[4] 1,500-2000 member of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army were killed at the Battle of Culloden (near Inverness) in 1745. They were attempting to overthrow the Hanoverian army who had secured the English throne and who lost only 54 men in comparison. After the battle, the government weakened the power of the Scottish clans and attempted to stamp out Gaelic culture to remove the threat of a future uprising. They succeeded: this was the last pitched battle on English soil and there was no subsequent rebellion.