Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Our second German word of the day is totschweigtaktik

I don't know if it is a 'proper' German word, or just some Austrian frippery. Picked it up while reading Shelley Gare's article The Silence of the Clams in the 24 April edition of the Spectator Australia.

In the artistic and literary circles of Vienna last century it meant death by silence.

It is the tactic used by artistic elites to simply ignore someone they disapprove of, (often for reasons of ideology or politics), no matter how brilliant or talented that person may be.

The Australian novelist Kate Jennings is one example given of how it works in practice.

She says in her new collection of writings that she and the poet Les Murray "have more shivs in us than nails in a Kongo fetish figure."

(For those of you who don't know, a shiv is something that shows that Twitter can be useful. I only know that a shiv is a prison knife fashioned out of something lying to hand, like a tootbrush say, because someone I follow used the term and I had to ask what it meant.)

Anyway, Jenning's crime was that she dared to poke fun at "the leading lights and cliques in print."

This crime was compounded by international acclaim after coming out of an eighteen year alcoholic bender.

George Orwell is an even more famous victim of totschweigtaktik.

He had gone to Spain to fight the fascists, ending up with a bullet in the neck along the way. But while there he saw something that frightened him as much, if not more, than fascism, and that was Stalinism.

While brave and idealistic young leftists of various persuasions faced Franco's men in front of them, behind them they were being betrayed by Stalin's agents and his Spanish proxies.

Opposing the fascists was not enough to protect you from being denounced as an ideological or class traitor and subjected to a show trial.

Orwell wrote about the treachery of Stalin in his 1938 book Homage to Catalonia, and large parts of the western artistic and literary elite of the time never forgave him.

These were often men and women who were besotted with Stalin and the Soviet Union and who formed an unquestioning cheer squad for both, even as Stalin launched the Great Terror against his own people and killed millions of them.

Orwell's crime was to expose their naive and credulous stupidity and they had their revenge.

By the time Orwell died in 1950 the book had suffered the death of silence and in twelve years had not managed to sell completely even the modest first edition of just 1,500 copies.

(By the way, do yourselves a favour and beg, steal or borrow a copy of Christopher Hitchen's book Orwell's Victory - Why Orwell Matters in the United States - and read it. Promise me you will. Please? It deals with all this and much, much more. It's not a long book, so even you bloody generation whatevers and your friggen short attention spans will be able to get through it. But it should be required reading of any intelligent person, along with Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language.)

As Gare says, it works best in places "where networks are concentrated and where bullies go mostly unchallenged."

As an artist has said to me, there are "gatekeepers" in the arts community who sit on all the committees and all the boards and who you cannot get on the wrong side of if you want to win any prizes or get any commissions that they have any influence over.

Certainly you will see the utterly underserving continually being awarded such prizes and commissions, (and lauded with gushing reviews about how daringly transgressive they are by their friends in the media), while the talented with unfashionable views are locked out and ignored.

Here in Australia we could add the pianist and composer Geoffrey Tozer (who at least was championed by former prime minister Paul Keating), the poet James McAuley and the novelist Christopher Koch.

Jennings is now apparently "widely admired" here, but just three years prior to her international success her 1993 collection Bad Manners hardly rated a review in this country.

The case of James McAuley echoes that of George Orwell, even if politically they were on opposite sides of the aisle. But both were fervant anti-communists. They both saw where that totalitarianism would inevitably lead. They both saw the gulag or predicted something like the genocidal Killing Fields of Cambodia.

And large sections of the Australian literary and artistic elite have never forgiven him (or indeed Orwell) for being right about something they poured so much of their own hopes and dreams into.

It appears that mass murder is forgivable, but for people like McAuley political conservatism is not.

And of course McAuley was at the centre of the Ern Malley literary hoax that revealed our cultural elite to be a collection of gullible fools who couldn't tell the difference between the work of a real person and the randomly assembled cut-up rubbish put together by McAuley and his co-conspirator.

To this day you will find people in university arts departments, sorry, critical literacy departments, who will argue in the most moronically turgid and convoluted prose why the fake poetry of "Ern Malley" is actually absolutely brilliant and of artistic merit.

That McAuley dared to continue to be a Roman Catholic was however considered to be his most unforgivable crime.

With these buffoons in charge of the arts in Australia, is it any wonder that the Archibald Prize has degenerated into such an absurd farce? Though maybe not as big a farce as the Wynne Prize has so rapidly become!

Posted via email from Garth's posterous

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