Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Last weekend, after years of insistent recommendations from labor organizer friends and ahead of the annual Boston Dyke March, I decided to finally watch Pride. I had missed enough union movie nights over the years to have a vague idea of what the 2014 film was about: the true story of queer activists supporting the UK miners’ strike in the 1980s in a show of capital-s Solidarity.
Indeed, within minutes of the action starting, the film’s gay protagonist, Mark Ashton (based on a real-life activist by the same name), gives a speech that could be taught in Labor 101 classes to outline why solidarity matters. In conversation with his queer friends, Ashton notes that cops haven’t been harassing them lately—but it’s only because they’re too busy harassing miners. Solidarity, then, is not born of empathy for a completely separate cause, but a recognition that all struggles are connected. Fueled by this realization, Ashton spends nearly the entirety of the film’s run time convincing his fellow queer activists that the miners’ fight was also theirs (although his dedication to the cause might’ve been more believable had the movie not erased his communist credentials).
I admit I went into the film jaded. Years of labor organizing have made me suspicious of stories of solidarity, which can act as a kind of escapist fantasy—telling the weary organizer that even though she spends most days getting doors slammed in her face, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But if Pride is an escapist fantasy, it is an excellent one, really capturing the allure of unlikely alliances. There’s a quick montage of queer activists struggling to find miners who will accept their help, but after only a few slammed phone receivers, they find an open-minded miner who warmly invites them down to his Welsh village to thank them for their strike-fund donations. Once in Wales, the queer activists face some bigotry, but they quickly win many of the miners over with impassioned speeches, material resources, and sheer flamboyance (one burly miner quickly abandons his homophobic attitudes when he realizes that his gay comrades could teach him how to dance so he could win over the ladies).
This film is, of course, based on a true story, meaning that this alliance really did happen. But my inner cynic had to wonder, could have been so easy, and so tender, and so pure? Why did the miners not abandon their queer allies when it meant bad press for their strike? And why did gay people help miners so single-mindedly despite the near-constant homophobia? In the film, the characters seemed to make these decisions simply because solidarity is good, but few real people I’ve known work like that, and I wish the film dwelt on these dilemmas of solidarity rather than introducing them and then waving them away.
But ultimately, the film isn’t a documentary: it’s a feel good movement biopic, and on those terms, it succeeds. Even though I found the story unbelievable, I watched, longing to believe. I reveled in each victory, each conversation where miners and queer people connected on a personal level, each moment antagonists failed at breaking the alliance. I was moved by the triumphant ending and for a moment, pretended it were true: that the miners’ strike had actually ended in a way that merited soaring music, that pride parades had remained a scene of political struggle rather than becoming a corporate-funded equality theater, and that true solidarity was still possible.
Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): Maybe you too were unsettled by the cloud of smoke that settled over the Northeast this week. In an effort to abate my despair over the climate emergency already consuming us, as well as the dull headache that came on after biking through the smog, I turned back to one of my favorite books by Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. The novel follows Janina, an older Polish woman who lives on a rural, windswept plateau near the Czech border, as she investigates a series of beguiling murders, apparently committed by Mother Nature herself.
The novel is ultimately an eco-thriller, concerned with the rights of animals and the natural world. It’s a genre I don’t particularly care for, but what attracted me to Tokarczuk’s take on the form—and kept me engaged until the last page—is its narrator’s fascinating, singular voice. Janina lives in a closed, remote world, and her psychology mirrors the circumstances of her social life. She operates in her own epistemological universe, re-naming everyone she encounters, capitalizing nouns as it pleases her, and charting the stars according to her own astrological system. (One subplot follows her attempt to translate William Blake’s verse into Polish—an amusing metatextual puzzle for the English-language reader, who has to parse Lloyd-Jones’s translations of Janina’s Polish renderings.) Tokarczuk’s careful depiction of Janina’s consumptive solipsism—as well as her miserly worldview and righteous anger, which fuel the novel—is vividly on display in her reaction to her neighbor’s corpse, which she stumbles upon in one of the novel’s opening scenes:
As I looked at Big Foot’s poor, twisted body I found it hard to believe that only yesterday I’d been afraid of this Person. I disliked him. To say I disliked him might be putting it too mildly. Instead I should say that I found him repulsive, horrible. In fact I didn’t even regard him as a human Being. Now he was lying on the stained floor in his dirty underwear, small and skinny, limp and harmless. Just a piece of matter, which some unimaginable processes had reduced to a fragile object, separated from everything else. It made me feel sad, horrified, for even someone as foul as he was did not deserve death. Who on earth does? The same fate awaits me too, and Oddball, and the Deer outside; one day we shall all be nothing more than corpses.
Needless to say, the novel does not make for lighthearted escapism—much of the action is gruesome, disgusting, and difficult to read—but the alternate world reflected through Janina’s consciousness is deeply absorbing. I regret to report, however, that like many mystery novels, Tokarczuk’s narrative runs out of steam by the final act. But if you’re thinking about what it means to live on this earth as systems of exploitation—and even certain individuals—work to corrode our natural world, then this might be the tour de force you’re looking for.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): With the exception of a few versions of his most iconic piece, 4’33”, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a recording of a work by John Cage. He’s certainly absent from my modest vinyl collection—which would have been fine by him. The preeminent 20th-century avant-garde composer was famously hostile to recorded music, which he once said “destroys one’s need for real music” and “makes people think that they’re engaging in a musical activity when they’re actually not”; he even remarked that “it would be an act of charity . . . to smash [records] whenever they are discovered.” But why? In a conversation that appears in For the Birds, a collection of exchanges between Cage and the philosopher Daniel Charles, the latter reflects that “records, according to you, are nothing more than postcards . . . ”; Cage responds: “which ruin the landscape.”
This quip lends musician and scholar David Grubbs’s fascinating 2014 book Records Ruin the Landscape its title. The core of Grubbs’s project is to investigate Cage’s and his peers’ antipathy toward records, as well as the music that exceeded the confines of the medium, which emerged just as the heyday of certain experimental genres came into focus during the 1960s. As Grubbs explains in the introduction, “Cage’s opposition to the fixed form of the record . . . is the expression of a pioneer of works that are indeterminate as regards performance, works that on the basis of their design change significantly with each iteration,” and the various kinds of avant-garde music the book explores are likewise “predicated on being experienced in live performance.” Nevertheless, most of the artists considered here did—however begrudgingly—record their music. While these recordings rarely circulated at the time, their release in subsequent decades earned the works an audience well beyond those who originally heard them in person. Grubbs shows how Cage, his contempt notwithstanding, “created unprecedented types of recordings,” finding surprising ways to contest the medium’s constraints.
Grubbs, himself a record lover, is a generous yet critical guide to the ideas of the musicians he studies. He takes their provocations seriously, using them not only to illuminate experimental works that escape documentation, but also to defamiliarize the phenomenon of recorded music and raise probing questions about its very nature. At the same time, he complicates Cage and others’ antagonism toward the form into a more fruitful ambivalence, while highlighting the elitism and racism that has often undergirded avant-garde attitudes. (The latter comes to the fore in Grubbs’s discussions of Henry Flynt—a practitioner of “avant-garde hillbilly music” whose folk roots Cage considered unserious—and of “free improvisation,” which sought to “obscure its relation to jazz improvisation” through what scholar and composer George E. Lewis calls “a notion of spontaneity that excludes history or memory.”) Despite the heady material, Grubbs’s style is pleasantly chatty and digressive, though the book’s structure is sometimes distractingly haphazard; we wouldn’t have lost much if he’d cut the deflating final chapter on online archives, and I sometimes longed for more synthesis of the insights scattered throughout the text. Still, Records Ruin the Landscape is both an engaging inquiry and a vivid introduction to a wealth of interesting music—which, ironically, we must now access through the medium its practitioners largely disdained.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Last fall, the Library of America published Frederick Douglass: Speeches and Writings, an essential collection of works by the great fighter against slavery and oppression. Unlike his autobiographies, many of Douglass’s occasional writings and addresses have not been readily available, and certainly not in such a comprehensive form as this. Included in this collection, edited by Douglass’s biographer David W. Blight, are more than a hundred pieces of various types from across Douglass’s long and active life. These letters, articles, and speeches—as well as a novella—are filled with the anger, intelligence, and clarity that make him such a singular figure. Every page of this generous anthology, the single largest volume of his works ever assembled, still packs a punch. Most could have been written the day before yesterday—a reflection on both Douglass’s genius and the enduring legacy of our wretched nation’s criminal history.
As many of these pieces show, Douglass excelled at making his militant points through acerbic humor. In an 1841 speech given in Massachusetts on “American Prejudice and Southern Religion,” he spoke cuttingly of Northern racism and Christianity’s role in its perpetuation and wryly related this tale: “Another young lady fell into a trance—when she awoke, she declared she had been to Heaven; her friends were all anxious to know what and whom she had seen there; so she told the whole story. But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others—and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in Heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, ‘Oh! I didn’t go into the kitchen!’ Thus you see, my hearers, this prejudice goes even into the church of God.” His wit comes through, too, in an 1845 letter to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, in which he describes the sorry state of American “democracy”: “Yes, they actually got up a mob—a real American, republican, democratic, Christian mob—and that, too, on the deck of a British steamer, and in sight of the beautiful high lands of Dungarvan! I declare, it is enough to make a slave ashamed of the country that enslaved him, to think of it.”
Douglass was also a master of sober reflection. In another letter to Garrison, composed the following year, Douglass writes beautifully on a subject that was dear to him: his and his people’s relationship to America: “And as to nation,” he writes, “I belong to none. I have no protection at home, or resting-place abroad. The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave, and spurns with contempt the idea of treating me differently. So that I am an outcast from the society of my childhood, and an outlaw in the land of my birth . . . If ever I had any patriotism, or any capacity for the feeling, it was whipt out of me long since by the lash of the American soul-drivers.”
As this truly majestic collection attests, Douglass is still a vital presence. Writers who take up these same subjects today can only aspire to write like him.