Ambrosia and Nectar No More: FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT
16th August 2017
Carnival, originally, was a reversal procession and the ritual was that social roles were turned upside down; masters playing servants, the wicked playing holy, the darkness turning into light. Carnival demands that the ordinary modes of behaviour are suspended, as new ways of being are searched for. Carnival, traditionally, was about driving out the Winter spirits so that Summer can return. It was a celebration of fertility. In Scotland, in the Celtic calendar, this was the function of the Beltane fires. Well, so much for the anthropology. In Scotland now we have the Edinburgh Festival in August. It’s all about art, isn’t it?
Well, if you wander around the busy streets of Edinburgh one thing is clear – The Festival is not about art, it is about rent: it is a Festival of rent. It exists so that it can exist to make money for a select few. After the first weekend BBC Scotland ran a news item in which two very happy Fringe “super-venue” producers took it in turn to tell the world, in their clipped public schoolboy accents, that “This has been the busiest first weekend, ever!” Everybody is happy! The rentiers make the money. The Fringe is ever expanding. Everything is beautiful, unless you ask just what is being put on? But the Festival exists! Is that not enough?
We “celebrate” 70 years of this existence this August. 1947 was a difficult year. India was partitioned, for example, in a terrible bloodbath. Perhaps there is a play at the Fringe which highlights the British culpability in this? In Scotland 1947 had seen in the worst Winter in living memory. The BBC was “suspended” until March. The coal mines were nationalised. In an attempt to keep Europe warm the Royal Navy blew up the German defensive island of Heligoland, creating the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history. The “Voice of America” began regular broadcasts into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union just in case they did not know that there was a Cold War on. The International Monetary Fund was set up to remind us in the “free” world of the same. The Iranian Army hung the leaders of the Second Kurdish State in the main square of Mahabad. On an artistic note “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams with Marlon Brando in the lead opened on Broadway. Nothing much changes, either in Broadway or in the middle east, except that there is only one Tennessee Williams. Also Malcolm Lowry published “Under The Volcano”, one of the most beautiful and sad books in the history of literature. So, it was a busy year.
Being a Scottish poet at the Edinburgh Festival, I have always thought, is a bit like being Tantalus in his pool in the Underworld. His crime was being the semi-divine son of the god-king Zeus and the Oceanid nymph Plouto. Invited by his father to the table of the gods on Mount Olympus to dine on ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the gods, Tantalus was so impressed by the fare that he took some of it back down to share with his own mortal people. For this horrendous crime Zeus condemned Tantalus to Tartarus, one of the deepest regions of the Underworld, where he was made to stand in a pool of water. Over his head were low hanging branches, heavy with delicious fruit. Every time Tantalus reached up to eat the branches raised themselves up, out of his reach. Each time he bent down to drink, the water receded, so that he could not quench his thirst. In some versions of the story there is a big stone which hangs over his head, threatening to fall upon him. From Tantalus, we get the English word “tantalise”.
Like Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to the people, so Tantalus is punished for trying to feed his people. If you cannot afford the rent in Edinburgh in August you are down in Tartarus with Tantalus, raising up your hands to be fed and lowering your head to drink, only to be denied nourishment. There are many Scottish poets in the pool with Tantalus, the great rock of exclusion about to fall on them.
Yet the cultural oligarchs thrive, and this in an age of government created austerity. How can this be? Like the Davos elite they subvert democracy through a cultural bond market and a form of artistic fractional reserve banking, (which in reality has replaced arts funding) so that cultural and artistic assets are taken from the less fortunate who cannot bear the risk and given to those elites who can and who run super-venues and franchises. This empowers the incoming cultural oligarchs at the expense of the native majority. So it is that Zeus protects the food of the gods and for Scottish poets its ambrosia and nectar no more. You are in the hole with Tantalus.
Seventy years just to get to a trade fair for cheap TV and bad stand-up comedy. Who would have thought? Who would have thought, also, if thinking is your thing, that the Edinburgh Festival would become an annual articulation for Scottish independence? The fact that Alex Salmond and his backers can book, at the last minute, a slot at the Fringe to indulge his ego is to my mind offensive. But what does that matter? I am down in the pool in Tartarus in the Underworld with the rest. Tantalus’s sister, the free poet (could such a being really exist?) walks the August roads between the barley fields of Banff and Buchan, caresses with her eyes the fishing fleets from Buckie to the Broch, knowing that they have been betrayed by ego, by elites and the oligarchs of culture and the financial market, the false flag wavers of Brexit populism and its doppelganger which is austerity. She hangs her head in shame. Is there anyone in Scotland, if they saw what she saw, who could resist the possibilities of independence?
But people are flocking to these shows! What is wrong with you? “Krapp’s Last Tape” is packing them out! Surely Samuel Beckett is a genius we should celebrate? Scottish artists are winning awards, for godssake!
What I argue is that the content – or activity – which occurs at the Edinburgh Festival only supplies an apparatus which is obsolete, which does not meet the cultural and artistic needs of its host, and in fact, emasculates it. This causes confusion amongst both artists and critics. In defending the Festival, they are defending the producers and the rentiers. This situation has enormous consequences which no-one really dares to address because if we do it will fundamentally change the relationship between the creator/writer and the producer/owner. Currently the artists think they possess the apparatus, but in reality, the apparatus possess them, so they defend it even though they have no control over the apparatus. The result is that the Lady Boys of Bangkok are the resident theatre company on the Fringe and Scottish poets are in the pool in the Underworld with Tantalus. No illusions, stimulants or hyper-entertainments can corrupt Tantalus because he is constantly denied by the apparatus of the oligarchs, those cash-rich arbiters of culture, art and taste, who charge rent and control the machine. The pattern may be set for Tantalus in myth, but for Scottish poets does it have to be so? What can they actually do to expose this process as it operates today, in August, in Edinburgh?
The poet can write about it certainly, but the rock may fall on their head for speaking out of turn. The oligarchs can take the financial risk, can a poet? The only realistic demand our society should put upon our writers is that they think: think about their position in the production apparatus of rent and patronage, of cultural gate-keeping, space invading and the shaping of artistic taste. For many Scottish writers, their means of production – their education – disallows them from seeing the all absorbing and denying nature of the apparatus. It is the mind-worm of inferiorism which keeps these writers both imprisoned in the machine of rent and vetting and in the pool in Tartarus, like Tantalus, up to his neck in water, the fruit of his labour raised “tantalisingly” out of his reach, the life sustaining water draining away as soon as he needs a drink. This is perhaps the ironic intention of what Andre Gide meant when he gave advice to a younger writer, “Make certain that the impetus you have once achieved never benefits your subsequent work.”
In this time of corruption surely Scotland needs to look to her writers: what a tragedy it would be if they were all corrupted as well? My play has been a success, so I love the Fringe, is an understandable sentiment. I have had my new book published and it got a good review (somewhere), so things are good. That, I suppose, is fair enough. In my time, I have had successes on the Fringe and my books have been well reviewed (somewhere), so I am not immune. Which is just as well, because the apparatus has no need for loyalty, or culture, for location, identity or art. It puts forth the proposition that you too, if you participate, can eat the ambrosia and drink the nectar, but as the corporate fist tightens on the subjective throat of Edinburgh and its festivals, it is clear that the ambrosia and the nectar are guarded. They are guarded by the collectors of rent. Rent is all everyone involved in the apparatus of the Festival is interested in.
I am not asking for a Utopia. Utopia actually means “no-place”. What I search for is Eutopia, the “good place”, which is rather more utilitarian. This is a hard task as we are historically being dragged out of “Europa”, counter to our democratic desire. I also understand that we must rethink the cosy notions of forms and genres we have accepted so far, if we are to find new artistic forms appropriate to the cultural and political energy of our time. Maybe there is a production in a back-room in a back street in Edinburgh at this very minute which is boiling up the solution to all of this, or even asking the question? But my experience of the Festival leads me to doubt it.
Art, quite fundamentally, has to offer humanity the freedom to resist the apparatus and to allow the people to eat and drink freely the ambrosia and nectar of the gods, for it is common as Tantalus believed. The organisation of the future will be in the art of what is possible. A democratic education is in art and art is education and education is our only protection against exploitation. Our culture is our inherited right, the record of our existence. It is the imagination of the past and it cannot be sold off, rented out or appropriated by others. Our cultural fate and our artistic pride is held in our imagination. Cultural education is like water: without it we die. Our mind is like the land, what would it be if we did not try to make it better, to make what James Baldwin described as an “organic difference”? In Scotland we must dig deeper in the field of ourselves.
©George Gunn 2017
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