Monday, March 17, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
I’ve touched on this topic before on this blog, but it is still one that interests me.
It’s that old problem of “radical chic”, or the fashionable admiration, by safely well-off people, of politically radical personalities and movements. I was forced to think about it again some months ago when I was reviewing a volume of poetry by a very good New Zealand poet. The volume included verses on Renato Curcio, one of the leaders of the “Red Brigades” which terrorised sections of Italy, for no good purpose whatsoever, back in the 1970s.
Why bother eulogising such people, I wondered?
Is it for the sake of a vicarious thrill?
When you don’t have to face the reality of misguided “revolutionary” violence, you can romanticise it as a challenge to the complacent bourgeoisie, or a deed which cuts through the pallid obfuscations of current academic philosophy. After all, you’re not the one being blown up or shot at, are you?
The paradigm of such romanticisation would have to be those idiot university students – by their very nature a privileged section of society – who some years ago would wander around with the famous posed image of Che Guevara on their t-shirts. Che Guevara? The nitwit who helped set up Castro’s kangaroo courts in Cuba and then died in an under-planned attempt to stir Bolivian peasants into revolution, even though the local Communist Party had disowned him? Ah yes – but didn’t he look so dishy with that beret and long hair and beard and cigar? So on he went to the t-shirts of people who would have been the first to suffer under the form of government he was promoting. Truly a proto-postmodern phenomenon, this adoption of an image detached from any physical reality.
“Radical chic” often has an undercurrent of contempt for social inferiors. I think of the eccentric English Mitford family in the 1930s – minor aristocrats in a position to look down on the middle classes, and therefore attracted to radicals attacking said middle classes from any direction. I grant you the Mitfords produced one amusing novelist (Nancy) and one fairly decent journalist (Jessica); but the family will be chiefly remembered for the sister who adored Hitler (Unity), the sister who married a Fascist party leader (Diana), and the sister who became a Communist (Jessica). Such fun to be part of the forces smashing those middle-class oinks.
The English “radical chic” of a later generation were the titled Redgrave acting family, a.k.a. the Mitfords of the 1970s, with brother and sister Corin and Vanessa Redgrave promoting the ludicrous “Workers Revolutionary Party”, to the complete indifference of the workers, when they weren’t attending luvvy theatrical events.
As you can see, I am in a rattling-off-of-lists mood and could continue this list or link it to the overlapping phenomenon of current American movie stars who misuse their visibility to promote fashionable causes. But I recently had the jolt of realizing that the “radical chic” phenomenon (first given that label by Tom Wolfe in 1970) is in fact much older than the 20th century.
I re-read Stendhal’s 30-odd-page novella Vanina Vanini, published in the early nineteenth century. It concerns a young Roman noblewoman, who gets entangled romantically with a carbonaro (radical nationalist of an underground movement) in the 1820s. She is attracted by his dashing revolutionary commitment, but she ends up betraying all his revolutionary comrades because she imagines that he is in love with her and she wants him for her own. It is the classic story of a rich person desiring the glamour of radicalism and assuming some of the trappings without really understanding what it’s all about.
Truly the precursor of Mitfords, Redgraves, Che Guevara t-shirts, and poets who eulogise the Red Brigades.