FEARFUL SYMMETRIES PART 4 In the fourth instalment of Alan Riach’s journey through the 20th century in retrospect, we reach the 1930s. Grey depression? A winter decade? Partly. But the story is as always more complex …

THE Modern Movement in literature, which had begun at the end of the 19th century, began to close in the 1930s. The Second World War would then transform society and art once again.

The surrealist manifesto of Andre Breton, first published in 1924, and the death of Erik Satie in 1925, date the high tide of surrealism to before the 1930s but, like Modernism generally, its effects continued and its influence spread.

Surrealist aficionados in England continued their engagement with “the exploration of the unconscious” and proposed ‘“an extension of our control over territories hitherto uncontrolled – the kingdom of the irrational within ourselves”.

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Those were the words of Hugh Sykes Davies, speaking in 1936 for a movement that would, at times, include Dylan Thomas, Frank O’Hara, Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, as well as its most famous exponent, Salvador Dali.

Davies’s 1936 poem entitled Poem is a fine example of how the nightmare logic of the surrealists set about its business to offer not simply an excursion into fantasy and dream landscapes of dripping clocks and amorphous bodies, but rather a real warning about humanity’s worst tendencies to reach beyond the limits of our own best interests.

Here it is. Try reading it as I first heard Sykes Davies read it himself, accompanied by Satie’s first Gymnopédie. Put the music on then read the poem out loud and see what you think:

In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out,

there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the

bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into

lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because…

in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain

gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there

are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the

rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open

and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see,

because ...

... in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out

there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are

trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the

sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm.

But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out

there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and

if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in

the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want

to eat with it again.

Surreal techniques could be used to more direct political effect. In the Soviet Union, Osip Mandelstam described “the Kremlin mountaineer”, Josef Stalin, in terms that drew from surrealism’s most monstrous repertoire:

ten thick worms are his fingers,

his words are like measures of weight,

there are huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,

and the rims of his boots are glittering.

Ringed round with the scum of his chicken-necked officials

he toys with the praise of half-men…

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries,

He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

When word of this poem reached the authorities, Mandelstam was immediately marched off to prison and then sent into exile. The five years that remained of his life were spent in unmitigated anxiety. The conditions of his death in Eastern Siberia in 1938 are still uncertain.

Of course, the publication of his poems was banned – but they survived in the living memory of his wife and friends and their transmission from the gulags and wilderness to international publication and recognition speaks of what the human mind and art can do, to answer the brutalities of tyranny.

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If there is one image that crystallises the sense of fascist violence unleashed in this decade, it is Picasso’s large oil painting Guernica (1937, below). It is exhibited in the Museo Reina Sofia and was Picasso’s response to the April 26, 1937 bombing the town the Basque Country in northern Spain which was bombed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy at the request of Franco’s Spanish nationalists. Its exhibition helped raise funds for Spanish war relief.

The National: guernica.

Picasso lived in Paris during its Second World War German occupation. There’s a story that when a German officer saw a photograph of Guernica in Picasso’s apartment he asked, “Did you do that?”. Picasso replied: “No, you did.”

Picasso’s countryman, the poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, also spoke out against tyranny, deploring the Fascist murderers during the Spanish Civil War. Like Mandelstam, Lorca also died in uncertain circumstances. And, like Mandelstam, he speaks of dark things.

In Spain there is a word for this, the duende, a kind of demon. “All that has dark sounds has duende,” Lorca wrote.

“These dark sounds are the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art ...

"While angel and muse are content with violin or measured rhythm, the duende is wounding, and in the healing of this wound which never closes there is what remains truly prodigious, the truly original work of humankind.”

Duende is the cry of defiance from life lived under the tyranny of evil regimes, fascist, soviet, or capitalist. If it was described and defined in Spain in the 1930s, it would not have been unfamiliar with John Steinbeck’s migrant workers, reaping the grapes of wrath in a California drenched in sunlight, and thick with the shadows of the Great Depression.

And Lorca connects the dry, drained landscapes of Spain and California in his poem at the pivot between them. Here’s my version of Lorca’s poem Looking out from the Tower of the Chrysler Building, watching the Wall Street Crash from his collection Poet in New York:

When I see them all, I see

Young black men lifting out the spittoons,

Swimming in spit, swilling with spit,

Young men trembling in fear, that escalates

To terror, and they pale and their skin

Turns white and their armpits soak and stink

And their shirts stick to them, shivering,

As the executives shout down to them, scorn them,

Scare them so utterly, terrorise and terrify

Each one of them, all self-esteem pouring out of their flesh.

And young women drowning in oil

That covers their bodies, that glosses

Their curving bodies, their limbs,

That will drown them.

Thousands and thousands of women and men,

Working with hammers, working with violins,

With the clouds of whatever their work is,

Surrounding them, and they can’t see what’s there,

Where they’re walking, bungling, crashing into walls,

Cracking their brows and splitting their foreheads,

Bashing their brains on the whitewashed walls, the closed doors,

Screaming in front of the buildings, shouting despair

In the agony shot down upon them,

Of fire, the burning, driving them crazy,

Of snow, the freezing, driving them crazy,

The poison in filth in their skulls, shit in their heads,

Shit in their nostrils, shit squeezing out of their tear-ducts,

Filling their eyes, bulging out of their ears,

Screaming as if all the nights of the world

Were concentrates filling their brains, black nights,

Stinking, blinding, poisoning, sharpening

Screams though their voices, thousands and thousands

Of voices, breaking your heart just to hear them all,

Screaming. Then all the city trembles. This city.

New York. Then all the world over, all small village cities,

Like Paris, Madrid, and London, all trembling,

But this mother-city, this city of cities, all trembling,

Like little girls, trembling. And all knocking over

All the small glass bottles of oil, cracking the glass,

The noise drowning out all the music there is,

And because, and because, for we know why it is:

Because, and because, we demand – it is not

That we say should be given, but because,

As we say, we demand, our daily bread,

Because it is ours by our right, and the blue flowers of alder

Are blossoming now, are there, all in bloom, and are ours,

And that all of the harvest is ours, and the harvest,

Again and again, the harvest of tenderness,

Humanly tender, is ours, by all human right, our right, and because,

We demand that all Earth’s will will be done

And the fruits of the Earth will be given to all,

To whom they belong, to everyone, each one of them, women and men,

Those to whom the fruits of the Earth belong: they belong to us all,

To us all. And they must now be given to all.

Perhaps the greatest work of fiction to come from the 1930s is a trilogy of novels set in the north-east of the British archipelago, its author wise to the developments of Modernism but intent to tell a story that would be true to the spirit of his own native land and that of his central character, Chris Guthrie.

We first meet Chris as a young girl, growing up on a farm, drawing strength from the cycle of the seasons and the earth, but increasingly aware of the political changes the 20th century is visiting upon her people. She grows into womanhood, marriage, motherhood, and widowhood, when her husband is killed in the First World War. Sunset Song takes us up to the end of that war.

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In the second novel, Cloud Howe, Chris is married again, to a minister. Their life in a small town exposes her to a world of petty-bourgeois rivalries and viciousness for which the farming country had poor preparation. Loyal to her earth, she survives the death of her second husband, when he is thwarted in his attempts to deliver a better life to his parishioners.

In the final novel, Grey Granite, Chris has moved to the city and her son, now grown up, is immersed in the work of political activism, leading strikes and hunger marches, thrown into jail for his hopes:

... in Scotland, in England, in the torture-dens of the Nazis in Germany, in the torment-pits of the Polish Ukraine, a livid, twisted thing in the prisons where they tortured the Nanking Communists, a Negro boy in an Alabama cell while they thrust the razors into his flesh, castrating with a lingering cruelty and care.

He was one with them all, a long wail of sobbing mouths and wrung flesh, tortured and tormented by the world’s Masters while those Masters lied about progress through Peace, Democracy, Justice, the Heritage of Culture – even as they’d lied in the days of Spartacus, lying now through their hacks in pulpit and press, in the slobberings of middle-class pacifists, the tawdry promisings of Labourites, Douglasites ...

The righteous outrage places Ewan in an international scene, and it locks him into history as his mother is locked into her identity with the land. In the end, the novelist, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, returns Chris to her land and sends Ewan off on a political protest march. The dialectic continues.

The three novels, published in the mid-1930s, were collected under the title A Scots Quair.

The trilogy is wonderfully readable. It offers a panoramic view of society, from the turn of the century up to the 1930s, from country to small town to city, and it presents a complex understanding of the individual, the family and the community in the full range of conditions imposed by the modern world.

It has been gathering a growing number of appreciative readers in every generation since it appeared, and after its paperback publication in Penguin’s 20th Century Classics series, it was made available at last to an international readership.

Its growing reputation is partly due to the death of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s presentation of the land itself, and the attractiveness of his main character, Chris’s humanity and strength.

In the first of the three novels, she decides to stay on the farm after the death of her parents, to abandon her plans and hopes to go to university. However, Grassic Gibbon also has a short story entitled Clay in which the central character, Rachel Galt, chooses education and abandons her father’s farm after his death.

Neither Rachel’s choice nor Chris’s is easy. Clay ends with Rachel’s sense of what she is leaving, and this speaks eloquently of Gibbon’s understanding of a land from which he, too, like so many of his contemporaries, the great modernists, artists, poets, composers, lived in exile:

There the wind came sudden in a gust in her hair as she looked at the place and the way she had come ...

And she shivered sudden as she looked round about at the bare clay slopes that slept in the dusk, the whistle of the whins seemed to rise in a voice, the parks below to whisper and listen as the wind came up them out of the east.

All life – just clay that awoke and strove to return again to its mother’s breast. And she thought of the men who had made these rigs and the windy days of their toil and years, the daftness of toil that had been Rob Galt’s, that had been that of many men long on the land, though seldom seen now, was it good, was it bad? What power had that been that woke once on this brae and was gone at last from the parks of Pittaulds?

For she knew in that moment that no other would come to tend the ill rigs in the north wind’s blow. This was finished and ended, a thing put by, and the whins and the broom creep down once again, and only the peesies wheep and be still when she’d gone to the life that was hers, that was different, and the earth turn sleeping, unquieted no longer, her hungry bairns in her hungry breast where sleep and death and the earth were one.

Alan Riach is Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University.