Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Without Hope, Without Fear

The great Baroque artist Michele da Caravaggio is said to have lived by the motto, 'Nec Spe, Nec Metu' - 'No hope, no fear' or 'without hope, without fear' - a distinctly Nietzschean maxim for this most contemporary of painters.  Caravaggio had, as far as we know, a famously turbulent and chaotic life, moving between the stars of wealthy patrons and the gutter of crime and the demi-monde.   But he produced along the way in fleeting moments some of the most 'modern' and brilliant paintings that European culture has ever seen.  He died young in 1610, in mysterious circumstances, still suffering grievous injuries from an attempt on his life just a few years before.  He and his work flared out with a suddenness and intensity that have rarely been matched.

It's a fair leap between Caravaggio and the steely tough-mindedness of Mike Davis, but it may be that they share the same challenging motto.  Mike Davis is surely one of the most remarkable historians active today.  Of Irish and American provenance, he has been a major figure of the activist New Left.   But he has also been one of the finest urban and radical historians of the last several decades.  His history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, is a scholarly book written with the mordant eye and wit of James Ellroy.  His preoccupation with disaster and its representations has seen him chronicle catastrophes both cultural-fictional, and global-historical, and has even reached out beyond the limits of the planet, with a wonderful essay in the New Left Review some years ago on theories of 'coherent catastrophism' and the earth-system - a dramatic and enthralling survey of research which suggests that the Earth's geological, ecological and even human history may have been decisively shaped by extraterrestrial forces in the shape of comet and asteroid hits.  Buda's Wagon is a history of the car-bomb, which opens by reminding us that the original of the form was not deployed by Shia Islamists in West Beirut, but by Italian-American anarchists striking at Wall Street with a horse-cart packed with explosives in 1920.

Ever since his Prisoners of the American Dream (1985), Davis has been a significant writer about American politics and the working-class.  Here is an interview where he speaks both of his own background, and about the current presidential nominations race.  He is grimly clear about the forces arrayed against working Americans and their political expression - as egregious and hypocritical in their Clintonite form as in that represented by the rightward swing of the GOP - and about the wider implications of such struggles beyond the United States: ' "Hope" is not a scientific category', he notes.  But we must 'Fight with hope, fight without hope, but fight absolutely'.

A New Electorate: Mike Davis on Clinton, Trump, and Sanders


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