|"I mostly miss the point"|
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 11/04/14
According to Saul Bellow (almost certainly not the most reliable of sources) Kafka once met Rudolph Steiner. The meeting, as he describes it in ‘Humboldt’s Gift’, did not go well.
‘Kafka too had been attracted by Steiner’s visions and found the clairvoyant states he described similar to his own, feeling himself on the outer boundaries of the human. He made an appointment with Steiner at the Victoria Hotel on Jungmannstrasse. It is recorded in the Diaries that Steiner was wearing a dusty and spotted Prince Albert and that he had a terrible head cold. His nose ran and he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nostrils with his fingers while Kafka, observing this with disgust, told Steiner that he was an artist stuck in the insurance business.
Health and character, he said, prevented him from following a literary career. If he added theosophy to literature and the insurance business, what would become of him? Steiner’s answer is not recorded.
Kafka himself of course was crammed to the top with this same despairing fastidious mocking Consciousness Soul. Poor fellow, the way he stated his case didn’t do him much credit. The man of genius trapped in the insurance business? A very banal complaint, not really much better than a head cold.’
Though Steiner is rarely noted for either the brevity or precision of his writing, even genius novelists should apparently have taken care not to bore him. Steiner counted.
Nevertheless Rudolph Steiner’s name is one which I suspect few people under the age of forty have heard. And yet the spiritual movement he founded ‘Anthroposophy’ is still knocking around today, with schools named after him in cities across the world. Rudolph Steiner house, just north of Baker Street tube is an impressive building that is still clearly something of a social hub. When it comes to spiritualism, here and abroad, his name apparently still carries weight.
However, I know next to nothing about spiritualism. It doesn’t feature much in the nice lefty journals I tend to read, or on mainstream TV. His writings were never referred to on any philosophy course I studied, and though as a student he nominally wrote his thesis about Kant, Steiner’s work is decidedly not part of the usual academic canon. This is perhaps unsurprising given that for all the apparent gravitas of his writing, the little bits I’ve read seem to keep wobbling towards something like self-help, or else subjective grandstanding - ‘To be free is to be capable of thinking one's own thoughts – not the thoughts merely of the body, or of society, but thoughts generated by one's deepest, most original, most essential and spiritual self, one's individuality.’
In any case his kind of circumlocutionary intellectualism isn’t very British, we tend to leave that to the Continent. (Instead the UK has Alain de Botton, who seems to have captured the ground of ‘Britain’s leading public pop intellectual’ by arguing that thought itself is a consumer good and that for the most part we’re better off just saving our metaphorical cash). Meanwhile if spiritualism filled a void after the death of God, it doesn’t seem to have quite managed to hang onto its cultural significance in the UK. Guru and weirdo, to some ears, have become pretty close to interchangeable.
Alongside the Steiner bookshop (exclusively school of Steiner books: no Bellow, no Kafka) and an expensive coffee shop, is an impressive two hundred seat auditorium. Plays and talks apparently happen here most nights. It’s hard to tell from the ‘Polyester Lordship’ however who these plays are for (or for that matter how much they’re even advertised). Where will this small, rather well-heeled audience around me go after they leave? What do they do when they’re not meditating by standing on their heads (Bellow insists this position is particularly endorsed by Steiner)? What exactly are they getting from a play that feels like a moderately ineffective attempt to enliven an economics GCSE? I want to know, though admittedly not to the point that I’m realistically going to make any actual effort to find out.
‘Polyester Lordship’ is a majestically boring piece of drama. It reminded me of Cyril Connolly’s comment that George Orwell ‘could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry’. Author Gopi Warrier (not only a playwright but a poet, entrepreneur and founder separately of London’s first Ayurvedic hospital, university and restaurant) clearly understands the logistics of asset stripping and the endemic corruption of both the City of London and the Indian government. He gives us a dodgy deal in full, as an established British company buys up an Indian subsidiary with a view to flogging the company real estate for a quick buck. The only drawback to the plan are the unionised employees, who will need a little mafia-led persuasion before they’re likely to accept work at a new factory on the other side of the country, away from their family and friends. The script features a colossal overspill of figures: percentages, projections, cuts and bribes borne along by an uneddying tide of management cliché that breaks only for occasional swells of even more quotidian, though equally po-faced, small talk. No doubt the odd corporate drone speaks like this, though usually one imagines that’s because they’re either zonked on Diazepine, or just an especially inept contestant on the Apprentice. Or both. The deal, of course, goes wrong with terrible consequences. Though the play’s intent may be worthily Shavian, the execution decidely is not.
Even so although their characters declaim more often than they interact, the cast deliver their lines with confident, if usually static, poise. I particularly enjoyed both Sarah Hall’s crystal sharp Roedean vowels, as unbelievably virtuous head of HR, and Lloyd Morris’ swagger as the deal’s dodgy facilitator.
Why this play has been produced and premiered here however remains mysterious to me. Apart from one brief scene explaining the history of an elegant Hindu ceremony, no aspect of the play attempts to discuss the ineffable, or even the subconscious (in fact several of the characters seem to be struggling with the concept of lying) nor does the mousey socialism seem a natural fit with the Steiner world-view. Even so I’ve seen worse shows from less comfortable seats, and after worrying this might be a cultish affair that’s enough for me.
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