Politics, an unavoidably twisted affair

The winding staircase around the tower of the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen
The winding staircase around the tower of the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen. (Picture: Katrin Lorenzen/ Flickr)

One of Copenhagen’s most famous landmarks is the tower of the Church of Our Saviour with its external helter-skelter staircase. The church itself is a Renaissance colossus, an elegant brute in the Dutch baroque style with Greek and Italian inflections, and it boasts northern Europe’s largest carillon, but it is the tower specifically that captures the public imagination. It owes much of its charm to an urban legend inspired by the peculiar detail that the staircase winds in an anticlockwise direction. This is peculiar because in Renaissance times, in popular culture, left-turning spirals were associated with the devil. The architect of the tower (but not the church), Lauritz de Thurah, is said to have been so furious with himself when he realised his mistake that he climbed the spiral staircase, invoking Satan with every step, and hurled himself to his death from the top.

The story is demonstrably bollocks. De Thurah died peacefully in his bed seven years after the tower was finished. I know this because the legend was recounted as part of a canal boat tour of the city I went on. Yet the ease with which it is can be disproved has not diminished its appeal. The church tower is one of two Copenhagen landmarks on the route that are so famous that the canal boat actually pauses beside them to allow tourists to take photographs (the other is, of course, The Little Mermaid). This interests me. Our tour guide fed us the whole story of the church tower and its fabled bungling architect, complete with the detail that he actually died peaceably some years later, because 21st-century tourists, being somewhat more sophisticated than their predecessors, are supposed to revere irony above superstition. I think this sense of intellectual superiority is misplaced. The fact that people still gain enjoyment from the ludicrous but colourful story of the suicidal architect reveals, I think, something significant about human nature.

Also while in Copenhagen I was coming to the climax of Adam Thirlwell’s novel, Politics. I was enjoying it. I know I was enjoying it because it was changing the way I thought about things. Exceptional books have that effect on me, like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or the novels of Milan Kundera, a writer Thirlwell acknowledges as an influence. One of the characteristic features of Politics is its intrusive narrator, who tells the story in a highly didactic, fastidious and downright irritating manner. Often he suspends the action at a vital moment to digress about the Russian revolution, disputes in Czech revolutionary circles or Stalin’s avuncular telephone calls with intellectuals he will later stitch up good and proper. These digressions are important but profoundly annoying at the same time. As this paragraph perhaps is for you. Were I still a pretentious literature student I might reel off half a dozen impressive-sounding names for this narrative device, many of them culled from magisterial works of criticism such as Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis (a work I often cited in my undergraduate essays without ever taking the trouble to read it). Instead I’ll fall back on my own terminology and call it a Pain In The Arse.

There is a lot of sex in Thirlwell’s novel, but it is constantly interrupted by less pressing matters, so that despite being adventurous by most conventional standards, it doesn’t feel in the slightest bit erotic or sexy. I should have hated the novel and its opinionated, self-satisfied, prurient, disingenuous, tedious pain-in-the-arse narrator. But the weird thing is I loved it. And I loved it, I think, for the same reason I loved the story of the architect of the Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen. It defied me to enjoy it against my better judgment.

For some reason the absurd tale of the architect’s non-suicide prompted another, quite different, urban myth, to float to the surface of my mind as I was boarding the plane home from Copenhagen later that day. This one is about a passenger on a jumbo jet who calls over the stewardess just as the flight is about to take off. The woman is very agitated and demands to be moved to a different seat, even though the entire economy class section is full. “You can’t possibly expect me to sit next to this man here,” she fumes. When the stewardess asks why, the passenger replies: “Because he’s black! How can I spend the next seven hours sitting next to a black man?” Nobody says a word, not even the shocked and stunned man she is demeaning, so she continues with her racist tirade, oblivious to how uncomfortable all the other passengers are becoming and what an egregious persona she is displaying to all the world. When she is finished the stewardess smiles and says: “Just a minute, madam, I’ll see what I can do.” And a few minutes later she comes back and says: “Madam, I’ve spoken with the captain, and he’s decided that the only way to deal with this situation is by way of an upgrade.” “Good,” says the woman, an appalling smile smeared across her face. “So if you would like to step this way, sir,” the stewardess continues,” there is a seat waiting for you in First Class. And the captain has asked that you receive a complimentary glass of champagne in recognition of this inconvenience.” And she gestures to the black man, who gets up, strides towards the front of the plane without so much as a backward glance to his racist neighbour who is still standing, fuming and open-mouthed, in the centre of the aisle, surrounded by silently smirking travellers, all of whom can’t wait to get home and spread this story around their circles of friends.

This story, like that of the church tower and the architect, is almost certainly bollocks too, though it’s not so easily disproved. I’d argue that that doesn’t matter: the point is that it’s a highly appealing story even so. What’s interesting is that we relate to it in a different way than to the story of the architect. Both stories are about knowledge and judgment. The architect is supposed to have killed himself because despite his skill and expertise in his professional field he commits a basic, catastrophic error that brings about his ruin. We enjoy the story because despite his elevated position, we can feel superior to him. Only someone ensconced in the ivory towers of academia could have overlooked such a fundamental piece of popular superstition. In the story of the racist passenger, the person using his skill and judgment is the captain of the plane (or possibly the stewardess, if you believe she acted on her own initiative and merely invoked the captain’s authority as a cunning device).[1] The captain acts like a benevolent dictator, summoning his worldly wisdom to identify the true victim in the scenario – the blameless black man – and punish the woman for her imagined grievance so that she loses all credibility in the eyes of her fellow passengers (none of whom, you’ll have noticed, actually bothered to leap to the man’s defence initially). All of us, I think, fancy we would have been as courageous and intellectually nimble as the captain in this wholly fictional story. He appeals to the good side of ourselves. Whereas the architect appeals to the mean side of ourselves: we envy his status and proficiency, and his unreal but literal downfall prompts a pang of Schadenfreude.

But that’s not the point either. The point is that both stories remain hugely appealing even when we either strongly suspect, or know for sure, that they are untrue. We think of ourselves as reasoning beings, but much of our enjoyment – indeed, much of our emotional lives – involves suspending reason. It’s what makes it so hard for us to agree on anything, even when the evidence points strongly in one direction. And that may solve the puzzle of why Adam Thirlwell’s novel Politics is so enjoyable – or at least, why it was for me. It’s a novel that contains a lot of unsexy sex and some rather fleeting political ruminations. Neither the sex nor the politics is satisfying on its own. And it’s all told by a pedantic, wearisome authorial narrator who seems to have been created for the specific purpose of spoiling both aspects. But the juxtaposition of the sex and the politics is done artfully and with wit, so that I, the reader, was led on a leash, scowling all the way like the architect on his imaginary journey up the anticlockwise staircase, or the racist passenger as she watched her nemesis retreat towards the First Class section of the cabin, towards its denoument. It was one of the most disquieting, original and pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in ages.

There is another reason I think Politics works. A lot of people will disagree with this theory, and I suspect Adam Thirlwell would disagree more vehemently than most. But that doesn’t invalidate it in my estimation. Politics is, both because of and in spite of itself, an intensely political novel. It was published in 2003, and so written in the first half of the New Labour era. Tony Blair came to power promising a democratic revolution in politics that he termed the Third Way. It was supposed to be an end to the old confrontational politics of the Cold War and era: not Left versus Right, but a fusion of the two that sought its legitimacy in pragmatism and practical outcomes. There were to be targets and mission statements and performance reviews and all kinds of managerial innovations. But it didn’t eradicate the old ideological disputes at all. It just made them much duller. It was a revolution in style that left the fault lines of politics intact. Blair simply wallpapered over the cracks (in what now seems a richly ironic detail, wallpaper was at the heart of one of his government’s first serious controversies when one of Blair’s cabinet ministers, Lord Derry Irvine, was criticised for extravagantly redecorating his official residence). That’s what Thirlwell illustrates in Politics. On the one hand he reduces the ménage à trois, generally considered a decadent and ambitious arrangement, to the level of a mundane kitchen-sink drama, just as Tony Blair in his pomp made political debate as riveting as an accountants’ convention. And yet the inherent flaws in the sexual trio remain unresolved (and I won’t spoil the book any further by spelling out how they affect the characters’ fortunes), just as New Labour failed utterly to make politics any more honest or straightforward. The Pain In The Arse narrator portrays himself as a sweetly reasonable mediator who will make everything clear, but his machinations just fuck the story up. In both sex and politics, pragmatism is offered as a solution only to end up complicating things still further. All that redeems him is the writer’s skill in deploying him. The entire novel is a brilliant and subtle political parody. It says that politicians who endeavour to take the politics out of politics are the most dangerous politicians of all. That’s what I got out of it, at any rate. You may very well disagree.

[1] Incidentally, I don’t see anything sexist or meaningful in the genders of the complainant and the victim. You could plausibly swap them over. It just allows attentive listeners to anticipate the twist by picking up on the stewardess’s use of the word ‘sir’ a few moments before the man rises from his seat. Award yourself a glass of imaginary champagne if you noticed it.

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