Thursday, July 12, 2012

Death on the Nile: notes toward a Marxist view

"It is not the past that matters but the future"

Death on the Nile, the world of 1937, and some considerations of Mr. Ferguson

Reading Notes by Jay Rothermel

2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Agatha Christie's poignant and beautifully executed novel Death on the Nile [1937].  Publication came near the end of her second decade as a novelist; it featured settings she knew first-hand as the spouse of an archeologist working "east of Suez."

What did the world look like in 1937?  I think it would be useful, in contextualizing the time of the novel's production, to look at the year in question. A list of some of the events of the time brings home the profound political and economic struggles which convulsed capitalist society at the time:

Sit-down strikes swept the United States, from GM to Chrysler to Woolworths
Communist revolutionary arrived in Mexico
Second show trial opened in Moscow
Bombing of Guernica
Workers uprising in Barcelona
CIO opened organizing drive among US steelworkers
Chicago police killed strikers in Memorial Day Massacre
Japan admitted long fight ahead in its drive to conquer China
Supreme Court rejected Scottsboro appeal
Catholic Bishops endorsed Franco

1937 opened a period of accelerated defeats for workers and oppressed colonial peoples around the world.  The Stalinist brand of Popular Front betrayals, which tied communist parties and workers organizations to their respective national capitalist ruling classes, spelled defeat for revolutionary upsurges in China, Germany, France, and Spain.

In the United States a new period of economic recession began.  This spurred the Roosevelt administration toward a war course, leaving behind half a decade of concessions to an increasingly militant and politically independent workers movement.

Social and political polarization was on the rise, and much like today the capitalist mandarins of Washington, London, Paris and Berlin had nothing to offer their populations except unemployment, foreclosure, eviction, lock-outs, union-busting, racist lynching terror, jail, and fascist goon squads at home; and war against fellow workers abroad.

The crime novel was immensely popular in this period.  For its petty bourgeois and upper working class readership it provided vicarious anxieties in a period of volatile class struggle, the material basis for real anxiety.  In addition to Death on the Nile, 1937 saw the publication of John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court, Dorothy L. Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon, and two fine novels by Margery Allingham: The Case of the Late Pig and Dancers in Mourning.

* * *
Death on the Nile has a poor reputation among Marxists, given its depiction of the UK communist character Ferguson.  I wish to dispute this reputation.  Ferguson is not the Oxbridge cliche product of a Tory novelist, but something more round and subtle.  He is not a cadre of the CPGB and the Comintern, nor a caricature of same.

Ferguson is depicted as  a young man in disreputably dirty and torn clothing, spouting his anti-capitalist opinions.  In Chapter 12 he joins Cornelia Robson for an evening visit to the temple of Abu Simbel.

Cornelia tells him, "I wish Dr Bessner was here."

    "How you can stand that old fool beats me," said Ferguson gloomily.
    "Why, he's just one of the kindest men I've ever met."
    "Pompous old bore."
    "I don't think you ought to speak that way."
    The young man gripped her suddenly by the arm. They were just emerging from the temple into the moonlight.
    "Why do you stick being bored by fat old men - and bullied and snubbed by that vicious old harridan?" [The harridan in question is Cornelia's cousin and guardian on the journey.JR]
    "Why, Mr. Ferguson!"
    "Haven't you got any spirit?  Don't you know you're just as good as she is?"
    "But I'm not!"  Cornelia spoke with honest conviction.
    "You're not as rich; that's all you mean."
    "No, it isn't.  Cousin Marie's very cultured, and - "
    "Cultured!"  The young man let go of her arm as suddenly as he had taken it.  "That word makes me sick."
....Cornelia faltered out: "I wish you wouldn't get so made about things."
    "Don't you realize - and you an American - that everyone is born free and equal?"
    "They're not," said Cornelia with calm certainty.
    "My good girl, it's part of your constitution."
    ...."....of course people aren't equal.  It doesn't make sense.  I know I'm kind of homely-looking, and I used to feel mortified about it sometimes, but I've got over that.  I'd like to have been born elegant and beautiful like Mrs. Doyle, but I wasn't, so I guess it's no use worrying."
    "Mrs Doyle!" exclaimed Ferguson with deep contempt.  "She's the sort of woman who ought to be shot as an example." [p.132-132]

In his own emphatically obtuse and over-thought way, Ferguson is attempting a seduction of Cornelia, about whom he says, "You're the nicest person on this boat.... And mind you remember it" during the same conversation. Because she is also, as he later says, the only honest person on the tour boat Karnak, he plumps for her and eventually proposes marriage.

The author abjures a communist caricature a la a film of the same era like Ninotchka, where proletarian correctness is guyed.  Instead, she presents us with a young man of zero social sophistication and zero sense of how to carry out human interactions;  his only social method is to be disagreeable and see what materializes.  The communism he supposedly learned at Oxford is only a contrarian's pose, and not really worthy of the name communism anyway; it is a disguise for the maladroit. 

In the above quotation, it is clearly Cornelia who understands the contradictory nature of capitalist social relations, not Ferguson.  Indeed, with the Ferguson type [and there are many Fergusons with us today, though they never turn out to be the scion of an eccentric ruling class family and have the title Lord Dawlish, as is the case with Ferguson] one is reminded of the French saying:  "Before thirty a communist, after thirty a swine."

The comedy of Ferguson's humiliating attempts to woo Cornelia is based upon his own class ignorance in imagining how a worker woos his mate.  Cornelia, of course, sees through the maneuver and the pose right down to Ferguson's essential immaturity, which she terms his unreliability.

When Mrs. Otterbourne is murdered, Cornelia says: "It's just like living in a nightmare."

    Ferguson overheard her.  He said aggressively: "That's because you're over-civilized.  You should look on the death as an Oriental does.  It's a mere incident - hardly noticeable."
    "That's all very well," Cornelia said. "They're not educated, poor creatures."
    "No, and a good thing too.  Education has devitalized the white races.  Look at America - goes in for an orgy of culture.  Simply disgusting."
    "I think you're talking nonsense," said Cornelia, flushing.  "I attend lectures every winter in Greek Art and the Renaissance, and I went to some on famous Women of History."
    Mr. Ferguson groaned in agony: "Greek Art; Renaissance!  Famous Women of History!  It makes me quite sick to hear you.  It's the future that matters, woman, not the past.  Three women are dead on this boat.  Well, what of it?  They're no loss!  Linnet Doyle and her money!  The French maid - a domestic parasite.  Mrs. Otterbourne - a useless fool of a woman.  Do you think anyone really cares whether they're dead or not?  I don't.  I think it's a damned good thing!" [p. 271-277]

When Ferguson starts speaking about how education has devitalized the "white race," it is all too clear that his politics have nothing in common with any brand of Marxism.  Indeed, he comes closer to the types of middle class pseudo-radicalism most closely associated with fascism.  Such ideas were prevalent circa 1937 among some members of the intelligentsia demoralized by a decade of defeats suffered by the working class, defeats organized by the Comintern's Stalinist misleadership.

My contention is that Christie is not giving us a poorly conceived and executed caricature of a 1930s-era Oxford-educated and titled communist.  Ferguson's various anti-establishment and anti-capitalist statements, both progressive and reactionary, are not examples of Christie's sketchy and poorly conceived understanding of what the creme of UK upper class Marxists were like.  Rather, his comments are part of a sophisticated if abstract characterization.  Like many of his class at the time, Ferguson expresses precisely contradictory and self-defeating attitudes in attempting to take a critical approach to social reality. 

An indication of the character's whimsical importance to Christie is that Ferguson is given the final word in the novel, summing-up the lessons surrounding all the Karnak's murders:  "For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future." [p. 333]

This is part of a series of contributions to an online discussion of Christie's novel I participated in.

Death on the Nile, 2011: Harper trade paperback

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