Wednesday 11 July 2018

Review of Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers 1660-1886 by Humphrey Jennings

Pandaemonium is a collection of different eye-witness texts from the rough span on the industrial revolution. Compiled in the 1930s by documentary film maker, Humphrey Jennings, they unexpectedly were the impetus behind the Opening Ceremony of London's 2012 Olympics

Being a creation of a film-maker, the texts are supposed to be read and compared to each other like shots in a montage. This is a fantastic idea, with texts reflecting, refracting and contradicting each other, create a kaleidoscope of meaning. 

This book is not an open and free play of imagination though, Jennings’ own intent and interpretation almost overwhelm the reader’s. Jennings has a definite story he wishes to tell; one of relatively free, animistic peasants being overwhelmed by the forces of industry, buckled under the yoke of middle-classes and forced into being the working class. 

Having read a lot about the Lunar Men, particularly Erasmus Darwin and a number of very positive histories of the Enlightenment, the inherent criticism of the machine age came as a surprise. It shouldn’t have been though, because as a teen I was very much of the opinion that rationalism and the industrial revolution were not just the death of superstition but the death of magic and wonder as well.

One of the greatest surprises was the accompanying religious revolution. I was aware of Wesley, Whitefield and other religious reformers of the era and that such religious movements were a response to the enlightenment and mechanical modes of thinking. What I hadn’t considered was the class issue, that such movements were a bourgeoise-ification of religion.  

I was delighted to see Goldsmith, Johnson and Kit Smart being used. Jennings, compiling his pieces in the 30s, passes on the false information that Jubilate Agno was written in Bedlam but he does have an interesting interpretation of it as one man's attempt to bring his religion and rationalism in sync.

The clear Marxist ideology weighted the book down. I have no problem with Marxism in itself, but all the Marxists I have ever read or met, were incredibly boring. Everything is boiled down into a war of class - and the many strands of the industrial revolution are described merely in terms of class war. 

There’s also the fact that Jennings seems to ignore the fact that peasants were terribly oppressed in times before the industrial revolution - serfs were banned from travelling, people starved without even an attempt at poor relief. The problem with the industrial revolution seems less to do with intentional exploitation and more to do with being unable to keep up with new developments. Not that the scientists are evil but that the ideas of scientists outpace sociological ones. 

This was in no way a bad book, but it grew to be a tiresome one and I was pleased when I finished it. A book finer in intention than execution.

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