Inside Story

A dynamic of acceptance and revolt

Why the extraordinary Jack Lindsay deserves to be better known

Paul Gillen Books 27 February 2024 3409 words

Jack Lindsay (left) — shown here in 1957 with Meanjin editor Clem Christesen at Castle Hedingham in Essex — was “diametrically opposed to all closed systems.” University of Melbourne Archives

Few people have known so much about so many things as Jack Lindsay. Even fewer have published so much. Lindsay grew up in Brisbane in the early years of the twentieth century, moved to Sydney in 1921, and then embarked on a sixty-year career as journalist, publisher, poet, critic, translator, novelist and historian. Living in England after 1926, he produced an astonishing number of books that found readers around the world; in a multitude of direct and mediated ways he made a major contribution to mid-twentieth-century culture and thought. Thirty-five years after his death comes Anne Cranny-Francis’s Jack Lindsay: Writer, Romantic, Revolutionary.

Well-known to Lindsay enthusiasts, Cranny-Francis has written articles and organised conferences about his life and work, maintains a website, arranged the publication of his “political autobiography” The Fullness of Life and edited a volume of selected poems. In this first book-length single-author study of Lindsay’s life and work she has hit on an elegant solution to the problem of the hyperactively full life of her subject. He was someone whose works demand attention to his ideas, and whose ideas demand attention to his life. Jack Lindsay is structured around a core of six chapters, each dedicated to Lindsay’s book-length studies of English authors: John Bunyan (1937), Charles Dickens (1950), George Meredith (1956), William Morris (1974) and two on William Blake (1927 and 1978). This frame is filled in with chapters that provide biographical and intellectual context and discuss his other relevant works, helping the reader to understand, without being overwhelmed, how Lindsay’s approach to writing was influenced by his experiences and ideas.

This structure works well to illuminate Lindsay’s eclectic, self-fashioned life-philosophy, with its associated preoccupations, values and imagery: the struggle for unity, culture as expressive work, the archetype of death and renewal. The system evolved over time, but many elements were present from the first.

Inevitably Cranny-Francis omits or barely glances at much of Lindsay’s output. She makes barely a mention of his forty-three novels and seven biographies of artists. It would be hard to guess from it that Lindsay’s most cited study is about alchemy in Roman Egypt, or that the one most discussed by academics is a historical novel set in the British civil war.

Depending on what counts as a book, Lindsay published about 160 in his lifetime, as well as hundreds of articles, stories and poems. About a half of his writing was historical and biographical, a quarter fiction, and the remainder criticism, social theory, translations, polemics and poetry. Most of his publications were concerned with the past, usually the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Lindsay’s classical training is apparent in the eclectic character of works in which history, mythology, philology, archaeology, anthropology, aesthetics and philosophy are seamlessly blended.

All of Lindsay’s mature writing was underwritten by a self-fashioned philosophy or credo. Its most fundamental principle was what Cranny-Francis describes as the “embodied connectedness” of things. He often called it “vital unity,” “wholeness,” “Life” or “the fullness of life.”

In Lindsay’s thought the concept of vital unity assumes as many guises as energy does in physics. One of his symbols for it was Dionysus, the mysterious deity of wine and rebirth, leader of a disorganised band of enthralled creatures — satyrs, maenads, nymphs, centaurs, Pan the god of shepherds — who found no place on Mount Olympus. Another symbol was the figure of “the people,” which he sometimes called “the folk,” and occasionally “the masses,” each term with its particular political inflection. Human unity implied solidarity, equality, ethical responsiveness and mutual aid.

As Cranny-Francis observes, Lindsay extends the idea of unity to all spheres of human activity, including the natural world. John Bellamy Foster, noting Lindsay’s evocations of a “patient earth… ‘eternally reborn’ through labour and ritual practice,” identifies him as a forerunner of Marxist ecology.

Lindsay found the origins of the idea of unity in Plato, or even further back in Parmenides and Pythagoras, but a slightly less distant inspiration was the sixteenth-century excommunicated priest Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), who melded Renaissance humanism with materialism. Lindsay was stirred when he encountered Bruno in the early 1930s, subsequently writing a novel about him (Adam of a New World, 1936), and translating De la causa, principio e uno (Cause, Principle, Unity, 1962). Later he would claim that reading Bruno led him directly to Marxism.

Lindsay’s intense awareness of the interconnectedness of the living world had implications for his everyday life. Cranny-Francis quotes from an episode in The Fullness of Life during his years with the poet Elza de Locre in the early 1930s, when he lived in desperate poverty.

A local farmer had gifted a couple of rabbits to them as a neighbourly gesture. Confronted with the reality of having to skin and disembowel the animals before cooking, Lindsay found himself unable to proceed. He contemplates the economy of death on which a meat-eating society is based, particularly when social organisation has reached a point where meat protein is no longer essential to the diet: “One’s symbiosis with the earth is therefore in terms of unceasing violence and murder; and one knows, deep in one’s being, that one lives only by a system of blood-victims.”

“A communist society which is not vegetarian,” he concluded, “seems to me a hopeless contradiction.”

The young Lindsay called the absence of unity abstraction or dissociation; later, under the influence of Hegel and Marx, he favoured the word alienation. He argued that alienation has always been present in human life and has always provoked resistance. Throughout history that resistance has taken many forms — initiation rituals, shamanic flights, alchemy, art and poetry, and political revolt. The struggle against alienation shapes people’s relationships with one another and the world, motivates the protests of the wretched and exploited, and underlies attitudes to nature. Great thinkers and creative artists throw light upon its diverse manifestations.

Blake’s prophetic books explore the “world of false consciousness, of alienation,” according to Lindsay, and he praised Dickens for “the discovery of dissociation and the alienation of man from his fellows and his own essence, the stages of struggle against the dissociative forces, and the intuition (uttered in symbolic forms) of the resolving unity.”

Lindsay regarded religion as both a product of alienation and a form of protest against it. His vision of the world was also infused with hope for a fulfilment somehow always just out of reach. In a letter to Edith Sitwell on her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1955 he confessed to having been at times “very close to the catholic creed… indistinguishable perhaps from ekklesia of the faithful — the people who are Christ.”

Affinities between his system and Christianity are not difficult to uncover: sin as alienation, humanity crucified, Life the Eucharist, Paradise a vision of love and freedom. He was familiar with such syncretisms in the Ancient World: in a book about Roman Egypt he references a tomb in the Roman catacombs of Pretextatys on which Dionysus is identified with the Lord Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, and burials in the Vatican Necropolis of Christians who also worshipped Isis and Bacchus.

Alienation has become all-pervasive in the modern world, chiefly because of money and science. Following Thomas Carlyle, Lindsay often referred to the institutions and customs associated with money as the “cash-nexus.” From all the possible elements of human relationship associated with the exchange of goods, money abstracts a single factor, that of utility, and makes the remainder redundant. The dehumanisation implicit in the use of money reaches its apogee with capitalism, which turns life itself into a commodity. In his study of William Morris he declares that “a genuinely new society can be born only when commodity-production ends, and with it division of labour, money, market-systems, and alienation in all its many shapes and forms — above all alienation from labour.”

The other powerful alienating factor of modernity is the scientific method stemming from Galileo and Descartes, which Lindsay consistently attacked as “mechanical,” “divisive” and “quantitative.” Cranny-Francis notes that “Lindsay returns repeatedly… to Blake’s criticisms of science and the post-Enlightenment rationalism on which it is based.” Lindsay was not at all opposed to scientific inquiry, nor wholly dismissive of the achievements of post Enlightenment science. But in Marxism and Contemporary Science (1949) and a later trilogy on alchemy, astrology and physics in Greco-Roman Egypt he refused to separate knowledge of “nature” from other kinds of knowledge. There is a single interconnected world, and all ways of knowing it are likewise interconnected. The “sciences” discussed in Marxism and Contemporary Science are not physics, astronomy or chemistry, but biology, anthropology, art criticism, psychology and history.

For Lindsay, decisive proof that contemporary science has taken a wrong turning was the atomic bomb, the culmination of alienation’s will to self-destruction. Today he would no doubt make the same criticism of the digital revolution and genetics.

But there is a nagging problem with alienation, though Lindsay, more of a poet than a philosopher, seems never to have addressed it, and neither does Cranny-Francis. It parallels the problem of evil in religions that postulate a benign creator. Where does alienation come from? How can the world be a vital unity and at the same time a site of struggle against division?

Some cosmologies have an explanation. An idealist can say that the world of the senses is a flawed copy of a perfect and eternal world that is glimpsed only in thought. The unity is “above,” the struggle “below.” But Lindsay was trenchantly opposed both to idealism and to hierarchy. For him mental and spiritual phenomena are autonomous, but in the final analysis dependent on matter. Cranny-Francis mentions his debt to the Sydney-born philosopher Samuel Alexander. Alexander was an early twentieth-century advocate of emergence, the theory that complex systems produce attributes and activities that do not belong to their parts. Could emergence explain the origin of alienation? It isn’t clear how.

At a psychological level, though, Lindsay’s biography provides a paradigm case of a conflict between longed-for unity and actual division. Lindsay’s father was the writer and artist Norman Lindsay, one of Australia’s best-known humourists and artists in the first half of the twentieth century, notorious for his sexual libertarianism and hostility to Christianity. Cranny-Francis dwells sensitively on Jack’s difficult relationship with Norman. “The story of father-son relationships threads through all of Lindsay’s writing, fiction and non-fiction,” she writes. When Jack was nine years old, Norman left his wife and three sons. The fatherless family moved to Brisbane, where young Jack lived in a state of genteel but disorganised impoverishment, loved but neglected by his vague and increasingly alcoholic mother until her sister’s family finally took charge and sent him to school. Unsurprisingly, the theme of a lost birthright appears often in Lindsay’s novels and histories.

Norman renewed contact with his son only after his academic achievements had earned him scholarships to Brisbane’s elite Grammar School and the University of Queensland. Lindsay, ecstatic to be restored to his famous father’s attention, was Norman’s devoted acolyte for the next decade. Then they fell out bitterly.

Norman’s entire life was a fierce act of will to sustain the exhilarating freedom of his adolescence, when he had followed his older brother out of a shabby mined-out gold town to marvellous Melbourne and lived in careless poverty, pursuing a self-directed course in drawing, reading, flaneuring and witty companionship until Jack’s conception brought that delightful life to a sudden end. For the rest of his life Norman acted out his ambivalence, alternately praising and denouncing his son. In 1967 he wrote to him, “I can’t help but laugh when I think of what our biographers are going to make of the break and reunion of our relations. They will have to do the best they can with its human dramatics for it is quite impossible for them to realise the compulsions behind them.”

Jack Lindsay did not have children until his late fifties. He was an anxious, self-critical parent, and never ceased to yearn for his father’s distracted attention.

Turn for a moment I say
Turn from your obdurate place
In that clarity of stone,
That terrible folly of light,
Turn for a moment this way
Your abstracted face.

Lindsay understood the importance of this personal history for his literary career, confessing to a close friend that “if my parents hadn’t parted I doubt if I should have become a writer at all.” Cranny-Francis suggests that his description of William Morris also applies to himself:

From one aspect there never was a more impetuously frank man than Morris; he lives restlessly in the open and follows his convictions out without concern for the consequences to himself or anyone else. From another aspect he appears a hidden figure, moved by a passion of which the multiple effects are plain but the central impulse obscured. I suggest that along the lines I have sketched we can bring the man and the artist into a single focus, and see the way in which his personal dilemma was transformed into a dynamic of acceptance and revolt, of deepening insight into the nature of his world and into the ways in which the terrible wounds of alienation can be healed.

A succession of recent British scholars has sought to recover Lindsay as a forerunner of practitioners of cultural studies, an influential field of interdisciplinary research instigated by British theorists — among them Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams — in the 1970s. Although they didn’t reference Lindsay, the founders of cultural studies were almost certainly familiar with some of his work, and there are strong points of similarity in their ideas. In particular, they all affirmed the political significance of culture.

Marx had suggested a base–superstructure model of social formation, according to which economic relationships ultimately determine the organisation of politics, law, religion and creative expression. The implication was that economic interests always trump cultural factors. The practical effect was to concentrate efforts to build socialism in workplaces, which in effect meant and trade unions. This left little place for cultural creators. Like cultural studies, Lindsay steadfastly rejected that model.

Another tenet of cultural studies that Lindsay anticipated was the idea that significant cultural change comes from “below.” Lindsay believed that plebeian practices and values, and their fraught and contradictory clashes with the practices and values of ruling elites, are the major source of cultural innovation. He made the point forcefully in a letter to his friend and fellow critic Alick West:

The concept is that culture is created by the expropriators, fundamentally expresses their position and needs, and has no close relation to the concrete labour-processes and the producing masses. I should like to suggest that something like the reverse is the truth. The people are the producers and reproducers of life, and in that role are also the begetters of culture in all its shapes and forms — though in a class-divided society the ruling class expropriates culture.

Lindsay’s view stemmed from the conviction — shared with Ruskin and Morris — that work and aesthetic production had once “been harmoniously united, and that they still ought to be, despite the general movement towards degradation and mechanisation.” Before commodity production alienated workers from the products of their labour — in this historical sketch uncommodified slavery is conveniently forgotten — work was done in order to create both necessary means of living and pleasing or profound emotions. Each was a joyful undertaking. Once, communal work had always been accompanied by singing and chanting. Understanding this had motivated William Morris to take on, in Lindsay’s dated language, “the full political and social struggle which alone could have as its aim the achievement of brotherhood and the ending of commodity-production.”

In A Short History of Culture Lindsay traced the essential identity of art and work back to the movement of bodies in space. From the classicist Jane Harrison he took the observation that the repetitive, rhythmic behaviours that create the necessities of life — poundings, liftings, plantings, weavings, cuttings, stalkings, throwings — are shared with dancing. Like her, he considered dance to be the primal kind of cultural creativity. Citing another book of Lindsay’s criticism, After the Thirties, Cranny-Francis writes:

Lindsay identifies in dance the rhythmical control of movement that characterises human activity and being. It bodily enacts the purposive behaviours that enable the group to maintain social coherence, engaging them through the rhythm of the breath: ‘Body and mind are thus keyed together in new adventurous and interfused ways.’ The dance becomes an exploration of the embodied being required to achieve a specific purpose, such as a hunt. It lifts the dancer (and observer) into the realm of ‘pure potentiality’ where ‘desire and act are one’; where the bodily disposition required to engage successfully in a particular activity is achieved and communicated. In this process, Lindsay argued, human beings imaginatively engage aspects of everyday life and rehearse the modes of being, thinking and acting that enable them to achieve their needs and desires. For Lindsay this is the role of culture in the formation of being and consciousness, whether it be the ritual art of early societies or contemporary literature, visual art, theatre and dance.

If communism means opposition to capitalism and desire for a future free of oppression and exploitation, Lindsay was certainly a communist. No one seems to know exactly when he joined or if he ever left the British Communist Party, but he was actively affiliated with it from the late 1930s until at least the 1970s. MI5 put him under surveillance. He stayed in the party when it demanded he recant his ideas, and again after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s brutality in 1956. There is no doubt about the strength of his allegiance. But was Lindsay a Marxist communist? He certainly called himself one. Cranny-Francis, along with just about everyone else who has written about him, takes it for granted.

Yet there are grounds for wondering about Lindsay’s Marxism. What kind of Marxist converts on account of a Renaissance philosopher? Marxism profoundly shaped his thinking but it was not Lindsay’s foundational postulate. He came to it as a plausible derivation from a more fundamental constellation of ideas about culture and history that he had already arrived at. Some of his creed was shared with Marxism, some was dissonant with it. If, in the manner of a party apparatchik, one were called on to prepare a list of his heresies, it would be an easy brief: he largely discounts or ignores economic forces, flirts with idealism, sees revolutionary potential in “the people” rather than “the working class,” and has a Romantic, even reactionary, understanding of Communist aims.

Late in life, Lindsay began to concede the point. The Crisis in Marxism (1981) is highly critical of most prominent twentieth-century Marxist theorists, particularly Adorno and Althusser. In one of his last essays he declared that he was “diametrically opposed to all closed systems,” including Lenin’s. “I have found all Marxists, orthodox or not, to be hostile.” Among an eclectic list of influences ranging from Keats to Harrison to Dostoyevsky, only two Marxists appear: Lukacs, and Marx himself.

In a sense, of course, debating whether Lindsay was “really” Marxist is as futile as debating whether Mormons are Christian or Alevis Muslim. In another sense, though, it matters. As long as Lindsay is seen as first and foremost a Marxist, his ideas remain submerged beneath the complexity and weight of a hundred and fifty years of Marxist theorising. To perceive what is most original in his thought, it needs to be disentangled from what has become a distracting integument.

Promised a scholarship to Oxford after he graduated from the University of Queensland but told that he would have to wait a year, Lindsay refused to enrol. For most of his life the lack of a higher degree and his oppositional politics would have made it difficult if not impossible to work as an academic. He gave no sign of wanting to. Even his most esoteric books were not aimed primarily at academics, nor did they please many of them. Ironically, today it is chiefly they who keep his memory alive. Anne Cranny-Francis’s book is no exception, but it deserves a broader readership. We need not agree with Lindsay’s controversial opinions to hope that this remarkable thinker will become better known. •

Jack Lindsay: Writer, Romantic, Revolutionary
By Anne Cranny-Francis | Palgrave Macmillan | €119.99 | 416 pages