By Alice 🙂
“Truth, beauty, and goodness are not mysterious, they are the commonest, most obvious, most essential facts of life, like sunlight, air and bread.” –Alasdair Gray, Poor Things
Poor Things (2023), Yorgos Lanthimos’ most recent film has received widespread critical praise, ranging from 5-star reviews in the New York Times, to the highly coveted approval of the Twitter hoard. Audiences have raved about all aspects of the film, from the sumptuous costume design of Holly Waddington, to the stunning performances of Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe. One user from the popular film review app Letterboxd described the film as being like “Barbie for people who listen to Björk”. These accolades have naturally shone a spotlight on the author of the book the film is based on: Alasdair Gray.
Born in 1934, Gray was a Glasgow native, with much of his work being set in and around Glasgow. He was a prolific author, whose tongue-in-cheek style has been characterised as postmodern, and is often found grouped alongside the likes of Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov. Socialism features heavily throughout Poor Things, in keeping with Gray’s lifelong dedication to the Socialist movement. The book itself, originally entitled Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Health Officer, focuses on the life and exploits of Bella Baxter. A Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, Bella reflects quintessentially postmodern ideas, such as a deconstruction of social constructs, a rejection of stable identity, and a search for meaning through moral relativism. Bella’s story begins when her lifeless body gets fished out of the river Clyde by Doctor Godwin Baxter, who then re-animates her using the brain of her unborn baby. As a result, Bella is a child in the body of a grown woman, and is forced to learn about herself and the world very quickly. As she goes on this journey of self-discovery, she gets involved in various antics, engaging in an affair with the sleazy Duncan Wedderburn, becoming a sex-worker in Paris, and, just like every young person in the postmodern era, she becomes increasingly disillusioned with capitalism. Although Gray’s esoteric and deeply comical writing make it a thoroughly enjoyable read, Poor Things is, at its core, a story about humanity and the human condition. Gray invites us to evaluate what it means to be human, and encourages us to look outside ourselves, asking how we can all contribute to the greater good through individual actions.
Similar themes of the human condition proliferate Gray’s art. Alongside his writing, Gray was a constant creator working in a myriad of mediums and scales, including pen and ink illustrations, so integral to his books, and murals, such as those seen in Hillhead subway station or adorning the ceiling of Òran Mór. A screenprint of his work Omnium Gatherum was exhibited at Six Foot Gallery in 2018 in a collaborative show with local artist, Siobhan Healy, entitled Biodiversity. The aim of the project was to shed light on Biodiversity projects in Glasgow, the idea for the exhibition coming to the pair after a day of planting seeds for the planned urban meadow in Pollock Park.
Gray’s Omnium Gatherum conveys much the same message as Poor Things. It depicts what Gray described as “two opposed human attitudes”. The central image portrays an author, striking a pensive pose, alongside a midwife and a freshly-born baby, umbilical cord and all. The text beneath the infant asks, “What am I? How did I get here? Where am I going? What should I do?”, probing questions that echo Bella’s realisation of autonomy towards the end of Poor Things. This central image is flanked by a series of flags, one side representing “the selfish, greedy, and imperial”, and the other “the loving, co-operative, and socialist”.
The work firmly acknowledges, and validates, to an extent, the human inclination towards greed and selfishness, but not without also emphasising our capacity for love and care. Although both sides of human nature are represented, Gray uses the existential questions posed in the central panel to encourage us to pick a side. This implies that if we are to have any chance at self-actualisation, and to fully understand who we are, we must decide where we stand politically, culturally, and morally. Of course, Gray has landed on the side of Socialism, saying in 2018 that “I am sure biodiversity depends on [the Socialist side]”.
Alasdair Gray’s work intends to make us reflect on our humanity, and to consider how our actions can affect the bigger picture. These intentions are still incredibly pertinent today, and have likely contributed to the global success of the film. Behind Gray’s – and Lanthimos’ – frivolity and general absurdity insofar as the presentation of this story, Poor Things asks us to look past that, and evaluate the real questions: What am I? How did I get here? Where am I going? What should I do?
Alice Martin is a volunteer at Six Foot Gallery. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in 2023 with a BA in History of Art. Originally from Liverpool, her work focuses on politicised architecture and the urban environment. Find her on Instagram @_aliceelmartin