Category Archives: Biography

Alarming Portrait of a Ruthlessly Ambitious Crown Prince

 

 

Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

(Tim Dugan Books)

Mohammed Bin Salman, better known by his initials, MBS, is today the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and seems poised to become Saudi King upon the death of his ailing father, 86 year old Salman bin Abdulaziz.  Still youthful at age 36, MBS has achieved what appears to be unchallenged power within the mysterious desert kingdom, the birthplace of Islam and the location of its two most holy sites.   Internationally, MBS is indelibly associated with the gruesome October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a murder he probably ordered, but if not almost certainly enabled.  Even apart from the Khashoggi killing, the Saudi Crown Prince has compiled a record that is awash in contradictions since his ascent to power began in 2015.

MBS seems bent on modernizing and diversifying the oil-dependent Saudi economy. He has taken highly publicized steps against corruption; clipped the wings of the clergy and religious police; and accorded Saudi women the right to drive.  Young Saudis appreciate that MBS is largely responsible for movie theatres opening and rock concerts now taking place in their country.  But MBS’s record is also one of brutal suppression of opponents, potential opponents and dissidents  – brutal even by Saudi standards.  His regime seems to be borrowing from the authoritarian Chinese model of extensive economic modernization, accompanied by limited and tightly controlled social liberalization, all without feigning even nominal interest in political democratization.  Saudi Arabia under MBS remains, like China, one of the world’s least democratic societies.

In MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman, Ben Hubbard, a journalist for The New York Times with extensive experience in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, has produced the first — and to date only — biography of the Saudi Crown Prince available in English.  Any biography of MBS is bound to be incomplete, given the wall of secrecy MBS has built up around himself, shielding much of the detail of what he has done and how he operates within the generally secretive royal Saudi circles.  But somehow Hubbard managed to scale that wall.  Using a wide array of sources, many anonymous, he has pieced together a remarkably easy-to-read yet riveting and alarming portrait of a man who has eliminated all apparent sources of competition.

Today’s Saudi Arabia is in unfamiliar territory, with power concentrated in a single individual, Hubbard demonstrates convincingly.  Everyone of consequence, from rich tycoons to the extensive royal Saudi family itself, answers to MBS.  There is little that Saudi Arabia’s old elites can do to counter the upstart Crown Prince.  The collegial days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided portfolios among themselves, and decisions were made through consensus are little more than memories of a by-gone era.  MBS has “destroyed that system” (p.267), Hubbard bluntly concludes.

* * *

Although MBS studied law at university and finished 4th in his class in 2007, at the time of his graduation there was little reason to expect that he would become anything more than, as Hubbard puts it, a “middling prince who dabbled in business and pitched up abroad now and then for a fancy vacation” (p.15).  Unlike many Saudi princes, the young MBS “never ran a company that made a mark.  He never acquired military experience.  He never studied at a foreign university.  He never mastered, or even became functional, in a foreign language.  He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere in the West” (p.16).

All that changed in January 2015, when his father Salman became Saudi king at age 79.  MBS, 29 years old, was named Minister of Defense and placed in charge of the Royal Court, with a huge role to play in the kingdom’s finances.  Within days, he had reorganized the government, setting up separate supreme councils for economic development and security.  Although little known outside inner Saudi circles at the time, as Minister of Defense MBS was the force behind the Saudi military intervention in neighboring Yemen to suppress an on-going insurgency led by the Houthis, an Islamist group from Northern Yemen whom the Saudis had long considered proxies for Iran.

Touted as a quick and easy military intervention, the conflict in Yemen turned into a stalemate, with humanitarian and refugee crises that continue to this day. The decision to intervene militarily appears to have been that of MBS alone  — a “one man show,” as a Saudi National Guard official told Hubbard, undertaken with no advance consultation, either internally or with the Saudis’ traditional military benefactors in Washington.  The National Guard official told Hubbard that the Saudi intervention was “less about protecting the kingdom than burnishing MBS’ reputation as a tough leader” (p.91).

In April 2017, King Salman appointed MBS’ cousin, the considerably older Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN, as Crown Prince, with MBS named “Deputy Crown Prince,” second in line to the throne.  MBN had been the Saudis’ official voice and face in the war on terror, with deep CIA contacts.  The Americans thought he was the perfect “next generation” king.  But MBS had other ideas.  Although the Deputy Crown Prince remained outwardly deferential to his cousin, he appears to have been plotting MBN’s ouster at least from the time his cousin was appointed Crown Prince.  When the plot succeeded in June 2017, with MBS replacing his cousin as Saudi Crown Prince, the official Saudi version was that the appointment was the decision of King Salman alone.

Hubbard tells an altogether different story.  In his account, MBS in effect kidnapped his cousin to force his abdication.  When MBN refused to abdicate, a council friendly to MBS met to formally “ratify” what was presented as a “decision” of the king to make MBS Crown Prince.  Only then did MBN give in, signing a document of abdication.  He was placed under house arrest by guards loyal to MBS and removed of his counterterrorism and security duties, which were “reassigned” to a new security body that reported to MBS.   His bank accounts were frozen and he was stripped of many of his assets.  In March 2020, MBN was arrested on charges of treason and has not been heard from since, held in a location unknown even to his lawyers.

MBS attracted world attention few months later, in November 2017, when he invited many fellow members of the royal family, along with other movers and shakers within the kingdom, to the posh Ritz-Carleton hotel in Riyadh for what was billed as an anti-corruption conference.  Anxious to meet MBS and obtain insider advantages, the attendees eagerly came to Riyadh, only to be all-but-arrested and forcibly detained when they arrived.  The detentions at what was dubbed the world’s most luxurious prison lasted weeks and sometimes months.  By mid-February 2018, most of the detainees had “settled” with the government and were allowed to leave.  The Ritz detainments were what Hubbard describes as a pivot point in MBS’ ascendancy, an “economic earthquake that shook the pillars of the kingdom’s economy and rattled its major figures” (p.200), all of whom thereafter answered to MBS.

Less noticed internationally was a surprise royal decree stripping the Wahhabi religious police of many of their powers.  Henceforth, they could not arrest, question, or pursue subjects except in cooperation with the regular police. The decree, part of an on-going effort to curtail the authority of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, “defanged the clerics,” Hubbard writes, “clearing the way for vast changes [which] they most certainly would have opposed”  (p.63).  The changes involved some wildly popular measures, especially the opening of commercial cinemas and other entertainment venues, such as concerts and opera.  Equally popular was a decree allowing Saudi women to drive.

For decades, activist Saudi women had challenged, often at considerable cost to themselves, a ban on driving that was only a Wahhabi religious dictate, not codified officially in Saudi law (in 2017, I reviewed here the memoir of Manal Al-Sharif, one such activist).  But when MBS saw fit to declare women eligible to drive in June 2018, he did not give any credit to the activist women. They were never thanked publicly or even acknowledged; some were jailed almost simultaneously with the lifting of the ban.

MBS’ grandiose and upbeat plans for modernizing the Saudi economy by shifting away from its oil-dependency found expression in his Vision 2030 document.  Prepared in collaboration with a phalanx of international consultants, Vision 2030 projected that the kingdom would create new industries, rely on renewable energy, and manufacture its own military equipment, all in an effort to “transform itself into a global investment giant, and establish itself as a hub for Europe, Asia, and Africa” (p.67).  MBS presented his plan when he accompanied his father to a meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, where it was perceived as a slick set of talking points, without much depth.

Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia and MBS all fared better when the administration of Donald Trump replaced the Obama administration in early 2017.  One of the greatest ironies of the Trump era, Hubbard writes, was that Trump, “after demeaning Saudi Arabia and its faith throughout the campaign, would, in the course of a few months, anoint Saudi Arabia a preferred American partner and the lynchpin of his Middle East policy” (p.107).  Saudi-American relations improved in the Trump years in no small part because of the warm if unlikely relationship that MBS struck with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, two young “princelings,” as Hubbard describes them, “an Arab from central Arabia and a Jew from New Jersey”(p.113).

The two princelings were “both in their thirties and scions of wealthy families who had been chosen by older relatives to wield great power.  They both lacked extensive experience in government, and saw little need to be bound by its strictures” (p.113). Their relationship blossomed because Kushner viewed MBS as someone who could help unlock peace between Israel and Arabs, while MBS expected Kushner to push the United States to champion Vision 2030, stand up to Iran, and support him as he sought to consolidate power.  But the Khassoggi killing in October 2018 temporarily flummoxed even the Trump administration.

Khashoggi had served briefly as one of MBS’s confidantes as the Crown Prince began his rise to power.  Their initial meeting led Khashoggi to believe that MBS was open to openness and had given him a “mandate to write about, and even critique, the prince’s reforms” (p.78).  But as Khasshoggi became a more visible critic of the regime from abroad, mostly in the United States where he was a permanent legal resident and wrote for The Washington Post, the relationship deteriorated.  Hubbard was an associate and friend of Khashoggi and dedicates a substantial portion of the last third of his book to the slain journalist and what we know about his killing.

Hubbard presents a plausible argument that MBS may not have actually ordered the killing  — essentially that MBS’s team was carrying out what they thought the boss wanted, without being explicitly ordered to do so.  Even so, MBS had “fostered the environment in which fifteen government agents and a number of Saudi diplomats believed that butchering a nonviolent writer inside a consulate was the appropriate response to some newspaper columns” (p.280).  The Khassoggi’s killing served as a wake up call for the world.  It “flushed away much of the good will and excitement that MBS had spent the last four years generating”  (p.276).

In the aftermath of the killing, President Trump issued a statement in which he insisted that United States security alliances and massive Saudi purchases of US weaponry were more important than holding top Saudi leadership accountable.  “We do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good,” Trump was quoted as saying.   After publication of Hubbard’s book, a new administration led by Joe Biden arrived in Washington amidst hopes that the United States would recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of the known facts about the Khassoggi killing.

* * *

Those hopes increased in February of this year when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a two-page summation of its investigation into the killing (the Trump administration had withheld the full report for nearly two years).  The ODNI concluded that MBS had “approved” the Khashoggi killing.  But its  conclusion was derived inferentially rather than from any “smoking gun” evidence it chose to reveal publicly.

The ODNI based its conclusion on MBS’ “control of decision-making in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.” Given MBS’s “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations,” the ODNI found it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

To the disappointment of human rights activists, the Biden administration nonetheless determined that it would impose no direct punishment on MBS.  Sanctioning MBS, according to an anonymous senior official quoted in The Washington Post, would have been viewed in the kingdom as an “enormous insult,” making an ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia “extremely difficult, if not impossible.”  After having looked at the MBS case extremely closely over the course of about five weeks, the senior official said that the Biden foreign policy team had reached the “unanimous conclusion” that there was “another more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward.”  As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated at a public press conference, sounding eerily like former President Trump, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is “bigger than any one individual.”

The Biden administration did identify 76 other Saudi officials subject to sanctions for their presumed roles in the killing.  President Biden also announced the end of US military supplies and intelligence sharing for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. He has moreover refused to speak directly with MBS, restricting his contact to his father, King Salman.  For the time being, MBS’ Washington contacts as the Saudi defense minister stop at the level of the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin.

* * *

These protocol decisions will have to be revisited if, as expected, MBS becomes king when his ailing father dies.  One way or another, the United States will need to find a way to deal with a man likely to be a consequential figure on the world stage for decades to come.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 31, 2021

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, Politics

Deciphering Buber’s Judaism

 

 

Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber:

A Life of Faith and Dissent

(Yale University Press)

From the late 1890s through the mid-1960s, Martin Buber seemed to be in the middle of every public debate over what it meant to be Jewish and how one could be a good Jew in the modern world.  Although he resisted being labeled either a “theologian” or a “philosopher of religion,” Buber fashioned his own idiosyncratic version of Judaism, a version that rejected most traditional Jewish ritual.  He rarely observed Yom Kippur, and in general disdained the liturgical practices associated with the Jewish faith.  Buber rather spent his adult life searching for what he termed the “primal spirituality” of Judaism, all the while encouraging Jews to embrace people of other faiths.  Buber’s version of Judaism, sometimes referred to as “Jewish humanism,” sometimes more lightheartedly as “religious anarchism,” seemed to some of his critics geared to appeal more to Christians than to his fellow Jews.

I first encountered Buber in an undergraduate comparative religion course, where we were assigned his best-known work, “I-Thou,” generally thought to be the foundational text for what has come to be known as Buber’s “philosophy of dialogue.”  I remember thinking I was in way over my head in trying to decipher what seemed like a deeply serious but altogether inscrutable work.  Now, several decades later, Paul Mendes-Flohr, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has provided me with another chance to get a handle on Buber.  In his recent biography, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, Mendes-Flohr charts Buber’s multifaceted intellectual journey, emphasizing how Buber’s thinking and writing evolved over the years.

Buber, a quintessential product of what the Germans call Mitteleuropa and its vibrant late 19th century Jewish culture, was born in Vienna in 1878.  He spent most of his youth in the city then known as Lemberg (today Lviv, part of Ukraine), at the time the capital of Galicia, a province within the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a substantial Polish-speaking population.  But it was in Germany where Buber made his professional mark.

Buber lived through Germany’s defeat in World War I and its post-war experiment in democracy, the Weimar Republic.  He survived the early years of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime after it assumed power in Germany in 1933.   Although required as a Jew to cede a university position, Buber continued to write and speak in Germany as a highly visible spokesman for Judaism until 1938, when he fled with his family for Jerusalem, in what was then termed Palestine.  Jerusalem was his home base for the remainder of his life, but he traveled extensively in the post-World War II era, including numerous trips to the United States, up to his death in 1965.  What was arguably the single most consequential event in Buber’s long life occurred in Vienna at age three.

* * *

Buber’s parents separated and his mother eloped with a Russian military officer when he was three years old.  The young Buber witnessed his mother leaving, but she did not bid him farewell and he did not see her again.  Buber never recovered entirely from this early childhood trauma. Images of motherhood appeared in his writings and speeches throughout his adult life, indicating that he was still feeling the “enduring impact” of yearning to be reunited with his “inaccessibly remote mother” (p.3), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.  After his parents’ breakup, young Martin moved to Lemberg, where he lived with his grandparents until his teenage years.

Solomon Buber, Martin’s grandfather, was a successful businessman who was also a recognized Jewish scholar and interpreter of Jewish texts. Solomon taught his grandson Hebrew and the panoply of rules and customs required in an observant Jewish household.  Buber’s subsequent rejection of much of formalized Judaism probably had its roots in a rebellion against his grandfather’s pedagogy.  At age 14, Buber moved back with his father, who by then had remarried and moved to Lemberg.  While the young Buber as an adolescent and young adult remained largely estranged from his grandfather, the two reconciled prior to Solomon’s death in 1906.

Although the emotional scars left from his mother’s early departure never left him, while a university student in Zurich in 1899 Buber fortuitously found the woman who would always be there for him, fellow student Paula Winkler.  One of the few women in the university, Winkler was from a Catholic family and considerably taller than the diminutive Buber.  Their romantic attachment quickly produced two daughters, born in July 1900 and July 1901.  Buber did not inform his father or grandparents of Paula or his daughters until after the couple married in April 1907 and Paula had converted to Judaism.  By then, grandfather Solomon had died.

Despite its unconventional beginnings, Buber’s marriage to Paula endured until her death in 1958, at age 81.  Throughout their years together, Paula served as her husband’s confidante, editor and general sounding board for much of the thinking that he put to paper or delivered to audiences, while doing much writing on her own.   Buber found in Paula, Mendes-Flohr writes, “not only the mother figure he longed for, but also a soul mate; they were bonded by both romantic love and their enduring intellectual and spiritual compatibility” (p.13-14).

When Buber first met Paula, he was already active in Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.  His attraction to Zionism was due in no small part to his relationship with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), often considered the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Buber initially saw Zionism as a way to maintain solidarity with his fellow Jews even as he rejected most communal Jewish religious practices.  The young Buber was fascinated with the idea of a Jewish renaissance and saw in Zionism a means to revitalize the spiritual and cultural life of the Jewish people.   Zionism provided Buber and many young Jews of his generation with a “revolutionary, secular alternative for maintaining a Jewish national consciousness and solidarity” (p.22).

But Buber and Herzl had a personal falling out, and by 1905 Buber had ceased to be involved in Zionist activities.   He signed onto a letter that denounced the conventional Zionist vision of a future Jewish state arising in the ancient homeland as “aping Euro-Christian culture” while “utterly bereft of Jewish content” (p.38). For Buber, the movement had come to be based on what he termed the “bonds of blood alone” (p.88). Yet he still saw in Zionism a potential to “reintroduce contemporary Jews to the ‘Jewish spirit’” and to Judaism’s “spiritual and cultural resources” (p.32), becoming what Mendes-Flohr terms a “cultural” rather than  “political” Zionist.

The German experience in World War I further shaped Buber’s approach to Zionism. Like many Jews of his generation, Buber saw no conflict between his allegiance to Judaism and his allegiance to Germany.  That young Jews were joining the war ranks on equal terms with other Germans was initially a positive feature of the war effort for Buber, presenting an opportunity to bring about a higher degree of national unity.  But as the conflict endured, Buber came to oppose not only the war itself, but all forms of chauvinistic nationalism.

These views crystallized when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which it asserted its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.  Buber’s opposition to the Declaration placed him at odds even with fellow cultural Zionists. If a Jewish state were to materialize in Palestine, he contended, it should be “for humankind . . . for the realization of Judaism” (p.115-16).  For the remainder of his life, Buber continued to criticize Zionism –and the State of Israel when it came into existence in 1948 — for what he  considered its “self-enclosed, parochial nationalism” (p.199).

Buber’s festering doubts over the Zionist project prompted him in 1919 to begin work on a manuscript that aimed to establish what he termed the “general foundations of a philosophical (communal and religio-philosophical) system to which I intend to devote the next several years” (p.131).  He was alluding to I and Thou (Ich-Du in the original German), the work with which Buber would be identified for the rest of his life and thereafter, first appearing in 1923 but not translated and published in English until 1937.

 I and Thou probed the ramifications of the German word Begegnung, meeting, which for Buber meant, in Mendes-Flohr’a words, an “interpersonal encounter between individuals that occurs in an atmosphere of mutual trust” (p.3).  Buber himself once wrote that “[a]ll real life is meeting” (p.3).  His call to engage the world in dialogue, our life with others, “also recognized the painful truth of how difficult it is to achieve, how often life’s journey is filled with mismeetings and the failure of I-Thou encounters to take place” (p.3-4).

Buber’s notion of “I-Thou” and his “philosophy of dialogue” can be understood only in relationship to “I-It,” the opposite of “I-Thou.”  These are Buber’s “two fundamental and dichotomous modes of relating to the world” (p.141), Mendes-Flohr explains..  The human person “achieves the fullness of being by experiencing both modes of existence” (p.262-63).  I-It entails the “physical, historical, and sociological factors that structure objective reality,” in other words the “labyrinthine world we often call ‘reality’” (p.262-63).  To attain the fullness of life, our relationships with other human beings cannot be based on an object — It — but on Thou, as an “automatous subject with a distinctive inner reality” (p.263), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.

As if to show the I-Thou principle in action, much of Mendes-Flohr’s narrative involves Buber’s exchanges with thinkers, colleagues and friends over the course of his long life, among them such luminaries as early Zionist visionary Herzl, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and David Ben-Gurion, modern Israel’s founding father who served as its first prime minister.  But his most influential exchanges were with two men whom he also considered  friends, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929).  Landauer led Buber away from Judaism and into mysticism, while Rosenzweig took Buber out of mysticism and helped him reach what Mendes-Flohr considers his most mature understanding of the Jewish faith.

A leading early 20th century German anarchist, Landauer knew Buber from 1900 onward, although their friendship deepened as World War I broke out.  Landauer, who had by then withdrawn entirely from formal Judaism, helped steer Buber away from the nationalist sentiments he had entertained at the outbreak of the war.  Landauer imparted to Buber his interest in Christian mysticism and Buddhism, aiding Buber’s search for the “essential spiritual unity of all beings” (p.53).  Landauer was active in Kurt Eisner’s revolutionary coup d’etat in Bavaria in 1919 and was murdered by counter-revolutionaries in that conflict.   Buber was “deeply shaken by the tragic death of his friend; he viewed Landauer as a martyred idealist, a gentle anarchist who had sacrificed his life in a doomed effort to herald an era of politics without violence” (p.127).  Landauer was, in Mendes-Fllohr’s view, Buber’s ”intellectual and political alter ego” (p.51; he was also the paternal grandfather of American film-director Mike Nichols, born several years after his death).

Rosenzweig, eight years Buber’s junior, was already making his mark as an iconoclastic German philosopher when he first met Buber in Berlin in 1914.  Their friendship blossomed after 1920, not coincidentally after Landauer’s death (Rosenzweig had by then famously backed out at the last minute of a conversion to Christianity, discussed in Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind, reviewed here in 2017).  Mendes-Flohr credits Rosenzweig with helping Buber get past his infatuation with mysticism.  The pair undertook to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, a project that was both lingual and theological.  Their task was complicated when Rosenzweig contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known to Americans as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), which killed him in 1929.  Buber’s friendship with Rosenzweig led to what Mendes-Flohr considers the maturation of Buber’s understanding of Judaism, in which genuine spiritual renewal lies neither in “culture” nor “religion” but rather in the “lived everyday” (p.164).  The sensibility we sometimes call “faith,” Buber wrote, “cannot be constituted by the inwardness of one’s soul: it must manifest itself in the entire fullness of personal and communal life, in which the individual participates.” (p.209).

Buber also met several times after World War II with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  Although one of Germany’s most original and complex 20th century philosophers, Heidegger’s professional reputation was permanently tainted by his affinity for Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1930s.  Buber was aware that Heidegger had supported the Nazi regime and studiously avoided the “difficult questions attendant to Heidegger’s Nazi past” (p.281).  Heidegger for his part eagerly engaged with Buber, motivated by his desire to receive at least an implicit exculpation for his Nazi past.  Buber’s meetings with Heidegger tested his vision of reconciliation, “undoubtedly shaped by a Jewish theological sensibility that there can be no divine pardon for offenses against others until one has turned to one’s fellow human beings whom one has offended, and not only asked their forgiveness, but also adequately repented for the wrongs done to them” (p.286).

The Heidegger meetings failed to rise to the level of what Buber considered genuine dialogue, making reconciliation unattainable.  Buber and Heidegger entertained “divergent horizons of expectations” that reflected “very different conceptions of grace and atonement,” (p.285).  In a subsequent lecture, delivered in 1960, Buber argued that through his uncritical embrace of Nazism, Heidegger had neglected the interpersonal responsibility of one individual to the other, “even to a stranger who bears no name, allowing for the excessive celebration of ‘superpersonal’ social and political institutions in our ‘disintegrating human world’” (p.290; Heidegger’s post-World War II attempts at reconciliation with his former girl friend Hannah Arendt are analyzed in a work by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed here in 2013),.

In 1938, when he was 60 years old, Buber and his family immigrated to Palestine, where he began a professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Although Jerusalem was  Buber’s home until his death in 1965, he was never fully at ease there.  His appointment at the Hebrew University was in “Philosophy of Society,” in which he was to draw upon the “principles and methods” of sociology.   With no formal training in sociology, Buber used his university position to stress sociology’s ethical dimensions, very much at odds with its general character as a value-free discipline.

When the State of Israel was created ten years later, in May 1948, a civil war broke out between Arab and Jews, leaving Buber aghast.  With his World War I era objections to the Balfour Declaration and political Zionism resurfacing, Buber wrote that when he had first joined the Zionist movement 50 years previously:

[M]y heart was whole. Today it is torn. The war being waged for a political structure might become a war of national survival at any moment. Thus against my will I participate in it with my own being, and my heart trembles like any other Israeli.  I cannot, however, even be joyful in anticipating victory, for I fear that the significance of Jewish victory will be the downfall of Zionism (p.250).

Buber words were directed at least in part to Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), with whom he had developed an odd friendship.  The pair disagreed upon almost every issue that Israel faced in its early days, starting with the fate of displaced Arabs, yet they were bound to one another by a deep reservoir mutual respect.  Buber lobbied Ben-Gurion in 1961 to spare the life of Adolph Eichmann after his capture in Argentina and trial in Jerusalem, to no avail (Deborah Lipstadt’s account of the Eichmann trial was the subject of a review here in 2013).

Buber subjected himself to searing criticism in Israel in 1951 when he accepted, in abstentia, the Goethe Prize from the University of Hamburg for his “promotion of supranational thinking and humanitarian endeavors in the spirit of Goethe” (p.270).  Many in Israel considered Buber’s acceptance of the prize as exonerating Germany for its extermination of six million Jews, contending that he should have ostentatiously refused the prize.  Buber responded that by rejecting the prize, he would “undercut the commendable efforts of those Germans ‘fighting for humanism’ and thereby play into the hands of their enemies, even to those guilty of mass murder” (p.271-72).  As a Jew and an Israeli citizen, Buber considered it his duty to “acknowledge (and thus encourage) the German advocates of a rededication to the humanistic tradition associated with Goethe” (p.272).

Then, in 1953, Buber came under further fire when he accepted a prize and gave a lecture in what had once been St. Paul’s church in Frankfurt, destroyed in the war and the city’s first public building to be rebuilt afterwards.   The building had not been used for religious purposes since 1848, a fact that was “ignored by or unknown to some of Buber’s Israeli critics, who excoriated him for speaking in a church” (p.276).  In his lecture, which was attended by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Huess, Buber acknowledged the vast pain and immeasurable suffering which the Nazi regime had inflicted upon his people.  Yet, he recognized that not all Germans had acquiesced in the Nazi horrors.  Some had resisted, others had assisted and protected endangered Jews. “Reverence and love for these Germans now fills my heart” (p.278), Buber told the audience.

Buber’s wife Paula, who never felt accepted in Jerusalem as a Jew despite her conversion, died unexpectedly in 1958 in Venice, where the couple had stopped en route back to Jerusalem after a tour in the United States that had included a stint for Buber at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.  Paula was buried in the 13th century Jewish cemetery on the Lido.   Buber had a  difficult time resuming his work in the aftermath of his wife’s death.  In his twilight years, he “increasingly cherished friendships and visits, particularly by youth from abroad and Israel” (p.304).  On the occasion of his 85th birthday in 1963, Buber indicated to well wishers that he wanted to be remembered as a “naturally studying person,” someone  for whom “learning and study are an expression of human freedom” (p.320).  Two years later, at age 87, Buber died in his sleep in his Jerusalem home.

* * *

Throughout his long career, Martin Buber’s idiosyncratic version of Judaism sought to sharpen the spiritual sensibilities of his fellow Jews while urging their expanded commitment to the larger family of humankind.  But with his  complex and often portentous thinking, Buber’s writings and lectures were never easy to grasp.  Paul Mendes-Flohr is therefore to be lauded for ably distilling Buber’s thought in this penetrating biography, a work that should appeal even to readers not schooled in Jewish history and culture.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 20, 2020

 

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, Intellectual History, Religion

Misjudgments and Misdeeds of an Unseen Power Broker

Jefferson Morley, The Ghost:

The Secret Life of  CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton

(St. Martin’s)

James Jesus Angleton served as the Central Intelligence Agency’s head of counterintelligence — its top spy and effectively the number three person in the agency — from 1954 until he was forced into retirement in 1975.  Although his name is a less familiar than that of the FBI’s original director, J. Edgar Hoover, I couldn’t help thinking of Hoover as I read Jefferson Morley’s trenchant biography, The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton.  Both were immensely powerful, paranoid men who repeatedly broke or skirted the law to advance their often-idiosyncratic versions of what United States national security required.  Throughout their careers, both were able to avoid almost all attempts to hold them accountable for their misdeeds.  With the passage of four decades since Hoover’s death in 1972 and Angleton’s departure from the CIA three years later, we can see that the two men seem  embodied what has recently come to be known as the “Deep State,” a nearly independent branch of government in which officials secretly manipulate government policy, as Morley puts it, “largely beyond the view of the Madisonian government and the voting public” (p.xi).

Morley demonstrates that the notorious COINTELPRO operation, associated today with Hoover and arguably his most dubious legacy, actually began as a joint FBI-CIA undertaking that Angleton concocted.  COINTELPRO aimed to infiltrate and disrupt dissidents and included among its targets Dr. Martin Luther King, left leaning organizations, and Vietnam anti-war protestors.  The original idea that Angleton sold to a skeptical Hoover, who considered the CIA a “nest of liberals, atheists, homosexuals, professors, and otherwise feminized men who specialized in wasting the taxpayer dollar” (p.71), was that the Bureau would target subjects within the United States while the Agency would take the lead in targeting subjects outside the United States.

From there, the CIA and FBI collaborated on LINGUAL, an elaborate and extensive program to read American citizens’ mail, which Morley terms perhaps Angleton’s “most flagrant violation of the law” (p.82); and on CHAOS, an operation designed to infiltrate the entire anti-Vietnam war movement, not just people or organizations that engaged in violence or contacted foreign governments. Post-Watergate hearings brought the existence and extent of COINTELPRO, LINGUAL and CHAOS  to light, along with numerous other chilling exercises of authority attributed to the FBI and CIA, leading to Angleton’s involuntary retirement from the agency.

Morley, a freelance journalist and former Washington Post editor, does not make the Hoover comparison explicitly.  He sees in Angleton a streak of Iago, Othello’s untrustworthy advisor: outwardly a “sympathetic counselor with his own agenda, which sometimes verged on the sinister” (p.158).  Angleton served four American presidents with “seeming loyalty and sometimes devious intent” (p.159), he writes (of course, the same could be said of Hoover, who served eight presidents over the course of a career that began in the 1920s).

Writing in icy prose that pieces together short, punchy vignettes with one word titles, Morley undertakes to show how Angleton was able to elevate himself from a “staff functionary” at the CIA, a new agency created in 1947, to an “untouchable mandarin” who had an “all but transcendent influence on U.S. intelligence operations for two decades” (p.67).  At the height of the Cold War, Morley writes, Angleton became an “unseen broker of American power” (p.158).

But Morley’s biography might better be viewed as a compendium of the misjudgments and misdeeds that punctuated Angleton’s career from beginning to end.  Angleton’s judgment failed him repeatedly, most notoriously when his close friend and associate, British intelligence agent Kim Philby, was revealed to have been a Soviet spy from World War II onward (I reviewed Ben McIntyre’s biography of Philby here in 2016). The Philby revelation convinced Angleton that the KGB had also planted an agent within the CIA, precipitating a disastrous and abysmally unsuccessful “mole hunt” that paralyzed the CIA for years and damaged the careers of many innocent fellow employees, yet discovered no one.

The book’s most explosive conjuncture of questionable judgment and conduct involves Angleton’s relationship to Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s presumed assassin.  Angleton followed Oswald closely from 1959, when he defected to the Soviet Union, to that fateful day in Dallas in 1963.  Thereafter, Angleton tenaciously withheld his knowledge of Oswald from the Warren Commission, charged with investigating the circumstances of the Kennedy assassination, to the point where Morley suggests that Angleton should have been indicted for obstruction of justice.  The full extent of Angleton’s knowledge of Oswald has yet to come out, leaving his work laden with fodder for those of a conspiratorial bent who insist that Oswald was something other than a lone gunman, acting alone, as the Warren Commission found (in 2015, I reviewed Peter Savodnik’s biography of Oswald here, in which Savodnik argues forcefully for the lone gunman view of Oswald).

* * *

Born in 1917 in Boise, Idaho, Angleton was the son of a prosperous merchant father and a Mexican-American mother (hence the middle name “Jesus”).  At age 16, the young Angleton moved with his family to Milan, where his father ran the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce and was friendly with many leaders in the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.  For the remainder of his life, James retained a fondness for Italy, Italian culture and, it could be argued, the Italian brand of fascism.

Angleton attended boarding school in England, then went on to Yale as an undergraduate.  At Yale, he demonstrated a keen interest in poetry and came under the influence of the poet Erza Pound, who later became notorious for his Nazi sympathies (after an investigation led by J. Edgar Hoover, Pound was jailed during World War II).  Poetry constituted a powerful method for Angleton, Morley writes.  He would come to value “coded language, textual analysis, ambiguity, and close control as the means to illuminate the amoral arts of spying that became his job.  Literary criticism led him to the profession of secret intelligence.  Poetry gave birth to a spy” (p.8).

During World War II, Angleton found his way to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor agency.  He spent the later portion of the war years in Rome, where he developed a friendship with Junio Valerio Borghese, “perhaps the most famous fascist military commander in Italy” (p.21).  Angleton helped Borghese avoid execution at the hands of the same partisan forces that captured and executed Mussolini in 1945.  Thanks to Angleton’s efforts, Borghese “survived to become titular and spiritual leader of postwar Italian fascism” (p.27), and one of the United States’ key partners in preventing a Communist takeover of postwar Italy.

Angleton prepared for his assignment in Rome at Bletchley Park in England, the center of Allied code-breaking operations during World War II.  There, Angleton learned the craft of counter-intelligence under the tutelage of Kim Philby, who taught the young American “how to run double agent operations, to intercept wireless and mail messages, and to feed false information to the enemy.  Angleton would prove to be his most trusting friend” (p.18).  After the war, Philby and Angleton both found themselves in Washington, where they became inseparable buddies, the “closest of friends, soul mates in espionage” (p.41).  Each saw in the other the qualities needed to succeed in espionage: ruthlessness, calculation, autonomy, and cleverness.

The news of Philby’s 1963 defection to Moscow iwas “almost incomprehensible” (p.123) to Angleton.  What he had considered a deep and warm relationship had been a sham.  Philby was “his friend, his mentor, his confidant, his boozy buddy,” Morley writes.  And “through every meeting, conference, debriefing, confidential aside, and cocktail party, his friend had played him for a fool” (p.124).  Philby’s defection does not appear to have damaged Angleton’s position within the CIA, but it set him off on a disastrous hunt for a KGB “mole” that would paralyze and divide the agency for years.

Angleton’s mole hunt hardened into a “fixed idea, which fueled an ideological crusade that more than a few of his colleagues denounced as a witch hunt” (p.86).  Angleton’s operation  was multi-faceted,  “consisting of dozens of different mole hunts – some targeting individuals, others focused on components within the CIA (p.135).  Angleton’s suspicions “effectively stunted or ended the career of colleagues who were guilty of nothing” (p.198).  To this day, after the opening of significant portions of KGB archives in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no indication it ever had a mole burrowed into the CIA.  Angleton’s mole hunt, Morley concludes, “soaked in alcohol” and permeated by “convoluted certitudes,” brought Angleton to the “brink of being a fool” (p.126).

Just as Angleton never gave up his (witch) hunt for the KGB spy within the CIA, he became convinced that Harold Wilson, British Labor politician and for a while Prime Minister, was a Soviet Spy, and never relinquished this odd view either.  And he argued almost until the day he departed from the CIA that the diplomatic sparring and occasional direct confrontation between the Soviet Union and China was an elaborate exercise in disinformation to deceive the West.

While head of counterintelligence at the CIA, Angleton served simultaneously as the agency’s desk officer for Israel, the direct link between Israeli and American intelligence services.  Angleton was initially wary of the Israeli state that came into existence in 1948, in part the residue of the anti-Semitism he had entertained in his youth, in part the product of his view that too many Jews were communists. By the mid-1950s, however, Angleton had overcome his initial reticence to become an admirer of Israel and especially Mossad, its primary intelligence service.

But Angleton’s judgment in his relationship with Israel frequently failed him just as it failed him in his relationship with Philby.  He did not foresee Israel’s role in the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Suez (the subject of Ike’s Gamble, reviewed here in 2017), infuriating President Eisenhower.  After winning President Johnson’s favor for calling the Israeli first strike that ignited the June 1967 Six Day War (“accurate almost down to the day and time,” p.181), he incurred the wrath of President Nixon for missing Egypt’s strike at Israel in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were of the view that Angleton had grown too close to Israel.

Angleton, moreover, was almost certainly involved behind the scenes in a 1968 Israeli heist of uranium enriched nuclear fuel to build its own nuclear reactor, lifted from a Pennsylvania power plant known as NUMEC.  A CIA analyst later concluded that NUMEC had been a “front company deployed in an Israeli-American criminal conspiracy to evade U.S.. nonproliferation laws and supply the Israeli nuclear arsenal” (p.261-62).  Angleton’s loyalty to Israel “betrayed U.S. policy on an epic scale” (p.261), Morley writes.

* * *

Morley’s treatment of Angleton’s relationship to to Lee Harvey Oswald and Fidel Castro’s Cuba raises more questions that it answers.  The CIA learned of Oswald’s attempt to defect to the Soviet Union in November 1959, and began monitoring him at that point.  In this same timeframe, the CIA and FBI began jointly monitoring a pro-Castro group, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which would later attract Oswald. Although Angleton was a contemporary and occasional friend of John Kennedy (the two were born the same year), when Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, Angleton’s view was that American policy toward Fidel Castro needed to be more aggressive. He viewed Cuba as still another Soviet satellite state, but one just 90 miles from United States shores.

The Kennedy administration’s Cuba policy got off to a miserable start with the infamous failure of the April 1961 Bay of Pigs operation to dislodge Castro.  Kennedy was furious with the way the CIA and the military had presented the options to him and fired CIA Director Allen Dulles in the operation’s aftermath (Dulles’ demise is one of the subjects of Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, reviewed here in 2014). But elements within the CIA and the military held Kennedy responsible for the failure by refusing to order air support for the operation (Kennedy had been assured prior to the invasion that no additional military assistance would be necessary).

CIA and military distrust for Kennedy heightened after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in what threatened to be a nuclear confrontation over the placement of offensive Soviet missiles on the renegade island.  Although Kennedy’s handling of that crisis was widely acclaimed as his finest moment as president, many within the military and the CIA, Angleton included, thought that Kennedy’s pledge to Soviet Premier Khrushchev of no invasion of Cuba in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of missiles had given Castro and his Soviet allies too much.  Taking the invasion option off the table amounted in Angleton’s view to a cave in to Soviet aggression and a betrayal of the anti-Castro Cuban community in the United States.

In the 13 months that remained of the Kennedy presidency, the administration continued to obsess over Cuba, with a variety of operations under consideration to dislodge Castro.  The CIA was also  monitoring Soviet defector Oswald, who by this time had returned to the United States.  Angleton placed Oswald’s’ name on the LINGUAL list to track his mail.  By the fall of 1963, Oswald had become active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, passing out FPCC leaflets in New Orleans.  He was briefly arrested for disturbing the peace after an altercation with anti-Castro activists.  In October of that year, a mere one month before the Kennedy assassination, the FBI and CIA received notice that Oswald had been in touch with the Soviet and Cuban embassies and consular sections in Mexico City.  Angleton followed Oswald’s Mexico City visits intensely, yet withheld for the rest of his life precisely what he knew about them .

From the moment Kennedy was assassinated, Angleton “always sought to give the impression that he knew very little about Oswald before November 22, 1963” (p.140).  But Angleton and his staff, Morley observes, had “monitored Oswald’s movements for four years. As the former marine moved from Moscow to Minsk to Fort Worth to New Orleans to Mexico City to Dallas,” the special group Angleton created to track defectors “received reports on him everywhere he went” (p.140-41).  Angleton clearly knew that Oswald was in Dallas in November 1963.   He hid his knowledge of Oswald from the Warren Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the Kennedy assassination. What was Angleton’s motivation for obfuscation?

The most plausible – and most innocent – explanation is that Angleton was protecting his own rear end in an “epic counterintelligence failure” that had “culminated on Angleton’s watch. It was bigger than the Philby affair and bloodier” (p.140).  Given this disastrous counterintelligence failure, Morley argues, Angleton “could have – and should have – lost his job after November 22 [1963].  Had the public, the Congress, and the Warren Commission known of his pre-assassination interest in Oswald or his post-assassination cover-up, he surely would have” (p.157).

But the range of possibilities Morley considers extends to speculation that Angleton may have been hiding his own involvement in a Deep State operation to assassinate the president.   Was Angleton running Oswald as an agent in an assassination plot, Morley asks:

He certainly had the knowledge and ability to do so.  Angleton and his staff had a granular knowledge of Oswald long before Kennedy was killed.  Angleton had a penchant for running operations outside of reporting channels. He articulated a vigilant anti-communism that depicted the results of JFK’s liberal policies in apocalyptic terms. He participated in discussions of political assassination. And he worked in a penumbra of cunning that excluded few possibilities (p.265).

Whether Angleton manipulated Oswald as part of an assassination plot is a question Morley is not prepared to answer.  But in Morley’s view, Angleton plainly “obstructed justice to hide interest in Oswald.   He lied to veil his use of the ex-defector in later 1963 for intelligence purposes related to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City. . . Whoever killed JFK, Angleton protected them. He masterminded the JFK conspiracy and cover up” (p.265).   To this day, no consensus exists as to why Angleton dodged all questions concerning his undisputed control over the CIA’s file on Oswald for four years, up to Oswald’s death in November 1963.  Angleton’s relationship to Oswald remains “shrouded in deception and perjury, theories and disinformation, lies and legends” (p.87), Morley concludes.  Even though a fuller story began to emerge when Congress ordered the declassification of long-secret JFK assassination records in the 1990s,” the full story has “yet to be disclosed” (p.87).

* * *

The burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 proved to be Angleton’s professional undoing, just as it was for President Richard Nixon.  The burglary involved three ex-CIA employees, all likely well known to Angleton.   In 1973, in the middle of multiple Watergate investigations, Nixon appointed William Colby as agency director, a man determined to get to the bottom of what was flowing into the public record about the CIA and its possible involvement in Watergate-related activity.

Colby concluded that Angleton’s never-ending mole hunts were “seriously damaging the recruiting of Soviet officers and hurting CIA’s intelligence intake” (p.225).  Colby suspended LINGUAL, finding the mail opening operation “legally questionable and operationally trivial,” having produced little “beyond vague generalities” (p.225). At the same time, New York Times investigative reporter Seymour Hersh published a story that described in great detail Operation CHAOS, the agency’s program aimed at anti-Vietnam activists, attributing ultimate responsibility to Angleton.  Immediately after Christmas 1974. Colby moved  to replace Angleton.

For the first and only time in his career, Angleton’s covert empire within the CIA stood exposed and he left the agency in 1975.  When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, his Department of Justice elected not to prosecute Angleton, although Morley argues that it had ample basis to do so.  In retirement, Angleton expounded his views to “any and all who cared to listen” (p.256).  He took to running reporters “like he had once run agents in the field, and for the same purpose: to advance his geopolitical vision” (p.266).

* * *

Angleton, a life-long smoker (as well as heavy drinker) was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986 and died in May 1987.  He was, Morley concludes “fortunate that so much of his legacy was unknown or classified at the time of his death..”  Angleton not only “often acted outside the law and the Constitution,” but also, for the most part, “got away with it” (p.271).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 10, 2020

 

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, United States History

A Defense of Truth

 

Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth:

The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 

                           George Orwell’s name, like that of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, has given rise to an adjective.  “Orwellian” connotes official deception, secret surveillance, misleading terminology, and the manipulation of history.   Several terms used in Orwell’s best known novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, have entered into common usage, including “doublethink,” “thought crime,” “newspeak,” “memory hole,” and “Big Brother.”  First published in June 1949, a little over a half year prior to Orwell’s death in January 1950, Nineteen Eighty Four is consistently described as a “dystopian” novel – a genre of fiction which, according to Merriam-Webster, pictures “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.”

This definition fits neatly the world that Orwell depicted in Nineteen Eighty Four, a world divided between three inter-continental super states perpetually at war, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, with Britain reduced to a province of Oceania bearing the sardonic name “Airstrip One.”  Airstrip One is ruled by The Party under the ideology Insoc, a shortening of “English socialism.”  The Party’s leader, Big Brother, is the object of an intense cult of personality — even though there is no hard proof he actually exists.  Surveillance through two-way telescreens and propaganda are omnipresent.  The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a diligent lower-level Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical records to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history.  Smith enters into a forbidden relationship with his co-worker, Julia, a relationship that terminates in mutual betrayal.

In his intriguing study, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, British journalist and music critic Dorian Lynskey seeks to explain what Nineteen Eighty-Four “actually is, how it came to be written, and how it has shaped the world, in its author’s absence, over the past seventy years” (p.xiv). Although there are biographies of Orwell and academic studies of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s intellectual context, Lynskey contends that his is the first to “merge the two streams into one narrative, while also exploring the book’s afterlife” (p.xv; I reviewed Thomas Ricks’ book on Orwell and Winston Churchill here in November 2017).   Lynskey’s work is organized in a “Before/After” format.  Part One, about 2/3 of the book, looks at the works and thinkers who influenced Orwell and his novel, juxtaposed with basic Orwell biographical background.  Part II, roughly the last third, examines the novel’s afterlife.

But Lynskey begins in a surprising place, Washington, D.C., in January 2017, where a spokesman for President Donald Trump told the White House press corps that the recently-elected president had taken his oath of office before the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.”  A presidential adviser subsequently justified this “preposterous lie” by characterizing the statement as “alternative facts” (p.xiii).   Sales of Orwell’s book shot up immediately thereafter.  The incident constitutes a reminder, Lynskey contends, of the “painful lessons that the world appears to have unlearned since Orwell’s lifetime, especially those concerning the fragility of truth in the face of power” (p.xix).

How Orwell came to see the consequences of mutilating truth and gave them expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the focus of Part I.  Orwell’s brief participation in the Spanish Civil War, from December 1936 through mid-1937, was paramount among his personal experiences in shaping the novel’s worldview. Spain was the “great rupture in his life; his zero hour” (p.4), the experience that lead Orwell to the conclusion that Soviet communism was as antithetical as fascism and Nazism to the values he held dear (Lynskey’s list of Orwell’s values: “honesty, decency, fairness, memory, history, clarity, privacy, common sense, sanity, England, and love” (p.xv)).  While no single work provided an intellectual foundation for Nineteen Eighty Four in the way that the Spanish Civil War provided the personal and practical foundation, Lynskey discusses numerous writers whose works contributed to the worldview on display in Orwell’s novel.

Lynskey dives deeply into the novels and writings of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamytin.  Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler set out what Lynskey terms the “mental landscape” for Nineteen Eighty-Four in his 1940 classic Darkness at Noon, while the American conservative James Burnham provided the novel’s “geo-political superstructure” (p.126).  Lynskey discusses a host of other writers whose works in one way or another contributed to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s world view, among them Jack London, Aldous Huxley, Friedrich Hayek, and the late 17th and early 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift.

In Part II, Lynskey treats some of the dystopian novels and novelists that have appeared since Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He provides surprising detail on David Bowie, who alluded to Orwell in his songs and wrote material that reflected the outlook of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He notes that Margaret Atwood termed her celebrated The Handmaid’s Tale a “speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety” (p.241).  But the crux of Part II lies in Lynskey’s discussion of the evolving interpretations of the novel since its publication, and why it still matters today.  He argues that Nineteen Eighty Four has become both a “vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future” (p.228), and an “all-purpose shorthand” for an “uncertain present” (p.213).

In the immediate aftermath of its publication, when the Cold War was at its height, the novel was seen by many as a lesson on totalitarianism and the dangers that the Soviet Union and Communist China posed to the West (Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania in the novel correspond roughly to the Soviet Union, China and the West, respectively).  When the Cold War ended with the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, the novel morphed into a warning about the invasive technologies spawned by the Internet and their potential for surveillance of individual lives.  In the Age of Trump and Brexit, the novel has become “most of all a defense of truth . . . Orwell’s fear that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them” (p.265-66).

* * *

                            Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903 in India, where his father was a mid-level civil servant. His mother was half-French and a committed suffragette.  In 1933, prior to publication of his first major book,  Down and Out in Paris and London, which recounts his life in voluntary poverty in the two cities, the fledgling author took the pen name Orwell from a river in Sussex .  He changed names purportedly to save his parents from the embarrassment which  he assumed his forthcoming work  would cause.  He was at best a mid-level journalist and writer when he went to Spain in late 1936, with a handful of novels and lengthy essays to his credit – “barely George Orwell” (p.4), as Lynskey puts it.

The Spanish Civil war erupted after Spain’s Republican government, known as the Popular Front, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, narrowly won a parliamentary majority in 1936, only to face a rebellion from the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, representing Spain’s military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church.  Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy furnished arms and other assistance for the Nationalists’ assault on Spain’s democratic institutions, while the Soviet Union assisted the Republicans (the leading democracies of the period, Great Britain, France and the United States, remained officially neutral; I reviewed Adam Hochschild’s work on the Spanish Civil War here in August 2017).   Spain provided Orwell with his first and only personal exposure to the “nightmare atmosphere” (p.17) that would envelop the novel he wrote a decade later.

Fighting with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Spanish acronym: POUM), a renegade working class party that opposed Stalin, Orwell quickly found himself in the middle of what amounted to a mini-civil war among the disparate left-wing factions on the Republican side, all within the larger civil war with the Nationalists.  Orwell saw first-hand the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Stalinist left at work in Spain, nurtured by a level of deliberate deceit that appalled him.  He read newspaper accounts that did not even purport to bear any relationship to what had actually happened. For Orwell previously, Lynskey writes:

people were guilty of deliberate deceit or unconscious bias, but at least they believed in the existence of facts and the distinction between true and false. Totalitarian regimes, however, lied on such a grand scale that they made Orwell feel that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ (p.99).

Orwell saw totalitarianism in all its manifestations as dangerous not primarily because of secret police or constant surveillance but because “there is no solid ground from which to mount a rebellion –no corner of the mind that has not been infected and warped by the state.  It is power that removes the possibility of challenging power” (p.99).

Orwell narrowly escaped death when he was hit by a bullet in the spring of 1937.  He was hospitalized in Barcelona for three weeks, after which he and his wife Eileen escaped across the border to France.  Driven to Spain by his hatred of fascism, Orwell left with a “second enemy. The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would, but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him” (p.18).  From that point onward, Orwell criticized communism more energetically than fascism because he had seen communism “up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it” (p.22).   After his time in Spain, Orwell knew that he stood against totalitarianism of all stripes, and for democratic socialism as its counterpoint.

The term “dystopia” was not used frequently in Orwell’s time, and Orwell distinguished between “favorable” and “pessimistic” utopias.   Orwell developed what he termed a “pitying fondness” (p.38) for nineteenth-century visions of a better world, particularly the American Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward.  This highly popular novel contained a “seductive political argument” (p.33) for the nationalization of all industry, and the use of an “industrial army” to organize production and distribution.  Bellamy had what Lynskey terms a “thoroughly pre-totalitarian mind,” with an “unwavering faith in human nature and common sense” that failed to see the “dystopian implications of unanimous obedience to a one-party state that will last forever” (p.38).

Bellamy was a direct inspiration for the works of H.G. Wells, one of the most prolific writers of his age. Wells exerted enormous influence on the young Eric Blair, looming over the boy’s childhood “like a planet – awe inspiring, oppressive, impossible to ignore – and Orwell never got over it” (p.60).  Often called the English Jules Verne, Wells foresaw space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs.  His fiction imagined time travel, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.  The word Wellsian came to mean “belief in an orderly scientific utopia,” but his early works are “cautionary tales of progress thwarted, science abused and complacency punished” (p.63).

Wells was himself a direct influence upon Yevgeny Zamatin’s We which, in Lymskey’s interpretation, constitutes the most direct antecedent to Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Finished in 1920 at the height of the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (but not published in the Soviet Union until 1988), We is set in the undefined future, a time when people are referred to only by numbers. The protagonist, D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, where mass surveillance is omnipresent and all aspects of life are scientifically managed.  It is an open question whether We was intended to satirize the Bolshevik regime, in 1920 already a one-party state with extensive secret police.

Zamyatin died in exile in Paris in 1937, at age 53.   Orwell did not read We until sometime after its author’s death.  Whether Orwell “took ideas straight from Zamyatin or was simply thinking along similar lines” is “difficult to say” (p.108), Lynskey writes.  Nonetheless, it is “impossible to read Zamyatin’s bizarre and visionary novel without being strongly reminded of stories that were written afterwards, Orwell’s included” (p.102).

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon offered a solution to the central riddle of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s: “why did so many Communist party members sign confessions of crimes against the state, and thus their death warrants?” Koestler argued that their “years of unbending loyalty had dissolved their belief in objective truth: if the Party required them to be guilty, then guilty they must be” (p.127).  To Orwell this meant that one is punished in totalitarian states not for “ what one does but for what one is, or more exactly, for what one is suspected of being” (p.128).

The ideas contained in James Burnham’s 1944 book, The Managerial Revolution “seized Orwell’s imagination even as his intellect rejected them” (p.122).  A Trotskyite in his youth who in the 1950s helped William F. Buckley found the conservative weekly, The National Review, Burnham saw the future belonging to a huge, centralized bureaucratic state run by a class of managers and technocrats.  Orwell made a “crucial connection between Burnham’s super-state hypothesis and his own long-standing obsession with organized lying” (p.121-22).

Orwell’s chronic lung problems precluded him from serving in the military during World War II.  From August 1941 to November 1943, he worked for the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service, where he found himself “reluctantly writing for the state . . . Day to day, the job introduced him to the mechanics of propaganda, bureaucracy, censorship and mass media, informing Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth” (p.83; Orwell’s boss at the BBC was notorious Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, whose biography I reviewed here in December 2017).   Orwell left the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of the Tribune, an anti-Stalinist weekly.

While at the Tribune, Orwell found time to produce Animal Farm, a “scrupulous allegory of Russian history from the revolution to the Tehran conference” (p.138), with each animal representing an individual, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and so on.  Animal Farm shared with Nineteen Eighty-Four an “obsession with the erosion and corruption of memory” (p.139).  Memories in the two works are gradually erased, first, by the falsification of evidence; second, by the infallibility of the leader; third, by language; and fourth, by time.  Published in August 1945, Animal Farm quickly became a best seller.  The fable’s unmistakable anti-Soviet message forced Orwell to remind readers that he remained a socialist.  “I belong to the Left and must work inside it,” he wrote, “much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence of this country” (p.141).

Earlier in 1945, Orwell’s wife Eileen died suddenly after being hospitalized for a hysterectomy, less than a year after the couple had adopted a son, whom they named Richard Horatio Blair.  Orwell grieved the loss of his wife by burying himself in the work that culminated in Nineteen Eighty-Four.   But Orwell became ever sicker with tuberculosis as he worked  over the next four years on the novel which was titled The Last Man in Europe until almost immediately prior to publication (Lynskey gives no credence to the theory that Orwell selected 1984 as a inversion of the last two digits of 1948).

Yet, Lynskey rejects the notion that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the “anguished last testament of a dying man” (p.160).  Orwell “never really believed he was dying, or at least no more than usual. He had suffered from lung problems since childhood and had been ill, off and on, for so long that he had no reason to think that this time would be the last ” (p.160).  His novel was published in June 1949.  227 days later, in January 1950, Orwell died when a blood vessel in his lung ruptured.

* * *

                                    Nineteen Eighty-Four had an immediate positive reception. The book was variously compared to an earthquake, a bundle of dynamite, and the label on a bottle of poison.  It was made into a movie, a play, and a BBC television series.  Yet, Lynskey writes, “people seemed determined to misunderstand it” (p.170).  During the Cold War of the early 1950s, conservatives and hard line leftists both saw the book as a condemnation of socialism in all its forms.  The more astute critics, Lynskey argues, were those who “understood Orwell’s message that the germs of totalitarianism existed in Us as well as Them” (p.182).  The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 constituted a turning point in interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  After the invasion, many of Orwell’s critics on the left “had to accept that they had been wrong about the nature of Soviet communism and that he [Orwell] had been infuriatingly right” (p.210).

The hoopla that accompanied the actual year 1984, Lynskey notes wryly, came about only because “one man decided, late in the day, to change the title of his novel” (p.234).   By that time, the book was being read less as an anti-communist tract and more as a reminder of the abuses exposed in the Watergate affair of the previous decade, the excesses of the FBI and CIA, and the potential for mischief that personal computers, then in their infancy, posed.  With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism between 1989 and 1991, focus on the power of technology intensified.

But today the focus is on Orwell’s depiction of the demise of objective truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and appropriately so, Lynskey argues, noting how President Trump masterfully “creates his own reality and measures his power by the number of people who subscribe to it: the cruder the lie, the more power its success demonstrates” (p.264).  It is truly Orwellian, Lynskey contends, that the phrase “fake news” has been “turned on its head by Trump and his fellow authoritarians to describe real news that is not to their liking, while flagrant lies become ‘alternative facts’” (p.264).

* * *

                                 While resisting the temptation to term Nineteen Eighty-Four more relevant now than ever, Lynskey asserts that the novel today is nonetheless  “a damn sight more relevant than it should be” (p.xix).   An era “plagued by far-right populism, authoritarian nationalism, rampant disinformation and waning faith in liberal democracy,” he concludes, is “not one in which the message of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be easily dismissed” (p.265).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 25, 2020

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, European History, Language, Literature, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union

Lenny as Paterfamilias

 

Jamie Bernstein, Famous Father Girl:

A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (Harper)

 

In Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, Jamie Bernstein, daughter of legendary conductor, composer and overall musical genius Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), sheds light upon how she grew up in the shadow of the legend.  In Jamie’s early years, her family looked outwardly conventional, or at least conventional for the upper crust Manhattan milieu in which she and her two siblings were raised.  Jamie, the oldest child, was born in 1952; her brother Alexander followed two years later, and their younger sister Nina was born in 1962.

Their mother Felicia Montealegre – “Mummy” throughout the memoir — was a native of Chile and a Roman Catholic from a semi-aristocratic background, a contrast to her American-born Jewish husband from a first-generation immigrant family.  Felicia was an accomplished pianist and aspiring actress, an elegant and insightful woman who was highly engaged in the lives of her children and served as the family “policeman” and “stabilizer” (p.100).   But Felicia died of cancer in 1978 at age 56.

In 1951, Felicia married Jamie’s father, most frequently referred to here as “Daddy,” but also as “Lenny,” “LB,” and “the Maestro.”  Felicia’s husband was already a world-class conductor and composer when they married, and became ever more the celebrity as the couple’s three children grew up.  Jamie’s portrait of Bernstein the father and husband conforms to what most readers passingly familiar with Bernstein would anticipate: a larger than life figure who quickly filled up any room he entered; ebullient, exuberant, and eccentric; a chain smoker, a prodigious talker as well as music maker; and a man who loved jokes,  spent much time under a sunlamp, and had a proclivity for kissing on the lips just about everyone he met, male or female.  The insights into Bernstein’s personality and how he filled the role of father and husband are one of two factors that make this memoir . . . well, memorable.

The other factor is Bernstein’s sexuality. Despite the appearances of conventional marriage and family life, the bi-sexual Maestro leaned heavily toward the gay side of the equation.  Jamie’s elaboration upon how she became aware of her father’s preference for other men, and the effect of her father’s homosexuality on her mother and the family, constitute the memoir’s backbone.  Although she provides her perspective on her father’s musical achievements, she spends more time on Bernstein as paterfamilias than Bernstein as music maker.  Jamie also reveals how she struggled to find her own pathway through life as an adolescent and young adult, feeling stalked by her family’s name and her father’s fame.

* * *

                        Jamie became aware of her father’s sexual preferences as a teenager.  She had landed a summer job at the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival in Western Massachusetts, where her father conducted.  People at Tanglewood talked freely about her father and the men he was involved with:

They talked about it quite casually in front of me, so I pretended I knew all about it – but I didn’t. I mentally reviewed past experiences; had I sensed, or observed, anything to indicate that my father was homosexual?  He was extravagantly affectionate with everyone: young and old, male and female. How could I possibly tell what any behavior meant? And anyway, weren’t homosexuals supposed to be girly? . . . Yet there was nothing I could detect that was particularly effeminate about my father. How exactly did he fit into this category?  I was bewildered and upset.  I couldn’t understand any of it – but in any case, my own existence seemed living proof that the story was not a simple one (p.123).

Thereafter, Jamie wrote her father a letter about what she had learned at Tanglewood.  When she joined her parents at their weekend house in Connecticut, her father took her outside.   He denied what he described as “rumors” that were propagated, he said, by persons who envied his professional success and hoped to jeopardize his career.  Later, Jamie wondered whether her mother had forced her father to deny everything.  After her confrontation with her father, she began to discuss her father’s sexual complexities with her siblings but never again raised the subject with either parent.

Jamie learned subsequently that prior to her parents’ marriage, Felicia had written to her future husband: “You are a homosexual and may never change . . . I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar” (p.124).  Her clear-eyed mother had entered into her marriage knowing full well, Jamie concluded, that she was “marrying a tsunami – and a gay one at that” (p.172).  Her  parents may have reached an agreement, perhaps tacit, that her father would confine his philandering to the time he was one the road.  At home, he was to be very conventional.

But that agreement came to an end in in 1976, when Leonard took a separate apartment in New York to spend time with a young man, Tommy Cothren, with whom he had fallen “madly in love” (p.188).  Her father, Jamie writes, was “starting a new life – so he was cheerful, acting exuberantly gay and calling everyone ‘darling’” (p.188).  In the rift between her parents, her brother Alexander seemed to be taking Felicia’s side while Jamie worried that she was not being sufficiently supportive of her mother.  She was “trying so hard to be equitable.  I wanted my father to find his true self and be happy with who he was . . . but I couldn’t help being ambivalent over how gracelessly he was going about it, and how much pain he was inflicting on our mother . . . Sometimes I wondered if I should have been taking sides.” (p.187).

These wrenching family issues became moot two years later, when Felicia died of breast cancer. Jamie notes that her father was quite attentive to her mother as her condition worsened.  The loss of Felicia “ripped through our family’s world with a seismic shudder.   She was so adored, so deeply beautiful . . . and gone so unbearably too soon, at fifty-six” (p.218).  In the absence of Mummy, Jamie writes, her father became “as untamed as a sail flapping in a squall. The family’s preexisting behavioral boundaries were gone; now anything could happen” (p.233).  Her father’s “intense physicality and flamboyance had always been there, but now, in the absence of Felicia’s calming influence, it became a beast unleashed” (p.235).  After Felicia’s death, Leonard spent an increasing amount of time in Key West, in the Florida Keys, where the sunshine and gay intellectual culture attracted him.

Bernstein himself died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 72, from a form of lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure rather than his life-long cigarette habit (a habit which his wife shared and one which Jamie detested from an early age).  The Maestro’s final years were ones where sexual liberation combined with physical and mental decline.  He suffered from depression and “hated getting older, hated his diminishing physicality.  But the other part of the problem – and the two were inextricably intertwined – was that he was continuing to put prodigious quantities of uppers, downers, and alcohol into a body that was growing ever less efficient at metabolizing all those substances” (p.258).  His “decades of living at maximum volume appeared to be catching up with him at last” (p.316), Jamie writes.

At a concert at Tanglewood just months prior to his death, Bernstein had trouble conducting Arias and Baracollees, a piece he had written.  “[H]is brain was so oxygen-deprived by that point that he couldn’t track the complexities of his own music” (p.319).  When he came out afterwards for his bow, he was “tiny, ashen, and nearly lost inside the white suit that now hung so loosely on him, it looked as if it had been tailored for some other species” (p.319).

One shining exception to Bernstein’s downward spiral in his final years occurred at concerts in Berlin during the 1989 Christmas holiday season, the month following the fall of the Berlin wall.  Bernstein conducted a “mighty ensemble comprising players volunteering from various orchestras around the world who, along with four soloists and a local girls’ chorus, gave a pair of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: one in East Berlin and one in West Berlin.”  And to make the performances “extra-historic,” Bernstein changed Schiller’s text in the final “Ode to Joy” movement: “now it was ‘Ode to Freedom.’ “Freiheit!’ The word rang out again and again, wreathed in Beethoven’s harmonies, and the world watched it on television on Christmas Day” (p.313).  The Berlin concerts were in Jamie’s view her father’s “peak performance,” the “pinnacle” of his lifelong advocacy for world peace and brotherhood, “never more eloquently expressed, and never to so many, than through Beethoven’s notes in that historical Christmas performance” (p.313).

But Bernstein’s progressive political orientation did not always play so well at home.  In 1970, Felicia hosted a fundraiser at their Park Avenue apartment which Leonard attended, designed to assist the families of 21 members of the Black Panther party who were in jail with inflated bail amounts, “awaiting trial for what turned out to be trumped-up accusations involving absurd bomb plots” (p.109).  The Black Panthers advocated black empowerment “by any means necessary” and were anti-Zionist, making them scary even in liberal New York.  No journalists were invited to the fundraiser, but somehow two snuck in, the New York Times society writer and an upcoming journalist, Tom Wolfe (deceased subsequent to the memoir’s publication).

An article in the Times the next day heaped scorn on the event.  “Everything about this article was loathsome,” Jamie writes, “and my parents were both aghast. But that was just the beginning” (p.112).  The Times followed a few days later with an editorial chastising the couple for mocking the memory of Martin Luther King.  The militant Jewish Defense League organized pickets in front of the Bernstein’s building and the couple became the “butt of ridicule” (p.113) in New York and nationally.  Then, weeks later, Wolfe came out with an article in New York magazine entitled “That Party at Lenny’s,” followed by Radical Chic, a book centered on the event.  “My mother’s very serious fundraiser had become her celebrity husband’s ‘party’” (p.116), Jamie writes.

Wolfe’s works had the effect of setting in stone the misinterpretation and mockery of the Panther event.  Jamie contends bitterly that Wolfe never comprehended the depth of the damage he wreaked on her family.  Unlike her father, Felicia had no work to back her up in the aftermath of the Panther debacle and grew increasingly despondent.  Four years later, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a mastectomy.  Four years after that, she was dead of the disease.  Even when Jamie wrote her memoir, a time when Wolfe himself was near death, “my rage and disgust can rise up in me like an old fever – and in those nearly deranged moments, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to lay Mummy’s precipitous decline, and even demise, at the feet of Mr. Wolfe” (p.117).

Nor did Wolfe comprehend, Jamie further argues, the degree to which his “snide little piece of neo-journalism rendered him a veritable stooge for the FBI.”  Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover “may well have shed a tear of gratitude that this callow journalist had done so much of the bureau’s work by discrediting left-wing New York Jewish liberals while simultaneously pitting them against the black activist movement –thereby disempowering both groups in a single deft stroke” (p.116).  With the Panther incident, the FBI became “obsessed with Leonard Bernstein all over again. Hoover was deeply paranoid about the Black Panthers” (p.305).  But Jamie reveals how, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request for files on her father, the family learned that Hoover had been “obsessing on Leonard Bernstein since the 1940s, when informers started supplying insinuations that Bernstein was a Communist” (p.315).  The 800-page Bernstein file “substantially increased in girth during the Red Scare years in the 1950s, when my father had even been briefly denied a passport” (p.305).

Well before Felicia’s death, it was clear to Jamie that her father had become a “Controversial Person – a long, complex evolution from his wunderkind public persona of the 1950s” (p.296).  But in addition to her father’s story, Jamie’s memoir also provides her perspective on her own challenges “growing up Bernstein,” the memoir’s  sub-title.

* * *

                      Jamie grew up with so many of the trappings of Manhattan wealth that this portion of the story seems stereotypical, bordering on caricature.  Her family lived in fancy Manhattan apartments, eventually the famous Dakota, where John Lennon was a neighbor until he was killed in front of the building (he was killed shortly after Jamie had walked past the shooter, seemingly just one of many groupies waiting to get a glance of the singer).  The Bernstein family had a life-long South American nanny, Julia Vega, who was a major part of the family and is a presence throughout the memoir.  The three children relied primarily upon chauffeurs and limousines for local transportation. They enjoyed a secondary residence for weekend and summer getaways, first in Connecticut, then in East Hampton.  The children traveled all over the globe with their father as they grew up.  They attended elite Manhattan private schools, and all three attended Harvard, the school from which Leonard had graduated prior to World War II.  Jamie indicates that admission to Harvard brought little elation for herself or her two siblings; they always had “crippling doubts” (p.148) whether they gained admission on their merits or because they were Leonard Bernstein’s children (at Harvard, Jamie’s first year roommate was Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Pakistan’s prime minister who was assassinated when she became Pakistan’s prime minister).

As a young adult, Jamie followed her father into the music world, although her particular niche was more popular than classical music (a niche her father deeply appreciated; he too loved the Beatles). She was hardly surprised that she enjoyed considerably less success than her father. “Sure, I was musical, but I really was a very poor musician” (p.277).   She stopped fretting about comparisons to her father when she stopped trying to be a musician herself. “It turned out that if I just refrained from making music with my own body, I was much calmer . . . [M]aking music with my own body had mostly made me a mess” (p.362-63).

Jamie had her share of boyfriends as a teenager and young adult, and she manages to tell her readers quite a bit about many of them.  Her first date was with Marlon Brando’s nephew.  She smoked a lot of marijuana, experimented with a host of other mind-expanding substances, and spent a good portion of her early adulthood stoned – with her brother Alexander seemingly even more of a pothead as a young man.   She also partook of Erhard Seminars Training, aka “EST,” a “repackaging of Zen Buddhist principles for Western consumption” (p.175) and a quintessential 1970s way of “getting in touch with one’s inner feelings,” as we said back then.

Late in the memoir, a few years before her father’s death in 1990, Jamie married David Thomas, a man she had met several years earlier at Harvard.  By the end of the memoir, she has given birth to two children, a boy and a girl, and is a devoted mother — but one either separated or divorced from her husband.  She writes that her marriage had centered on David’s ability to relate to her father and fit into the family.  The thrill was gone after Leonard died.  Although the marriage “hung on for another decade,” the “deep harmony we experienced while Daddy was alive never returned” (p.337).   After the detailed run through so many boyfriends, readers will be disappointed that Jamie provides no further insight into why her marriage floundered.

Jamie found her professional niche in preserving her father’s legacy by chance, after volunteering to help her daughter’s preschool start a music program.  “It was the one and only regular music gig I ever had” (p.336), she writes.  Finding that she had a knack for bringing music to young people, a forte of her father, she devised The Bernstein Beat, a project modeled after her father’s Young People’s Concerts but focused on her father’s music.  Jamie presented The Bernstein Beat across the globe, in places as diverse as China and Cuba (in Cuba, she surprised herself by narrating in Spanish, her mother’s native tongue).  She also co-produced a documentary film, Crescendo: The Power of Music, on a program she had observed in Venezuela designed to use music as a way to reach at risk young people and keep them away from street violence.  The film, first presented at the Philadelphia Film Festival, won several prizes and Netflix bought it.

Around 2008, Jamie’s long-time friend, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, asked her to design and present educational concerts for adults with his Miami-based orchestral academy, the New World Symphony. It turned out to be “the best job ever” for her, to the point that she felt she had become the “poster child for life beginning at fifty” (p.361).  She also began to edit a Leonard Bernstein newsletter, apprising readers of Bernstein-related performances and events.  Preserving her father’s legacy has been a “good trade-off,” she writes: “leading a musician’s life minus the music–making part” (p.362-63).

* * *

                        Jamie writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style, mixing candor – her memoir is nothing if not candid — with ample doses of humor, much of it self-deprecatory.  But without the connection to her father, Jamie’s story is mostly one of a Manhattan rich kid’s angst.  The memoir’s real interest lies in Jamie’s  insights into the character and complexity of her father.

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

January 25, 2020

 

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Music

Uncovering Hair and Corruption in Iran

 

Masih Alinejad, The Wind in My Hair:

My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran (Little, Brown & Co.,)

              Masih Alinejad, an Iranian national now living in Brooklyn, is recognized internationally as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and human rights.  She is best known for supporting Iranian women’s right to decide for themselves whether they wish to wear the hijab, the veil covering a women’s hair that is mandatory attire for women and girls as young as seven in contemporary Iran.  She has amassed an impressive string of awards, including the United Nation’s International Women’s Rights Award, the Association for International Broadcasting’s Media Excellence Award, and the Swiss Freethinker Association’s Freethinker Prize.

The title of Masih’s autobiography/memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, captures her objective for herself and for women who wear the hijab not by choice: all women should have a right to feel the wind in their hair, if that’s what they desire.  From an early age, Masih explains, she looked at her hair as “part of my identity, but you couldn’t see it.  When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf” (p.30).  Before challenging the compulsory hijab, Masih was an investigative journalist in Iran, exposing corruption within the most powerful spheres of the country’s political elite.

Masih was born in 1976, three years prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ending nearly two millennia of rule by Persian kings.  She describes herself as a child of that revolution, one who has “lived nearly all my life under its shadow.  My story is the story of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society, and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties” (p.23).  The Shah had reformed Sharia law to allow women many basic rights, with the hijab being largely a matter of personal choice.  But the Shah’s reforms were reversed after the revolution and the state extended increasing control over women’s lives, including the compulsory hijab.  The changes “didn’t happen overnight,” Masih writes, and Iranian women “resisted and put up a fight, especially over the issue of compulsory hijab, which set the tone for how women’s rights would shape up” (p.29).

Through a Facebook page that she established while in exile, entitled “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih provided a platform for widespread resistance to the compulsory hijab.  On a whim, she posted a picture of herself with no hair covering and cherry blossoms in the background. Exalting in how free she felt, she says she was no longer a “hostage,” a loaded word in Iran. “That simple photograph and message changed my life” (p.308).   Critics complained that she was exploiting a freedom available to her only because she was not in Iran.  Even her reform-minded friends back in Iran thought this was the wrong fight to pick.  To many , the hajib was at best a minor irritant in a country where so many things were wrong.

True enough, Masih responded, but she was sure that, given “half a chance, millions of Iranians would remove their hijab, especially in the privacy of their own cars” and that “every Iranian woman had picture like this, taken in private moments, alone or with friends” (p.311-12).  Even though they could be arrested for showing themselves without covered hair, Iranian women proved eager to show they were “free, powerful, and not ashamed of their bodies” (p.315).  In numbers that astounded her, Iranian women posted photos capturing the “guilty pleasure of breaking unjust rules that allow us a modicum of dignity” (p.313).  Her campaign against the compulsory hijab attracted the attention of super-executive Sheryl Sandberg, who encouraged her to write this memoir.

Masih traveled an improbable path to international fame.  She was born and spent her early years in a dirt-poor rural village in northern Iran, Ghomikola, population 650 — “as far away from the country’s elites as possible,” she notes (p.9).  Parents raising children in this traditional Shiite Muslim village hoped above all that their children would conduct t themselves with  honor and avoid bringing shame to their families.  Young Masih, mischievous and rebellious, fell well short of these overriding parental expectations.  She was expelled from her high school after stealing books from a local bookstore and incurred a jail sentence for the seditious activity of organizing a book club of high school age students.  She found herself pregnant without being married, and gave birth to a son after entering into a hurried if not quite arranged marriage. When the marriage floundered shortly thereafter, she divorced and lost custody of her son.

But divorced and without her son, Masih almost miraculously landed a job as a journalist with a reform-oriented newspaper in Iran, where her professional career took off.  Tensions surrounding the controverted 2009 re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forced Masih into exile, first in the United Kingdom, then in the United States.  In exile, she regained custody of her son, completed a university degree, met the man to whom she is presently married, and undertook her campaign against the compulsory hijab. 

Masih’s effervescent personality shines through all phases of her memoir.  She has an audacious streak that often borders on recklessness. She is frequently absent-minded and disorganized. She has difficulty wearing matching sox, and is always losing apartment and car keys.  Yet, she has an uncanny ability to concentrate when the moment requires intense concentration.  In her frequent face offs with authority figures, among them the omnipresent religious and security police in Iran, along with ayatollahs and political leaders, almost always male, she is breathtakingly quick on her feet.  Her sharp responses to authorities are often leavened with irony that borders on wisecracking. She is someone most of us would like to know.

Masih’s memoir can be broken into three portions: 1) her youth and early adulthood, including her imprisonment, pregnancy and divorce; 2) her years as an investigative reporter in Iran; and 3) her exile years, when she achieved international stardom.  Surprisingly, the last portion, detailing her most highly visible accomplishments, is the least engrossing; it seems disjointed and scattershot, as if written hurriedly to meet a publication deadline.  But the first two sections, charting her unlikely pathway to stardom, make for engrossing and often compelling reading.

* * *

                Masih was the youngest of six children; all slept in the same room. Their house lacked indoor plumbing, a kitchen and a place to bathe or shower (but did include a television).  The family grew most of its own food.  Despite grinding poverty, Masih seemed to have had a happy childhood.  She loved to climb trees and pick pears and walnuts. Her family spoke a local dialect and Masih didn’t learn to speak Persian until she went to school.

Masih’s parents were religiously observant Shiite Muslims, a trait that they somehow failed to pass to their youngest daughter.  Neither was formally educated, but both believed in education for their children.  They wanted their daughters to complete high school before they married, whereas many Ghomikola families saw no advantage to educating girls.  Masih’ s father, AghaJan, was a peddler who sold fruits and vegetables.  He was a fervent believer in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  His highly traditional views of appropriate roles for girls and young women placed him increasingly at odds with his youngest daughter.  Masih found less and less to talk about with her father as a teenager and, in her adult life, the two stopped communication altogether.

Masih experienced no such break with her mother, Zarrin.  Functionally illiterate and barely five feet tall, Zarrin married AghaJan when she was 14.  But she had skills as a tailor and worked on clothes for people in the village, sometimes offering sewing classes.  It was unusual in Ghomikola for a married woman to earn her own money, rather than being entirely dependent upon her husband.  Her mother was also the source of a decidedly non-traditional expression that guided Masih throughout her adult life: “If they lock the front door, go in through the back door. If the doors are barred, go through the windows. If they shutter the windows, climb through the chimney. Never let them lock you out. Always try to get in” (p.156). Yet, as much as Masih loved and respected her mother, she seemed to know from an early age that she wanted a different life for herself.  “For Mother, family and reputations had special meanings that were lost on me.  Her days were predictable, while I wanted mine to be full of surprises” (p.78).

Thanks to her mother’s intervention with local school authorities, Masih was reassigned to another high school when she was apprehended stealing books from a local bookstore, which she rationalized as necessary to feed a voracious reading habit in a family that could not afford to buy books.  At her new school, Masih and a classmate started a book club that featured leftist literature about human rights, freedom and the meaning of democracy.  The group also drafted and distributed an underground pamphlet advocating freedom for political prisoners,  activities considered seditious in Iran.  The group included a young man, Reza, who seemed interested in Masih, telling her that he was writing poetry for her.

Although Reza turned out to be Masih’s first romantic interest, the romance was placed on hold when first Reza, then Masih, were arrested and sent to prison for anti-revolutionary activities.  While in prison, Masih learned that she was pregnant with Reza’s child.  After appearing in a “Revolutionary Court, ” with secret proceedings and no right to a lawyer, Masih received a five-year sentence, suspended on condition of what amounted to “good behavior.” But she did not graduate from high school and still had to deal with her pregnancy.

“I had dreams of traveling and exploring the world,” Masih writes, “and now before I had even left Ghomikola I was trapped. My destiny was already set. . . I had to explain away another mark of shame to my parents – I was pregnant before being properly married” (p.100). Abortion proved not to be an option and she bore the child she carried, her son Pouyan, who in different ways remains part of his mother’s story for the rest of the memoir.  Although she was not ready for being either a wife or a mother, Masih married Reza.  It was not the usual sequence in Ghomikola, where “very few women get pregnant before their wedding night . . . I was bringing dishonor to my family” (p.107).

With Reza unable to find a job, the couple set out for Tehran.  Masih worked briefly as a photographer while Reza wrote poetry. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Reza returned to their apartment one day to announce that he was in love with another woman, whom he wanted to marry.  He found their marriage too confining for his poetic ambitions and needed a divorce – he couldn’t write and she was holding him back. “Once again, I had notched a family first,” Masih writes despondently: “The first woman in our family to be arrested, the first to be jailed, and the first to be pregnant before her wedding. I would now be the first in all of Ghomikola to be divorced. It didn’t matter that Reza was leaving me; everyone would think that it was somehow my fault” (p.134).

Masih had no chance of retaining custody of the couple’s son under Iranian law.  AghaJan urged her to return to Ghomikola where he would help her find a new husband, leading her to the realization that divorced women in Iran have “no identity of their own. My father was not unique; he was a reflection of Iranian culture.  In many villages and small cities, there is an expectation that a divorced woman should sit at home and wait for her next husband” (p.144). As she turned 24, Masih’s short marriage was over, she had lost custody of her son and she had a prison record but no high school diploma.  Yet, she says she “blossomed” after her divorce and loss of custody. “It was painful,” she writes, “but I was suddenly free to grow and be myself. I wasn’t looking for new directions in my life, but I had little choice. The hardships I went through forged me” (p.143).

* * *

                     By sheer audacity, Masih landed an interview with Hambastegi, a daily paper associated with reform politics. She volunteered to work without pay at the outset, to see how it worked out.  She was assigned to cover Iran’s parliament, the Majlis.  She memorized the phone numbers of relevant parliamentarians and called them at all times of day or night, playing up her status as a neophyte woman reporter.  She knew the parliamentarians’ personal histories, had a loud voice, and understood how male politicians “can be relied upon to be patronizing to women,” thereby providing her with “great quotes” (p.157).  Iran’s conservative newspapers referred to her as “the Ugly Duckling,” which she considered a badge of honor.

In her most sensational scoop, using carefully cultivated sources – shades here of Watergate and “Deep Throat” – Masih exposed how lawmakers routinely lined their pockets with secret bonus payments above and beyond their salaries.  Through tough talk and more than a little bluffing –Masih says she became a master of the art of bluffing — she extracted a pay stub from a deputy that showed the equivalent of about $1,100 US for “consideration of Deputies’ Expenses.” Suddenly, she had hard evidence of a slush fund to make undeclared payments to the deputies. “There’d be no going back,” she writes. “I would be marked, but the story was worth it. It was for moments like that that I had rebelled against my family and endured all sorts of hardships. I wasn’t naïve. I knew there’d be a price to pay later” (p.195).  Conservative newspapers claimed she had stolen the pay stub, and some indicated that she had obtained it through “flirting.”

Masih “loved being a Majlis reporter . . . [H]olding politicians accountable and exposing their lies were all part of a day’s work,” she writes.   As disorganized as she was in her private life, when it came to covering politics, it was “as if a switch had been turned on” (p.190). Not surprisingly, Masih became persona non grata at Parliament and in 2005 achieved another first: the first journalist to be expelled from the Majlis.  But her expulsion sparked a latent interest in issues particular to women.  “Feminism was taboo in Iran,” she explains. “As a parliamentary journalist, I couldn’t risk being seen to be involved in feminism and women’s rights activism. To be honest, I didn’t have the time; nor did I want to risk another black mark against my name” (p.211).

* * *

                      Masih had vigorously opposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his first election to the Iranian presidency in 2005, in an election probably abetted by voter fraud.  As the 2009 elections approached, Masih, like many younger Iranians, thought the country was poised to elect a genuine reform candidate.  But the election resulted in Ahmadinejad being declared the winner, again amidst credible allegations of voter fraud, precipitating massive post-election demonstrations in June 2009 and a savage crackdown.  Masih was advised to leave Iran for her own safety, and to this day has not returned.

She landed in Britain, where she pursued a degree in communications at Oxford Brooke University, and regained custody of her son, who was then a teenager.  She began producing documentaries focusing on the families of victims killed in the post-election crackdown.   She also pursued a quixotic idea to interview newly elected American president Barack Obama, and surprised herself by how close she came to being granted an interview. She received a visa to enter the United States, but in the aftermath of the contested 2009 Iranian presidential election, the White House decided that strategically the timing for her interview was not right.  While in the United States, Masih made the acquaintance of an Iranian-American journalist for Bloomberg News, Kambiz Foroohar, who became an increasing presence in her life. From the time of their initial meeting, the unflappable Kambiz served as an invaluable check on Masih’s enthusiasm and her tendency to get too far out in front of herself.  The couple married in 2014.

After Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg mentioned Masih’s “My Stealthy Freedom” page at the “Most Powerful Women Summit,” an event sponsored by Fortune magazine, she and Masih exchanged emails.   Sandberg then invited Masih to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.  During the visit, Sandberg suggested to Masih that she write a book about her life’s experiences for English-language readers (she had already published a handful of works in Persian).  While in the United States, as a follow up to “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih also established #WhiteWednesday, which encourages Iranian men and women to wear white on Wednesdays to protest against the compulsory hijab.  She has tried, without much success, to convince high-level women visitors to Iran not to cover their hair.  Almost all, to Masih’s dismay, contend that they need to show sensitivity to local customs.

In the summer of 2016, Masih came out firmly against the ban in some French towns of the burkini, the full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women. “The police in France were behaving just like the morality police in Iran,” (p.367), she writes.  Both had “problems with choices made by women, and both acted as if women’s bodies were the territory of lawmakers and law enforcement, who alone knew what was best” (p.367). But she nonetheless found it more than ironic that Iran, which denies its own women the freedom to choose, called on France to “respect the human rights of Muslims who chose to dress in Islamic fashion” (p.367).

Masih presently works today for the Voice of America’s Persian Service.  Recently, her brother and two siblings of her first husband were arrested, and even her mother was called in for questioning by security officials, all part of what Masih considers an effort to intimidate her into silence from abroad.  Like Masih’s memoir itself, this recent heavy-handedness constitutes a reminder of how little has changed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  Iran remains a repressive religious dictatorship, with few secular spaces and no tolerance for notions like due process and the rule of law.  The place of women is still determined by, as Masih puts it, laws “devised by misogynists who find guidance and precedent in the seventh century” (p.141)..

* * *

                         Assiduous readers of this blog will see many resemblances between Masih Alinejad and Manal al-Sherif, the Saudi Arabian woman of about the same age who wrote a memoir about her championing the cause of women driving in her native land, reviewed here in October 2017 (that review also included a work by Sherin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who was the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize; Ebadi makes brief appearances in Masih’s memoir).  Notwithstanding the geopolitical and religious rivalries that divide their two countries, it is striking how similar the two women’s stories are.  Each mobilized Facebook and other social media to launch a campaign designed to eliminate a state-imposed obstacle to women’s rights.  Each endured a jail sentence.  The personal stories of the two women also align.  Each was raised in poverty by uneducated parents who nonetheless valued education for their children.  After unsuccessful early marriages in countries where the husband-wife relationship is far from equal, both became divorced mothers of young sons.  Each pursued a career and advanced study after divorce, and both now appear to be happily married.  While both continue to be active in issues involving women’s rights and human rights in their native countries, each must do so from afar, with al-Sherif now living in Australia.  How I’d love to put these two women in the same room together, then assume a fly-on-the-wall posture as they exchange war stories.

Saudi Arabia recently lifted its ban on women driving, while the hijab remains obligatory attire in today’s turbulent Iran.  But anyone reading this memoir will come away convinced that, at a minimum, no one should ever underestimate what Masih Alinejad is capable of achieving, for herself and for her country.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 29, 2019

 

4 Comments

Filed under Gender Issues, Biography, Middle Eastern History

Stirring Rise and Crushing Fall of a Renaissance Man

 

 

Jeff Sparrow, No Way But This:

In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe)

            If you are among those who think the term “Renaissance Man” seems fuzzy and even frivolous when applied to anyone born after roughly 1600, consider the case of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a man whose talents and genius extended across an impossibly wide range of activities.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Robeson, the son of a former slave, thrilled audiences worldwide with both his singing and his acting.  In a mellifluous baritone voice, Robeson gave new vitality to African-American songs that dated to slave plantations.  On the stage, his lead role as Othello in the play of that name gave a distinctly 20th century cast to one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters.  He also appeared in a handful of films in the 1930s.  Before becoming a singing and acting superstar, Robeson had been one of the outstanding athletes of his generation, on par with the legendary Jim Thorpe.  Robeson  further earned a degree from Columbia Law School and reportedly was conversant in upwards of 15 languages.

Robeson put his multiple talents to use as an advocate for racial and economic justice internationally.  He was among the minority of Americans in the 1930s who linked European Fascism and Nazism to the omnipresent racism he had confronted in America since childhood.  But Robeson’s political activism during the Cold War that followed World War II ensnared the world class Shakespearean actor in a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension, providing a painful denouement to his uplifting life story.

Although Robeson never joined a communist party, he perceived a commitment to full equality in the Soviet Union that was missing in the West.  While many Westerners later saw that their admiration for the Soviet experiment had been misplaced, Robeson never publicly criticized the Soviet Union and paid an unconscionably heavy price for his stubborn consistency during the Cold War.  The State Department refused to renew his passport, precluding him from traveling abroad for eight years.  He was hounded by the FBI and shunned professionally.  Robeson had suffered from depression throughout his adult life.  But his mental health issues intensified in the Cold War era and included a handful of suicide attempts.  Robeson spent his final years in limbo, silenced, isolated and increasingly despairing, up to his death in 1976.

In No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, Jeff Sparrow, an Australian journalist, seeks to capture Robeson’s stirring rise and crushing fall.  The book’s subtitle – “In Search of Paul Robeson” — may sound like any number of biographical works, but in this case encapsulates precisely the book’s unique quality.  In nearly equal doses, Sparrow’s work consists of the major elements of Robeson’s life and Sparrow’s account of how he set about to learn the details of that life — an example of biography and memoir melding together.  Sparrow visited many of the places where Robeson lived, including Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1898; Harlem in New York City; London and Wales in Great Britain; and Moscow and other locations in today’s Russia.

In each location, Sparrow was able to find knowledgeable people, such as archivists and local historians, who knew about Robeson and were able to provide helpful insights into the man’s relationship to the particular location.  We learn for instance from Sparrow’s guides how the Harlem that Robeson knew is rapidly gentrifying today and how the economy of contemporary Wales functions long after closure of the mines which Robeson once visited.  Sparrow’s travels to the former Soviet Union take him to several locations where Robeson never set foot, including Siberia, all in effort to understand the legacy of Soviet terror which Robeson refused to acknowledge.  Sparrow’s account of his travels to these diverse places and his interactions with his guides reads at times like a travelogue.  Readers looking to plunge into the vicissitudes of Robeson’s life may find these portions of the book distracting.  The more compelling portions are those that treat Robeson’s extraordinary life itself.

* * *

            That life began in Princeton, New Jersey, world famous for its university of that name.  The Robeson family lived in a small African-American community rarely visited by those whose businesses and lives depended upon the university.  Princeton was then considered,  as Sparrow puts it, a “northern outpost of the white supremacist South: a place ‘spiritually located in Dixie’” (p.29).  William Robeson, Paul’s father, was a runaway former slave who earned a degree from Lincoln University and became an ordained Presbyterian minister.  His mother Maria, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family and was of mixed ancestry, died in a house fire when Paul was six years old.  Thereafter, William raised Paul and his three older brothers and one older sister on his own.  William played a formidable role in shaping young Paul, who later described his father as the “glory of my boyhood years . . . I loved him like no one in all the world” (p.19).

William abandoned Presbyterianism for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the oldest black denominations in the country, and took on a much larger congregation in Somerville, New Jersey, where Paul attended high school.  One of a handful of African-American students in a sea of whites, Robeson excelled academically and played baseball, basketball and football.  He also edited the school paper, acted with the drama group, sang with the glee club, and participated in the debating society.  When his father was ill or absent, he sometimes preached at his father’s church.  Robeson’s high school accomplishments earned him a scholarship to nearby Rutgers University.

At Rutgers, Robeson again excelled academically.  He became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and was selected as class valedictorian.  As in high school, he was also an outstanding athlete, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and track.  A standout in football, Robeson was “one of the greatest American footballers of a generation,” so much so that his coach “designed Rutgers’ game-plan tactics specifically to exploit his star’s manifold talents” (p.49).  Playing in the backfield, Robeson could both run and throw. His hefty weight and size made him almost impossible to stop.  On defense, his tackling “took down opponents with emphatic finality” (p.49).  Twice named to the All-American Football Team, Robeson was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame until 1995, 19 years after his death.

After graduation from Rutgers in 1919, Robeson spent the next several years in New York City.  He enrolled in New York University Law School, then transferred to Columbia and moved to Harlem.  There, Robeson absorbed the weighty atmosphere the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of African-American culture, thinking and resistance in the 1920s.  While at Columbia, Robeson met chemistry student Eslanda Goode, known as “Essie.”  The couple married in 1921.

Robeson received his law degree from Columbia in 1923 and worked for a short time in a New York law firm.  But he left the firm abruptly when a secretary told him that she would not take dictation from an African-American.  Given his talents, one wonders what Robeson could have achieved had he continued in the legal profession.  It is not difficult to imagine Robeson the lawyer becoming the black Clarence Darrow of his age, the “attorney for the damned;” or a colleague of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the 20th century’s legal battles for full African-American rights.  But Robeson gravitated instead toward singing and acting after leaving the legal profession, while briefly playing semi-pro football and basketball.

Robeson made his mark as a singer by rendering respectable African-American songs such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” that had originated on the plantations — “sorrow songs” that “voiced the anguish of slavery” (p.81), as Sparrow puts it.  After acting in amateur plays, Robeson won the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about inter-racial sexual attraction that established Robeson as an “actor to watch” (p.69).  Many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance criticized Robeson’s role in the play as reinforcing racial stereotypes, while white reviewers “blasted the play as an insult to the white race” (p.70).  An opportunity to star in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones on the London stage led the Robesons to Britain in 1925, where they lived for several years.  The couple’s  only child, Paul Jr., whom they called “Pauli,” was born in London in 1927.

Robeson delighted London audiences with his role in the musical Show Boat, which proved to be as big a hit in Drury Lane as it had been on Broadway.  He famously changed the lines to “Old Man River” from the meek “I’m tired of livin’” and “feared of dyin'” to a declaration of resistance: “I must keep fightin’/Until I’m dyin'”.  His rendition of “Old Man River,” Sparrow writes, transported the audience “beyond the silly narrative to an almost visceral experience of oppression and pain.”  Robeson used his huge frame, “bent and twisted as he staggered beneath a bale, to convey the agony of black history while revealing the tremendous strength forged by centuries of resistance” (p.103).

The Robesons in their London years prospered financially and moved easily in a high inner circle of respectable society.  The man who couldn’t rent a room in many American cities lived as an English gentleman in London, Sparrow notes.  But by the early 1930s, Robeson had learned to see respectable England as “disconcertingly similar” to the United States, “albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class.  To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper orders related to those below them” (p.131).

In London, as in New York, the “limited roles that playwrights offered to black actors left Paul with precious few opportunities to display any range. He was invariably cast as the same kind of character, and as a result even his admirers ascribed his success to instinct rather than intellect, as a demonstration not so much of theatrical mastery but of an innate African talent for make-believe, within certain narrow parameters” (p.107). Then, in 1930, Robeson received a fateful invitation to play Othello in a London production, a role that usually went to an actor of Arab background.

Robeson’s portrayal of Othello turned out triumphal, with the initial performance receiving an amazing 20 curtain calls.  In that production, which  ran for six weeks, Robeson transformed Shakespeare’s tragedy into an “affirmation of black achievement, while hinting at the rage that racism might yet engender” (p.113).  Thereafter, Othello “became central to Paul’s public persona,” (p.114), providing a role that seemed ideal for Robeson: a “valiant high-ranking figure of color, an African neither to be pitied nor ridiculed” (p.109).

While in London, Robeson developed sensitivity to the realities of colonial Africa through friendships with men such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah, future leaders of independence movements in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, respectively.  Robeson retained a keen interest in African history and politics for the remainder of his life.  But  Robeson’s commitment to political activism seems to have crystallized through his frequent visits to Wales, where he befriended striking miners and sang for them.

Robeson supported the Welsh labor movement because of the “collectivity it represented. In Wales, in the pit villages and union lodges and little chapels, he’d found solidarity” (p.149).  Robeson compared Welsh churches to the African-American churches he knew in the United States, places where a “weary and oppressed people drew succor from prayer and song” (p.133).  More than anywhere else, Robeson’s experiences in Wales made him aware of the injustices which capitalism can inflict upon those at the bottom of the economic ladder, regardless of color.  Heightened class-consciousness proved to be a powerful complement to Robeson’s acute sense of racial injustice developed through the endless humiliations encountered in his lifetime in the United States.

Robeson’s sensitivity to economic and racial injustice led him to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which he visited many times and where he and his family lived for a short time.  But a stopover in Berlin on his initial trip to Moscow in 1934 opened Robeson’s eyes to the Nazis’ undisguised racism.  Nazism to Robeson was a “close cousin of the white supremacy prevailing in the United States,” representing a “lethal menace” to black people.  For Robeson, the suffering of African Americans in their own country was no justification for staying aloof from international politics, but rather a “reason to oppose fascism everywhere” (p.153).

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Spain became the key battleground to oppose fascism, the place where “revolution and reaction contested openly” and “Europe’s fate would be settled” (p.160).  After speaking and raising money on behalf of the Spanish Republican cause in the United States and Britain, Robeson traveled to Barcelona, where he sang frequently.  Robeson’s brief experience in Spain transformed him into a “fervent anti-fascist, committed to an international Popular Front: a global movement uniting democrats and radicals against Hitler, Mussolini, and their allies” that would also extend democracy within the United States, end colonialism abroad, and “abolish racism everywhere” (p.196-97).

Along with many progressives of the 1930s, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union to lead the global fight against racism and fascism.  Robeson once said in Moscow, “I feel like a human being for the first time since I grew up.  Here I am not a Negro but a human being” (p.198).  Robeson’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a place where  a non-racist society was possible “sustained him for the rest of his political life” (p.202).   Although he never joined a communist party, from the 1930s onward Robeson accepted most of the party’s ideas and “loyally followed its doctrinal twists and turns” (p.215).  It is easy, Sparrow indicates, to see Robeson’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union as the “drearily familiar tale of a gullible celebrity flattered by the attentions of a dictatorship” (p.199).

Sparrow wrestles with the question of the extent to which Robeson was aware of the Stalinist terror campaigns that by the late 1930s were taking the lives of millions of innocent Soviet citizens.  He provides no definitive answer to this question, but Robeson never wavered publicly in his support for the Soviet Union.  Had he acknowledged Soviet atrocities, Sparrow writes, he would have besmirched the “vision that had inspired him and all the people like him – the conviction that a better society was an immediate possibility” (p.264).

Robeson devoted himself to the Allied cause when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side fighting Nazi aggression during World War II, “doing whatever he could to help the American government win what he considered an anti-fascist crusade” (p.190).  His passion for Soviet Russia “suddenly seemed patriotic rather than subversive” (p.196-97).  But that quickly changed during the intense anti-Soviet Cold War that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Almost overnight in the United States, communist party members and their sympathizers became associated “not only with a radical political agenda but also with a hostile state.  An accusation of communist sympathies thus implied disloyalty – and possibly treason and espionage” (p.215).

The FBI, which had been monitoring Robeson for years, intensified its scrutiny in 1948.   It warned concert organizers and venue owners not to allow Robeson to perform “communist songs.”  If a planned tour went ahead, Sparrow writes, proprietors were told that they would be:

judged Red sympathizers themselves. The same operation was conducted in all the art forms in which Paul excelled.  All at once, Paul could no longer record music, and the radio would not play his songs.  Cinemas would not screen his movies. The film industry had already recognized that Paul was too dangerous; major theatres arrived at the same conclusion. The mere rumor that an opera company was thinking about casting him led to cries for a boycott.  With remarkable speed, Paul’s career within the country of his birth came to an end (p.216).

In 1950, the US State Department revoked Robeson’s passport after he declined to sign an affidavit denying membership in the Communist Party.  When Robeson testified before the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in 1956, a Committee member asked Robeson why he didn’t go back to the Soviet Union if he liked it so much.  Roberson replied: “Because my father was a slave . . . and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you.  And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” (p.228). Needless to say, this was not what Committee members wanted to hear, and Robeson’s remarks “brought the moral weight of the African-American struggle crashing down upon the session” (p.228-29).

Robeson was forced to stay on the sidelines in early 1956 when the leadership of the fledgling Montgomery bus boycott movement (which included a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) concluded that his presence would undermine the movement’s fragile political credibility.  On the other side of the Cold War divide, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a not-so-secret speech that winter to party loyalists in which he denounced Stalinist purges.   Sparrow hints but doesn’t quite say that Robeson’s exclusion from the bus boycott and Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of the crimes committed in the name of the USSR had a deleterious effect on Robeson’s internal well-being.   He had suffered from bouts of mental depression throughout his adult life, most notably when a love affair with an English actress in the 1930s ended badly (one of several Robeson extra-marital affairs). But his mental health deteriorated during the 1950s, with “periods of mania alternating with debilitating lassitude” (p.225).

Even after Robeson’s passport was restored in 1958 as a result of a Supreme Court decision, he never fully regained his former zest.  A broken man, he spent his final decade nearly invisible, living in his sister’s care before dying of a stroke in 1976.

* * *

                     Sparrow describes his book as something other than a conventional biography, more of a “ghost story” in which particular associations in the places he visited form an “eerie bridge” (p.5) between Robeson’s time and our own.  But his travels to the places where Robeson once lived and his interactions with his local guides have the effect of obscuring the full majesty and tragedy of Robeson’s life.  With too much attention given to Sparrow’s search for what remains of Robeson’s legacy on our side of the bridge, Sparrow’s part biography, part travel memoir comes up short in helping readers discover Robeson himself on the other side.

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 21, 2019

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, European History, History, Politics, United States History

Surviving Modernity

Surviving Modernity

 

 

 

David Brown, Paradise Lost:

A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) 

                A half century ago, most American college students had read at least one F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by the time they graduated, most likely The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald may not be found so readily in college and secondary school curricula these days; he was, after all, a white male and, since 1940, a dead one.  But Fitzgerald remains one of the most written about American writers of the 20th century, on par with his sometimes pal Ernest Hemmingway.  With many general readers, especially those of my generation, more than vaguely familiar with the contours of Fitzgerald’s  life, and with several Fitzgerald biographies available, a biographer faces a challenge in bringing a fresh perspective to any portrait of the intense and often unruly novelist.  In Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Brown, Professor of History at Elizabethtown College, seeks to find that perspective by emphasizing Fitzgerald’s credentials less as a novelist and more as a social and cultural commentator – “one of the more important cultural commentators America has produced”  (p.5-6), Brown writes. 

               In a handful of novels, but also in an abundance of notes, letters, essays and short stories, Fitzgerald produced “penetrating descriptions of the Western world’s leap from feudalism to capitalism, from faith to secularism, and from the tradition oriented to the flux oriented” (p.5).  Fitzgerald’s historical sensibilities “leaned toward the aristocratic, the pre-modern, and the romantic” (p.2).  Brown identifies affinities between Fitzgerald’s social thought and that of numerous other thinkers, among them Thorstein Veblen, Frederick Jackson Turner, and H.L. Mencken.  But he finds historians Henry Adams and the German Oswald Spengler to be Fitzgerald’s “truest intellectual contemporaries.”  Like Adams and Spengler, Fitzgerald “doubted whether older, pre-Enlightenment notions of art, creativity, paternalism, and worship would survive the onset of what we have since come to call ‘modernity’” (p.6). 

              The Fitzgerald who opined on the perils of modernity was very much an “America first” social commentator.  Although he spent limited but highly publicized time in Europe, the Old World entered into Fitzgerald’s commentary primarily as a gauge for measuring America.  Fitzgerald saw in America a “continent of possibilities, a place to escape the Old World’s rigidly enforced class structures and adopt new identities” (p.6), yet he shared the pessimism of Spengler and Adams.  In Fitzgerald’s view, the virtues he ascribed to America had all but expired during the so-called Gilded Age, the last three decades of the 19th century following the American Civil War.  The industrialization of the Gilded Age brought the “rise of vast industrial fortunes that blotted out an earlier idealism,” replaced by a “soulless materialism” (p.6).  Depicting an America “unusually thick with fallen heroes, martyrs to a powerful social-mobility mythology,” Fitzgerald’s writings were fused with the “disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth” (p.344).

              Although Fitzgerald considered himself politically on the left – he self-identified as a socialist in the 1921 Who’s Who in America — his critique of capitalism was conservative and sentimental, Brown contends, based on nostalgia for a bygone agrarian and small town era.  Much like Mencken, Fitzgerald refused to vest much faith in “the people.”  Brown also sees a linking of common concerns between Fitzgerald and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.  A generation older than Fitzgerald, Turner became famous for his thesis that the closing of the American frontier around 1890 had indelibly shaped American democracy.  Both men, Brown writes, were “motivated by romantic impulses, and each observed the settlement of once-open territory as an enclosure of imagination as well as property” (p.176).  Fitzgerald asked in his own way the same question that Turner had raised: if the unsettled lands of the American frontier had created a “‘democratic’ personality type – independent, inventive, egalitarian – then what was the future of an America without frontiers?” (p.176).   

            Brown deftly weaves Fitzgerald’s social commentary into an erudite, chronologically arranged biography, situating Fitzgerald in three historical periods, each a separate section: 1) “Beginnings,” 1896 -1920, his early years and youth, ending with his famous  — perhaps infamous — marriage to Zelda Sayre in 1920; 2) “Building Up,” 1920-1925, the “Jazz Age” (a term that Fitzgerald is credited with coining) that was his  triumphant period; and 3) “Breaking Down,” 1925-1940, when Fitzgerald’s world began to fall apart prior to and during the global economic collapse of the 1930s, up to his death in 1940.  Brown finishes with a final section, “Ghosts and Legends,” addressing Zelda’s life after Fitzgerald, up to her own tragic death in a fire in 1948, and the rise of a Fitzgerald legend which began unexpectedly after World War II. 

* * *

             Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the upper Mid-West, and spent his earliest years there.  His mother Mollie, of Irish immigrant stock, was the daughter of a successful immigrant wholesale grocer.  His father Edward, also of Irish descent, came from an entrenched landowning family that counted Francis Scott Key as an ancestor; Scott’s birth name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  Edward had grown up in Maryland, a border state during the American Civil War.  But his  family’s loyalties were unreservedly with the Confederacy during the war.  As an adult, Edward failed in many businesses.  Mollie and Edward, Brown writes, embodied “distinct sides of the American experience – the rising immigrant in Mollie’s case, the vanishing southern aristocracy in Edward’s,” all the while sharing a tendentious marital life “burdened by an inexorable slide into polite poverty” (p.9).

            The young Fitzgerald absorbed from his father much of the ethos and mythology of the Confederate “lost cause” and “doomed nobility,” retaining vaguely southern sympathies throughout his adult life.  But as Brown points out, Fitzgerald entertained an idealized notion of “Dixie,” chivalric, refined, and cavalier.  Like most white Americans of his day, Fitzgerald “never really considered the question of slavery and its aftermath as anything more than an abstraction, and thus he never wrestled with its deep ethical implications.  Consequently, he handled somewhat clumsily the few black Americans and Europeans who turn up in his novels and stories” (p.190).

            Bland St. Paul offered Fitzgerald a “wide avenue of exploration into the American character and its relationship to place and tradition” (p.26).  Fitzgerald’s St. Paul embodied “solidity and stability, a city of neighborhood hardware stores, spruced up Main Streets, and a few first families to establish tone” (p.26).  But Fitzgerald left St. Paul as an adolescent to attend the Newman School, a boarding school outside Hackensack, New Jersey, which styled itself as the “Catholic Andover.”   The young man played football, a rough contact sport that was relatively new at the time.  Although a mediocre player, he wrote about football frequently in future novels and short stories.  Despite poor grades and his share of fistfights, Fitzgerald manifested a talent for writing while at Newman.  When his maternal grandmother died and left his mother a small fortune, Fitzgerald determined that Princeton University, also in New Jersey, was the next place for him. 

              Princeton’s proximity to New York, its opportunities for literary output, and its aristocratic mien attracted Fitzgerald.  But he twice failed the entrance exam, after which he scheduled an appointment with the Admissions Committee.  Somehow the 17-year-old lad sold himself to the Committee (what a pity there is no record for posterity of that meeting), and he entered Princeton in the fall of 1913.  Then known as the Ivy League school for Southern gentlemen, Princeton was a place where callow, wealthy young men “basked in the superiority of their superiority” (p.44), as Brown puts it.  At best a mediocre student at Princeton, Fitzgerald never graduated. 

               Yet, Princeton shaped Fitzgerald profoundly.  He befriended future literary critic Edmund Wilson as an undergraduate and showed considerable promise as a writer.   Many of Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Brown notes, “bear the indelible impress of the Princeton years and more broadly his experiences within the privileged world of the Ivy elite” (p.48).  From Princeton onward, wealth became a subject of intense interest to Fitzgerald “primarily as an entry to experiences otherwise denied.” (p.43).  His “complex reactions to the leisure class,” dating from his undergraduate years, can be bluntly reduced to his view that “wealth was wasted on the rich”  (p.44).   

              Fitzgerald drank a lot as a Princeton undergraduate, but so did many of his schoolmates.  Excessive drinking was written off as “nothing more than a rite of passage, part of the collegiate experience as much as athletics, course work, and clubs” (p.49).  From his Princeton days onward, however, Fitzgerald was a “functional alcoholic” in an era when alcoholism was considered a character defect or a matter of personal weakness rather than an illness.  Fitzgerald came to view drinking as an “almost indispensable part of the writer’s world.  Occasions on which to discuss books, publishing, and composing were invariably occasions to drink” (p.116-17).  Hard spirits for Fitzgerald were the “due of an Irish novelist,” with excessive drinking serving as a “necessary precondition to composition” (p.228).

              Halfway through his sophomore year at Princeton, Fitzgerald fell head over heels for Ginevra King, a debutante from a prominent Chicago banking family.  Brown characterizes Scott’s courtship of Ginevra as a “fool’s errand, a case of begging for inevitable disappointment” (p.59).  But Ginevra proved to be a model for many female characters in his forthcoming novels, a “composite of flapper, flirt, and baby-vamp, the temptress who stands for wealth and irresponsibility in relation to a man situated precariously between his work and his woman” (p.59).  Fitzgerald’s courtship of Ginevra, Brown continues, “tells us something important about his mixed attitude toward women.  Even a cursory perusal of his published writing reveals a penchant for dividing the genders between female realism and male romance.  In the Fitzgerald canon, women are often wreckers of men, taking their dignity, extracting their vitality, and dulling their work habits” (p.63). 

               Fitzgerald left Princeton for the military after the United States entered World War I, but was never sent into combat.  While stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, near Montgomery, he met Zelda Sayre.  An Alabama Belle, as Brown repeatedly terms her, Zelda was four years younger than Fitzgerald.  Her father, then serving as a justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, traced his family’s roots to the planter class of the Old South.  Zelda thus spoke to the side of Fitzgerald enamored of the “lost cause” and taken in by ostensible Southern gentility.  Scott’s interest in Zelda intensified after he learned of Ginevra’s engagement to another man.  But Zelda had doubts whether the aspiring writer had the means to support her.  By November 1919, however, he had proven himself to be a sufficient money-maker after he sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post, and the couple married the following April in a small, rushed ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

              Eight days prior to the wedding ceremony, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, was published.   The novel, which he had worked on while stationed in Alabama, “touched on the social permissiveness of the era, increasingly candid attitudes toward sexuality, and the general coming down of prewar cultural taboos” (p.5).  A coming-of-age novel in which the main character “achieves a hard-earned insight . . . no love goes unpunished, no creed escapes unscathed” (p.85), This Side of Paradise established Fitzgerald’s reputation as an authoritative cultural commentator.  The novel in Brown’s interpretation demonstrated Fitzgerald’s particular affinity to radical economist Thorstein Veblen, offering a “penetrating commentary on the American failure to transcend the cash nexus that sustained, as Veblen had put it, the country’s peculiar loyalty to its glittering if rapacious ‘leisure class”” (p.86).

              The Fitzgeralds’ earliest days as a married couple coincided with Scott’s rising celebrity, due primarily to the early success of This Side of Paradise.   Despite strains that were evident early in the marriage, Scott and Zelda formed what Brown terms a “productive if one-sided partnership” (p.78).  But rather than simply enjoy the moment, they seemed “determined to push it forward, prolonging its intensity and exhausting its possibilities.  As if performing, they played up several personalities (the writer, the belle, the flapper, the moralist, the drunkard . .  . ) before attentive audiences.  What they lacked was a stretch of time off the society pages to develop a deeper rapport, though in fact neither seemed to want this” (p.77). 

              The nomadic couple was famous for living in Paris and the French Riviera (where Scott befriended fellow novelist Ernest Hemmingway, who never got along with Zelda); and in Manhattan and Great Neck, on Long Island.  But they also had stints in Connecticut, Delaware, Alabama and a return period in St. Paul.  Wherever they went, they rented.   Whenever they could, they rang up high hotel bills, kept cooks and nannies, and threw lavish parties.  Their only child, daughter Frances, always called “Scottie,” was born in 1921.  Fitzgerald also formed a long-standing relationship during this high-visibility period with Scribner, the distinguished New York publishing firm, and he earned steady money by selling imaginative short stories to the Saturday Evening Post. 

              Then, in 1925 and not yet 30 years old, Fitzgerald saw the publication of The Great Gatsby.  Written primarily while in France, The Great Gatsby brought Fitzgerald to the “summit of American letters” (p.11).  The novel takes place in the fictional Long Island towns of East and West Egg and portrays the mysterious Jay Gatsby and his obsessive passion for Daisy Buchanan (whose father was modeled after Ginevra’s father).  Gatsby, Brown writes,  “stands in a long line of Fitzgerald types – flawed heroes, poor boys – who smash against the collective might of their well-to-do tormentors” (p.125).  

              Fitzgerald’s portrait of Gatsby presented what Brown terms a “stunning interpretation of historical progression, commencing with the age of European discovery and concluding with the closing of the American frontier.  In place of the virgin land that once attracted European settlers stood a nation whose grandest dreams had run to a dull materialism” (p.172).  In his ruminations on the “restless nature of the human spirit in tension with a taming ‘civilization’” (p.179-80), Fitzgerald echoed the thought of Frederick Jackson Turner.  Brown also finds The Great Gatsby to be in line with Sinclair Lewis’ satiric Babbitt, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with their “sharp and unsparing” criticism of the “strong association of success with materialism” (p.169).

              Writing The Great Gatsby “marked the high point of Fitzgerald’s restive years abroad” (p.183).  In the years following their return to the United States,  Scott’s increasing alcohol abuse and recurrent financial difficulties coincided with Zelda’s hospitalization for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia.  She spent time in institutions in Switzerland, Maryland and North Carolina, and never fully recovered.  Scott, “once the embodiment of twenties excess,” (p.12) seemed to be wrestling in the disorderly 1930s with what Brown describes as the “loss of a romantic idealism that had once served as the rock on which he rested – both emotionally and artistically” (p.281).  He came to recognize the cultural consequences of modernity:  the “volatile merging of capitalism, secularism, rationalism, and industrialism that had become the dominant impulse propelling Western civilization” (p.282).  Brown emphasizes affinities between Fitzgerald’s thinking and that of contemporaries also questioning the efficacy of modernism, among them philosopher George Santayana, poet James Russell Lowell, and art critic Bernhard Berenson.

             After The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald did not publish another novel until 1934, when Tender is the Night — in Brown’s view Fitzgerald’s finest novel — appeared.  Within the narrative framework of a dying marriage, Tender is the Night analyzes the “collapse of the old Victorian universe and its replacement by a brave new world dominated by hardened ‘survivors’ who had managed to pass through the carnage of the Great War seemingly without regret or reflection,” only to inherit a “diminished social order bereft of compassion, sentimentality, or even the comforting consistency of . . . ‘middle class love’” (p.11).  In its criticism of a capitalist system in which money was the arbiter of power, prestige, and morality, Tender is the Night captured Fitzgerald’s historical vision “more completely than anything else he ever wrote” (p.263). 

              With Zelda hospitalized, Fitzgerald ventured to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter.  Hollywood seemed like an ideal location for Fitzgerald, a modern place with a special role in portraying and shaping American culture, as well as the geographic end point of the American frontier.  Fitzgerald had an intimate relationship in Hollywood with Sheilah Graham, a British-born gossip columnist.  Decidedly more stable than Zelda, Graham “may well have constituted a relationship of atonement for Fitzgerald.  Accordingly, he both loved and begrudged her as the devoted caregiver whose mere presence affirmed his fallen star” (p.301).  Fitzgerald “never liked living in California and found it impossible to mute his deeply ingrained aversion to the business-first mentality of the studio bosses,” contributing further to a “sense of alienation on the West Coast” (p.12).     

              In the last portion of the book, Brown brings into focus Fitzgerald’s relationship with his daughter Scottie.  We don’t learn much about Scottie’s youth, but she must have had an exceedingly difficult childhood, given her mother’s mental health problems, her father’s alcoholism, and the tumultuous existence her parents lived together.  While not discounting these factors in shaping Scottie’s life, Brown emphasizes the depth of affection between father and daughter (he spends little time on the mother-daughter relationship).  In passages from several letters which Brown quotes, Scottie shows an awareness of the degree to which she was denied a normal childhood.  Yet, love plainly bound her to her father.  Fitzgerald, for his part, was determined that Scottie be “self-sufficient, an equal partner, and to carry her share – all the things he had wished for in Zelda” (p.312).

               Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack in late November 1940, as he was seeking to finish what would be his last novel, The Last Tycoon. He died amidst little fanfare on December 21, 1940, with The Last Tycoon appearing the following year.  Zelda died in a fire in 1948 at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was institutionalized. 

               Surprisingly, Fitzgerald’s works sold far better after World War II than they had during his lifetime.   His friend Edmund Wilson wrote that a cult had grown up around Fitzgerald after his death, which had “gone beyond mere admiration for the author of some excellent books.  He had taken on the aspect of a martyr, a sacrificial victim, a semi-divine personage” (p.337).  Several biographies on Fitzgerald appeared in the post-World War II period.   In 1958, however, Sheilah Graham came out with Beloved Infidel, which disparaged all prior works on Fitzgerald.  “This is not the Scott I knew” (p.343), she wrote.  Approaching Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and other demons with compassion, Graham emphasized his humor, humanity, and efforts to finish his last novel while ill.   Wilson found her book to be by far the best on Fitzgerald.  In Graham, he wrote, Fitzgerald had found an “effective advocate, just as the debate over the ‘meaning’ of his life was beginning to take shape” (p.344).   

* * *

               In this complex yet highly readable biography, Brown shines intriguing light upon Fitzgerald as a social commentator and cultural historian, the “annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom twenties and bust thirties” (p.1).  Fitzgerald was able to write as powerfully as he did about historical change in America because, as Brown ably  demonstrates, he identified with the country in an intensely personal way. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

August 13, 2019

10 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Literature

Medieval Scholar On the Front Lines of Modern History

 

Robert Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz:

A Life (Princeton University Press)

          Potential readers are likely to ask themselves whether they should invest their time in a biography of a medieval historian, especially one they probably had never heard of previously.  Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) may be worth their time because he was more than just one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of medieval Europe, a scholar who changed the way we look at the Middle Ages, although for many readers that alone should be sufficient to warrant their time.   But Kantorowicz’s life story is only in part that of an academic.  It also encompasses some of the 20th century’s most consequential moments.

             A German Jew, Kantorowicz fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, then took up arms on three separate occasions on behalf of Germany in the chaotic and often violent period immediately following the war.  After the Nazis took power, Kantorowicz became one of the fiercest academic critics of the regime.  Forced to flee Germany in 1938, Kantorowicz wound up in the United States, where he became, like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and scores of others, a German Jewish émigré who enriched incalculably American cultural and intellectual life.  He landed at the University of California, Berkeley.  But just as he was settling comfortably into American academic life, Kantorowicz was fired from the Berkeley faculty when he refused to sign a McCarthy-era, Cold War loyalty oath – although not before distinguishing himself as the faculty’s most vocal and perhaps most eloquent opponent of the notion of loyalty oaths. 

          In Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life, Robert Lerner, himself a prominent medieval historian who is professor emeritus at Northwestern University, painstakingly revisits these turbulent 20th century moments that Kantorowicz experienced first hand.  He adds to them his analyses of Kantorowicz’ scholarly output and creative thinking about medieval Europe, by which Kantorowicz earned his reputation as one of the “most noted humanistic scholars of the twentieth century” (p.387).  Lerner also demonstrates how Kantorowicz transformed from a fervently conservative German nationalist in the World War I era to an ardently liberal, anti-nationalist in the post-World War II era.  And he adds to this mix Kantorowicz’s oversized personality and unconventional personal life: urbane, witty, and sometimes nasty, Kantorowicz was a “natty dresser, a noted wine connoisseur, and a flamboyant cook” (p.4) who was also bi-sexual, alternating between men and women in his romantic affairs.  Lerner skillfully blends these elements together in this comprehensive biography, arranged in strict chronological form.

          Although Kantorowicz’s life’s journey encompassed well more than his time and output as an academic, he was a student or teacher at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Heidelberg in the 1920s, Oxford in the 1930s, the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s, and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1950s.  His stints in Heidelberg and Oxford produced the two major influences on Kantorowicz’s intellectual life: Stefan George and Maurice Bowra.  In Heidelberg, Kantorowicz fell under the spell of George, a mesmerizing poet and homoerotic cult-like leader who espoused anti-rationalism, anti-modernism and hero worship.  In the following decade at Oxford, he met Maurice Bowra, a distinguished classicist, literary critic, and part time poet, known for his biting wit, notorious quips, and “open worship of pleasure” (p.176).  George and Bowra are easily the book’s two most memorable supporting characters. 

          Kantorowicz’s life, like almost all German Jews of his generation lucky enough to survive the Hitler regime, breaks down into three broad phases: before, during and after that regime.  In Kantorwicz’s case, the first may be the most captivating of the three phases.

* * *

          Ernst Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, today Poznań and part of Poland but then part of Prussian Germany.  The son of a prosperous German-Jewish liquor manufacturer, Kantorowicz volunteered to fight for the Kaiser in World War I.  Wounded at Verdun, the war’s longest and costliest battle, Kantorowicz was awarded an Iron Cross for his valiant service on the Western Front.  In early 1917, Kantorowicz was dispatched to the Russian front, and thereafter to Constantinople.   In Turkey, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of Iron Cross.  But his service in Turkey came to an abrupt end when he had an affair with a woman who was the mistress of a German general. 

          In the immediate post-war era, Kantorowicz fought against a Polish revolt in his native city of Posen; against the famous Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (the uprising’s 100th anniversary last month seems to have passed largely unnoticed); and later that year against the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.  In September 1919, Kantorowicz matriculated at the University of Heidelberg, ostensibly to study economics, a sign that he intended to take up his family business from his father, who had died earlier that year.  But while at Heidelberg Kantorowicz also developed interests in Arabic, Islamic Studies, history and geography.  In 1921, he was awarded a doctorate based on a slim dissertation on guild associations in the Muslim world, a work that Lerner spends several pages criticizing (“All told it was a piece of juvenilia . . .  [C]oncern for proof by evidence and the weighing of sources were absent.  Nuance was not even a goal;” p.65). 

          Kantorowicz in these years was plainly caught up in the impassioned nationalist sentiments that survived and intensified in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliating terms imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles.  In 1922, he wrote that German policy should be dedicated to the destruction of France.  His nationalist sentiments were heightened in Heidelberg when he came under the spell of the poet-prophet Stefan George, one of the dominant cultural figures in early 20th century Germany.

          George was a riveting, charismatic cult figure who groomed a coterie of carefully selected young men, all “handsome and clever” (p.3).  Those in his circle (the George-Kreis in German) were “expected to address him in the third person, hang on his every word, and propagate his ideals by their writings and example” (p.3).  George read his “lush” and “esoteric” poetry as if at a séance (p.69).  Since George took beauty to be the expression of spiritual excellence, he often asked young men to stand naked before the others, as if models for a sculptor. 

          George was “firmly antidemocratic” and rhapsodized over an idealized leader who would “lead ‘heroes’ under his banner” (p.80).  By means of George’s teaching and influence, the young men of the George-Kreis were expected to “partake of his wisdom and become vehicles for the arduous but inevitable triumph of a wonderfully transformed Germany,” (p.72), a land of “truth and purity” (p.3).  George urged Kantorowicz to write a “heroic” biography of 13th century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), at various times King of Sicily, Germany, Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Empire.  George considered Frederick II the embodiment of the leadership qualities that post-World War I Germany sorely lacked.

          Kantorowicz’s esoteric and unconventional biography came out in 1927, the first full-scale work on Frederick II to be published in German.  Although written for a popular audience, the massive work (632 pages) appeared at a time when German scholars recognized that the work had filled a void.  Out of nowhere, Lerner writes, along came the 31 year old Kantorowicz, who had “never taken a university course in medieval history” (p.107), offering copious detail about Frederick II’s reign.  Although the book lacked documentation, it was obviously based on extensive research.  The book proved attractive for its style as much as its substance.  Kantorowicz demonstrated that he was a “forceful writer, taken to employing high-flown rhetoric, alliteration, and sometimes archaic diction for dramatic effect” (p.101). Moreover, he utilized unconventional sources, such as legends, prophecies, manifestoes, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants.

           But Kantorowicz’s work was controversial.  Being published without footnotes led some to charge that he was making up his story, a charge he later rebutted with copious notes.  Others found the biography too enthusiastic, and insufficiently dispassionate and objective.  To many, it seemed to celebrate authoritarianism and glorify German nationalism.  Kantorowicz portrayed Frederick as a tragic hero and the idealized personification of a medieval German nation.  Although not religious, Lerner finds that Kantorowicz came close to implying that the hand of God was at work in Frederick’s achievements.  Early versions of the book carried a swastika on the cover, and the Nazis seemed to like it, even though written by a Jew.  Their affinity for the book may have been one reason Kantorowicz later sought to put distance between himself and the work that established his scholarly reputation.

          In 1924, while preparing the biography, Kantorowicz traveled to the Italian portions of Frederick’s realm, where he was deeply impressed with the remains of the ancient Greeks.  The journey converted him into a Hellenophile, a lover of ancient Greek civilization.  From that point forward, even though Kantorowicz’s publications and his academic life continued to center on the Middle Ages, his emotional commitment lay with the ancients, another indication of George’s influence. 

          In 1930, Kantorowicz’s work on Frederick II earned him a teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, only 50 miles from Heidelberg but an altogether different sort of institution.  Prosperous merchants, including many Jews, had founded the university only in 1914, and it was among the most open of German universities to Jewish scholars.   In the winter of 1932, Kantorowicz acceded to a full professorial position at Frankfurt.  But his life was upended one year later when the Nazis ascended to power, beginning the second of his life’s three phases.

* * *

          Ever an elitist, Kantorowicz looked down upon the Nazis as “rabble” (p.159), although there is some indication that he initially approved of the Nazis’ national-oriented views, or at least found them substantially co-terminus with his own.  But by the end of 1933, his situation as a Jewish professor had become “too precarious for him to continue holding his chair” (p.158), and he was forced to resign from the Frankfurt faculty.  He found plenty of time for research because he could no longer teach, comparing himself to Petrarch as a  “learned hermit” (p.185).

            After resigning from the faculty at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz gained a six-month, non-paying fellowship at Oxford in 1934.  The fellowship transformed Kantorowicz into a life-long anglophile and enabled him to improve his English, a skill that would be vital to his survival when he had to flee Germany a few years later.  Almost everyone Kantorowicz met at Oxford was on the political left, and the German nationalist began unmistakably to move in this direction during his Oxford sojourn.  Renowned French medievalist Marc Bloch was at Oxford at the same time.  The two hit it off well, another  indication that Kantorowicz’s nationalist and anti-French strains were mellowing. 

            But the most lasting relationship arising out of Kantorowicz’s fellowship at Oxford was with Maurice Bowra, as eccentric in his own way as George.  An expert on ancient Greek poetry, Bowra was famous for his spontaneous, off-color aphorisms.  Isaiah Berlin termed Bowra the “greatest English wit of his day” (p.176). Bowra was as openly gay as one could be in 1930s England, and had an affair with Kantorowicz during the latter’s time at Oxford.  Although their romance cooled thereafter, the two remained in contact for the remainder of Kantorowicz’s life.  Lerner sees Bowra replacing George as the major intellectual influence upon Kantorowicz after his stint at Oxford.   

            Back in Germany by mid-1934, Kantorowicz received the status of “professor emeritus” that provided regular payments of a pension at full salary “as if he had retired at the end of a normal career” (p.186).  That Kantorowicz remained in Germany in these years demonstrated to some that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a view that Lerner vigorously rejects.  “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the  Third Reich” (p.171),  Lerner insists. But Kantorowicz barely escaped arrest in the wake of the violent November 1938 anti-Semitic outburst known as Kristallnacht.  Within weeks, he had fled his native country  — thereby moving into the third and final phase of his life’s journey.

* * *

            After a brief stop in England, Kantorowicz found himself in the fall of 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a one-year teaching appointment.   Until he was awarded a full professorship in 1945, he faced unemployment each year, rescued at the last minute by additional one-year appointments.  The four years from June 1945 until June 1949, Lerner writes, were “probably the happiest in Ernst Kantorowicz’s life.”  He considered himself to be in a “land of lotus-eaters . . . Conviviality was unending, as was scholarly work”  (p.294).  He was smitten by the pretty girls in his classes, and had a prolonged affair with a cousin who lived with her husband in Stockton, some 50 miles away, but had a car.  By this time the fervent German nationalist had become, just as fervently, an anti-nationalist well to the left of the political center who worried that the hyper-nationalism of the Cold War was leading inevitably to nuclear war and identified strongly with the struggle for justice for African-Americans.     

            Substantively, Lerner characterizes Kantorowicz’s scholarly work in his Berkeley years as nothing short of amazing.  He began to consider Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian civilizations collectively, finding in them a “composite coherence” (p.261), perhaps a predictable outgrowth of his affinity for the ancient civilizations.  Kantorowicz’s perspective foreshadowed the late 20th century tendency to treat these civilizations together as a single “world of late antiquity.”  He was also beginning to focus on the emergence of nation states in Western Europe.  In part because of uncertainty with the English language, Kantorowicz wrote out all his lectures, and they are still available.  Browsing through them today, Lerner writes, “one can see that they not only were dazzling in their insights, juxtapositions, and sometimes even new knowledge but also were works of art, structurally and rhetorically” (p.273). 

            If the years 1945 to 1949 were the happiest of Kantorowicz’s life, the period from July 1949 through August 1950, one of the hottest periods in the Cold War, was almost as trying as his time in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Berkeley President Robert Sproul imposed an enhanced version of a California state loyalty oath on the university’s academic employees, with the following poison pill: “I do not believe in, and I an not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means” (p.313).  The oath affected tenured as well as non-tenured instructors — it was no oath, no job, even for the most senior faculty members.

           Kantorowicz refused to sign the oath. One Berkeley faculty member recalled years later that Kantorowicz had been “undoubtedly the most militant of the non-signers” (p.317).  Invoking his experience as an academic in Hitler’s Germany, Kantorowicz argued that even if the oath appeared mild, such coerced signing was always the first step toward something stronger.  He termed the requirement a “shameful and undignified action,” an “affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity,” requiring a faculty member to give up “his tenure . . . his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar” (p.314). Professional fitness to teach or engage in research, Kantorowicz argued, should be determined by an “objective evaluation of the quality of the individual’s mind, character, and loyalty, and not by his political or religious beliefs or lawful associations”  (p.326).

             In August 1950, Kantorowicz and one other survivor of Nazi Germany were among several Berkeley faculty members officially expelled from the University.  Their dismissals were subsequently reversed by a state court of appeals in 1952, but on the technical ground that the university couldn’t carve out separate oaths for faculty members.  The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision in October 1952, which entitled Kantorowicz to reinstatement and severance pay.  But by that time he had left Berkeley for the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey (technically separate from Princeton University).

          The Princeton phase of Kantorowicz’s life seems drab and post-climatic by comparison. But in 1957, while at Princeton, Kantorowicz produced The King’s Two Bodies, his most significant work since his biography of Frederick II more than a quarter of a century earlier.  Using an “astonishing diversity of sources” (p.355), especially legal sources, Kantorowicz melded medieval theology with constitutional and legal history, political theory, and medieval ideas of kingship to generate a new vision of the Middle Ages. 

          Kantorowicz’s notion of the king having two bodies derived from a Tudor legal fiction that the king’s “body politic” is, in effect, immortal.  In The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz found a link between the concept of undying corporations in English law and the notion of two bodies for the king.  Because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, Kantorowicz maintained that it was “only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape” (p.351).  With new angles to legal history, political theory, and ideas of kingship, The King’s Two Bodies constitutes one of Kantorowicz’s “great historiographical triumphs” (p.355), as Lerner puts it. Appreciation for Kantorowicz’s last major — and most lasting — contribution to medieval scholarship continued to increase in the years after its initial publication.  

            Kantorowicz’s articles after The King’s Two Bodies revolved in different ways around the “close relationship between the divinity and the ruler, and about the vicissitudes of that relationship” (p.363).  In late 1962, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, yet  went about his affairs as if nothing had changed.  He “carried on earnestly with his dining and imbibing.  As usual he drank enough wine and spirits to wash an elephant” (p.376).  He died in Princeton of a ruptured aneurysm in September 1963 at age 68.

* * *

            Some readers may find that Lerner dwells excessively on academic politics – a dissection of the letters of recommendation on behalf of Kantorowicz’s candidacy for a position at Berkeley spans several pages, for example.  In addition, the paperback version is set in small type, making it an eye-straining experience and giving the impression that the subject matter is denser than it really is.  But undeterred readers, willing to plough through the book’s nearly 400 pages, should be gratified by its insights into a formidable scholar of medieval times as he lived through some of the most consequential moments of modern times.  As Lerner aptly concludes, given Kantorowicz’s remarkable life, a biography “could not be helped” (p.388).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 13, 2019

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Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, German History, History, Intellectual History, United States History

Just How Machiavellian Was He?

 

Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox:

Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom 

            Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Florentine writer, civil servant, diplomat and political philosopher, continues to confound historians, philosophers and those interested in the genealogy of political thinking.  His name has become a well-known adjective, “Machiavellian,” referring to principles and methods of expediency, craftiness, and duplicity in politics.  Common synonyms for “Machiavellian” include “scheming,” “cynical,” “shrewd” and “cunning.”  For some, Machiavellian politics constitute nothing less than a prescription for maintaining power at any cost, in which dishonesty is exalted and the killing of innocents authorized if necessary.  Machiavelli earned this dubious reputation primarily through his best known work, The Prince, published in 1532, five years after his death, in which he purported to advise political leaders in Florence and elsewhere – “princes” – on how to maintain power, particularly in a republic, where political leadership is not based on monarchy or titles of nobility and citizens are supposed to be on equal footing.

            But to this day there is no consensus as to whether the adjective “Machiavellian” fairly captures the Florentine’s objectives and outlook.  Many see in Machiavelli an early proponent of republican government and consider his thinking a precursor to modern democratic ideas.  Erica Brenner, author of two other books on Machiavelli, falls squarely into this camp.  In Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, Benner portrays Machiavelli as a “thorough-going republican,” and a “eulogist of democracy” who “sought to uphold high moral standards” and “defend the rule of law against corrupt popes and tyrants” (p.xvi).   Brenner discounts the shocking advice of The Prince as bait for tyrants.

            Machiavelli wore the mask of helpful advisor, Benner writes, “all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin” (p.xv).  As a “master ironist” and a “dissimulator who offers advice that he knows to be imprudent” (p.xvi), Machiavelli’s hidden intent was to “show how far princes will go to hold on to power” and to “warn people who live in free republics about the risks they face if they entrust their welfare to one man” (p. xvi-xvii).   A deeper look at Machiavelli’s major writings, particularly The Prince and his Discourses on Livy, nominally a discussion of politics in ancient Rome, reveals Machiavelli’s insights on several key questions about republican governance, among them: how can leaders in a republic sustain power over the long term; how can a republic best protect itself from threats to its existence, internal and external; and how can a republic avoid lapsing into tyranny.

            Benner advances her view of Machiavelli as a forerunner of modern liberal democracy by placing the Florentine “squarely in his world, among his family, friends, colleagues and compatriots” (p.xix).  Her work has some of the indicia of biography, yet is unusual in that it is written almost entirely in the present tense.  Rather than setting out Machiavelli’s ideas on governance as abstractions, she has taken his writings and integrated them into dialogues, using italics to indicate verbatim quotations – a method which, she admits, “transgresses the usual biographical conventions” but nonetheless constitutes a “natural way to show [her] protagonist in his element” (p.xx).  Benner’s title alludes to Machiavelli’s observation that a fox has a particular kind of cunning that can recognize traps and avoid snares.  Humans need to emulate a fox by being “armed with mental agility rather than physical weapons” and developing a kind of cunning that “sees through ruses, decent words or sacred oaths” (p.151).

            Machiavelli’s world in this “real time” account is almost Shakespearean, turning on intrigue and foible in the pursuit and exercise of power, and on the shortsightedness not only of princes and those who worked for them and curried their favor, but also of those who worked against them and plotted their overthrow.  But Benner’s story is not always easy story to follow.  Readers unfamiliar with late 15th and early 16th Florentine politics may experience difficulty in constructing the big picture amidst the continual conspiring, scheming and back-stabbing.  At the outset, in a section termed “Dramatis Personae,” she lists the story’s numerous major characters by category (e.g., family, friends, popes), and readers will want to consult this helpful list liberally as they work their way through her rendering of Machiavelli. The book would have also benefitted from a chronology setting out in bullet form the major events in Machiavelli’s lifetime.

* * *

               Florence in Machiavelli’s time was already at its height as the center of the artistic and cultural flourishing known as the Renaissance.  But Benner’s story lies elsewhere, focused on the city’s cutthroat political life, dominated as it was by the Medici family.  Bankers to the popes, patrons of Renaissance art, and masters of political cronyism, the Medici exercised close to outright control of Florence from the early 15th century until thrown out of power in 1494, with the assistance of French king Charles VIII, at the outset of Machiavelli’s career. They recaptured control in 1512, but were expelled again in 1527, months before Machiavelli’s death, this time with the assistance of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V.  Lurking behind the Medici family were the popes in Rome, linked to the family through intertwining and sometimes familial relationships.   In a time of rapidly shifting alliances, the popes competed with rulers from France, Spain and the mostly German-speaking Holy Roman Empire for worldly control over Florence and Italy’s other city-states, duchies and mini-kingdoms, all at a time when ominous challenges to papal authority had begun to gather momentum in other parts of Europe.

           The 1494 plot that threw Piero de’ Medici out of power was an exhilarating moment for the young Machiavelli.  Although Florence under the Medici had nominally been a republic — Medici leaders insisted they were simply “First Citizens” — Machiavelli and other Florentines of his generation welcomed the new regime as an opportunity to “build a republic in deed, not just in name, stronger and freer than all previous Florence governments” (p.63).  With the Medici outside the portals of power, worthy men of all stripes, and not just Medici cronies, would be “free to hold office, speak their minds, and play their part in the great, messy, shared business of civil self-government” (p.63).

             Machiavelli entered onto the Florentine political stage at this optimistic time.  He went on to serve as a diplomat for the city of Florence and held several high-level civil service positions, including secretary – administrator – for Florence’s war committee.   In this position, Machiavelli promoted the idea that Florence should abandon its reliance upon mercenaries with no fixed loyalties to fight its wars and cultivate its own home grown fighting force, a “citizens’ militia.”

         Machiavelli’s civil service career came to an abrupt halt in 1513, shortly after Guiliano de’ Medici, with the assistance of Pope Julius II and Spanish troops, wrestled back control over Florence’s government. The new regime accused Machiavelli of participating in an anti-Medici coup.  He was imprisoned, tortured, and banished from government, spending most of the ensuing seven years on the family farm outside Florence. Ironically, he had reconciled with the Medici and re-established a role for himself in Florence’s government by the time of the successful 1527 anti-Medici coup, two months prior to his death.   Machiavelli thus spent his final weeks as an outcast in a new government that he in all likelihood supported.

         The Prince and the Discourses on Livy took shape between 1513 and 1520, Machiavelli’s period of forced exile from political and public life, during which he drew upon his long experience in government to formulate his guidance to princes on how to secure and maintain political power. Although both works were published after his death in 1527, Benner uses passages from them — always in italics — to illuminate particular events of Machiavelli’s life.  Extracting from these passages and Benner’s exegesis upon them, we can parse out a framework for Machiavelli’s ideal republic.  That framework begins with Machiavelli’s consistent excoriation of the shortsightedness of the ruling princes and political leaders of his day, in terms that seem equally apt to ours.

                To maintain power over the long term, leaders need to eschew short-term gains and benefits and demonstrate, as Benner puts it, a “willingness to play the long game, to pit patience against self-centered impetuosity” (p.8). As Machiavelli wrote in the Discourses, for a prince it is necessary to have the people friendly; otherwise he has no remedy in adversity” (p.167).  A prince who thinks he can rule without taking popular interests seriously “will soon lose his state . . . [E]ven the greatest princes need to deal transparently with their allies and share power with their people if they want to maintain their state” (p.250).  Governments that seek to satisfy the popular desire are “firmer and last longer than those that let a few command the rest” (p.260).   Machiavelli’s long game thus hints at the modern notion that the most effective government is one that has the consent of the governed.

           Machiavelli’s ideal republic was not a democracy based upon direct rule by the people but rather upon what we today would term the “rule of law.”  In his Discourses, Machiavelli argued that long-lasting republics “have had need of being regulated by the laws” (p.261).  It is the “rule of laws that stand above the entire demos and regulate the relations between ‘its parts,’ as he calls them,” Benner explains, “so that no class or part can dominate the others” (p.275).  Upright leaders should put public laws above their own or other people’s private feelings.  They should resist emotional appeals to ties of family or friendship, and punish severely when the laws and the republic’s survival so demands.  Arms and justice together are the foundation of Machiavelli’s ideal republic.

            Several high-profile executions of accused traitors and subversives convinced Machiavelli to reject the idea that when a republic is faced with internal threats, “one cannot worry too much about ordinary legal procedures or the rights of defendants” (p.121.)  No matter how serious the offense, exceptional punishments outside the confines of the law “set a corrupting precedent” (p.121).  Machiavelli’s lifelong dream that Florence should cultivate its own fighting force rather than rely upon mercenaries to fight its wars with external enemies arose out of similar convictions.

             In The Prince and the Discourses, Machiavelli admonished princes that the only sure way to maintain power over time is to “arm your own people and keep them satisfied” (p.49).  Cities whose people are “free, secure in their livelihood, respected and self-respecting, are harder to attack than those that lack such robust arms” (p.186). Florence hired mercenaries because its leaders didn’t believe their own people could be trusted with arms. But mercenaries, whose only motivation for fighting is a salary, can  just as easily turn upon their employers’ state, hardly a propitious outcome for long-term sustainability.

               During Machiavelli’s time in exile, the disputatious monk Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses onto a church door in German-speaking Wittenberg, challenging a wide range of papal practices.  Luther’s provocation set in motion the Protestant Reformation and, with it, more than a century of bloody conflict in Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  The Prince became an instrument in the propaganda wars stirred up by the Reformation, Benner contends, with Machiavelli demonized “mostly by men of religion, both Catholic and Protestant” (p.xv), who saw in the Florentine’s thinking a challenge to traditional relations between church and state.

              These men of religion rightly perceived that the  church would have little role to play in Machiavelli’s ideal republic.  In the Discourses, Benner explains, Machiavelli argued that the Christian “sect,” as he called it, had “always declared war on ideas and writings that it could not control – and especially on those that presented ordinary human reasoning, not priestly authority, as the best source of guidance in private and political life” (p.317).  Men flirt with disaster when they purport to know the unknowable under the guise of religious “knowledge.”  For Machiavelli, unchanging, universal moral truths can be worked out only through a close study of human interactions and reflections on human nature.  Instead of praying for some new holy man to save you, Machiavelli advised, “learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it yourself” (p. p.282).   These views earned all of Machiavelli’s works a place on the Catholic Church’s 1557 Index of Prohibited Books, one of the Church’s solutions to the heresies encouraged by the Reformation, where they remained until 1890.

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              The ruthlessly  duplicitous Machiavelli – his “evil double” (p.xiv), as Brenner puts it — is barely present in Benner’s account.  Her Machiavelli, an “altogether human, and humane” (p.xvi) commentator and operative on the political stage of his time, exudes few of the qualities associated with the adjective that bears his name.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 25, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Biography, European History, History, Italian History, Political Theory, Rule of Law