Category Archives: History

A Time for New Thinking

 

Arthur Haberman, 1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast

(Wildred Lurier University Press) 

 

            Anxiety reigned in Europe in 1930.  The Wall Street stock market crash of the previous October and the ensuing economic crisis that was spreading across the globe threatened to undo much of the progress that had been made in Europe after recovering from the self-inflicted catastrophe of World War I.  A new form of government termed fascism was firmly in place in Italy, based on xenophobic nationalism, irrationality, and an all-powerful state.  Fascism seemed antithetical in just about every way to the universal, secular and cosmopolitan values of the 18th century Enlightenment.  In what was by then known as the Soviet Union, moreover, the Bolsheviks who had seized control during World War I were firmly in power in 1930 and were still threatening, as they had in the immediate post-war years, to spread anti-capitalist revolution westward across Europe.  And in Germany, Adolph Hitler and his unruly Nazi party realized previously unimaginable success in legislative elections in 1930, as they challenged the fragile Weimar democracy.  But if anti-democratic political movements and economic upheavals made average citizens across Europe anxious in 1930, few foresaw the extent of the carnage and destruction that the next 15 years would bring. Things were about to get worse — much worse.

In 1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast, Arthur Haberman, professor of history and humanities at York University, seeks to capture the intellectual and cultural zeitgeist of 1930. “What makes 1930 such a watershed is that rarely have so many important minds worked independently on issues so closely related,” Haberman writes. “All argued that something was seriously amiss and asked that people become aware of the dilemma” (p.1).  Haberman focuses on how a handful of familiar thinkers and artists expressed the anxiety that their fellow citizens felt; and how, in different ways, these figures foreshadowed the calamities that lay ahead for Europe.  There are separate chapters on Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Ortega y Gasset, Bertolt Brecht, and Sigmund Freud, each the subject of a short biographical sketch.  But each either published a major work or had one in progress in the 1929-31 time frame, and Haberman’s sketches revolve around these works.  He also includes two lesser known sisters, Paulette and Jane Nardal, two Frenchwomen of African descent who promoted writing that expressed identity and solidarity between blacks in Europe, the Americas and Africa.  Another chapter treats the visual arts in 1930, with a dissection of the various schools and tendencies of the time, among them surrealism, cubism, and fauvism.

But before getting to these figures and their works, Haberman starts with a description of an unnamed, composite European middle class couple living in a major but unidentified city in one of the World War I belligerents.  With all the maimed young men walking the streets using canes and crutches, the “metaphor of sickness and a need to be healed was part of everyday life” (p.7) for the couple.  The couple’s unease was “mirrored by the intellectuals they admired, as they all grappled with what Europe had become and where it was heading” (p.15).

In an extensive final chapter, “Yesterday and Today,” and an Epilogue, “”Europeans Today” — together about one quarter of the book — Haberman assigns himself the herculean task of demonstrating the continued relevance of his figures in contemporary Europe.   Here, he seeks to summarize European anxiety today and the much-discussed European crisis of confidence, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn.  It’s an overly ambitious undertaking and the least successful portion of the book.

The key figures Haberman portrays in the book’s first portions were a diverse lot, and it would be an uphill task to tie them together into a neat conceptual package. But if there is a common denominator linking them, it is the specter of World War I, the “Great War,” and the reassessment of Western civilization that it prompted.  The Great War ended the illusion that Europe was at the forefront of civilization and introduced “deep cultural malaise” (p.6).  The “so-called most civilized people on earth committed unprecedented a carnage on themselves” (p.36).  It was thus necessary to think in new ways.

Haberman identifies a cluster of related subjects that both represented this new thinking and heightened the anxiety that average Europeans were sensing about themselves and their future in 1930. They include: the viability of secular Enlightenment values; coming to terms with a darker view of human nature; the rise of the politics of irrationality; mass culture and its dangers; fascism as a norm or aberration; identity and the Other in the midst of Western Civilization; finding ways to represent the post war world visually; and dystopian trends of thought.  The new thinking thus focused squarely on what it meant to be European and human in 1930.

* * *

            None of the figures in Haberman’s study addressed more of these subjects in a single work than the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset, whose Revolt of the Masses appeared in 1930.  Here, Ortega confronted the question of the viability of liberal democracy and the durability of the Enlightenment’s core values.  Ortega emphasized liberal democracy’s potential for irrationality and emotion to override reason in determining public choices.  He described a new “mass man” who behaved through “instinct and desire,” could be “violent and brutal” (p.55), and “will accept, even forward, both political and social tyranny” (p.53).  Ortega referred to Bolshevism and Fascism as “retrograde and a new kind of primitivism” (p.54).  The two ideologies, he concluded, gave legitimacy to the brutality he saw cropping up across Europe.

Although Ortega posited a dark view of human nature, it was not far from what had been apparent in the works of Sigmund Freud for decades prior to 1930.  Freud, whom Haberman ranks on par with Einstein as the most famous and influential intellect of his time, was 74 years old in 1930.  Although ill with throat cancer that year, Freud used an extended essay, Civilization and its Discontents, to reflect upon the conscious and unconscious, on sanity, insanity, and madness, and on the contradictions we live with.  His reflections became “central to how humans understood themselves as individuals and social beings” (p.143).

Culture and civilization are more fragile than we had thought, Freud contended. We must constantly reinforce those things that keep civilization going: “the limitations on our sexual life, the rule of law, the restrictions on our aggressive nature, and the hopeless commandment to love our neighbors, even if we don’t like them” (p.150).  The insights from Civilization and its Discontents and Freud’s other works were used in  literature, art and the study of religion, along with philosophy, politics and history.  These insights – these Freudian insights — opened for discussion “matters that had been sealed” (p.162), changing the way we think about ourselves and our nature.  Freud “tried to be a healer in a difficult time,” Habermas writes, one who “changed the discourse about humans and society forever” (p.162).

Virginia Woolf claimed she had not read Freud when she worked on The Waves, an experimental novel, throughout 1930.  The Waves nonetheless seemed to echo Freud, especially in its idea that the unconscious is a “layer of our personality, perhaps the main layer.  All of her characters attempt to deal with their inner lives, their perceptions” (p.44). In The Waves, Woolf adopted the idea that human nature is “very complex, that we are sometimes defined by our consciousness of things, events, people and ourselves, and that there are layers of personality” (p.43).  There are six different narrative voices to The Waves.  The characters sometimes seem to meld into one another.

Woolf had already distinguished herself as a writer heavily invested in the women’s suffragette movement and had addressed  in earlier writings how women can achieve freedom independently of men.  Haberman sees Woolf as part of a group of thinkers who “set the stage for the more formal introduction of existentialism after the Second World War . . . She belongs not only to literature but to modern philosophy” (p.46).

With Mario and the Magician, completed in 1930, novelist Thomas Mann made his first explicit foray into political matters.  Mann, as famous in Germany as Woolf was in Britain, suggested in his novel that culture and politics were intertwined in 1930 as never before.  By that year, Mann had become an outspoken opponent of the Nazi party, which he described as a “wave of anomalous barbarism, of primitive popular vulgarity” (p.29).  Mario and the Magician, involving a German family visiting Italy, addressed the implications of fascism for Italy and Europe generally.

Like Ortega, Mann in his novel examined the “abandonment of personality and individual responsibility on the part of the person who joins the crowd” (p.24).  Like Freud, Mann saw humanity as far more irrational and complicated than liberal democracy assumed.  The deified fascist leader in Mann’s view goes beyond offering simply policy solutions to “appeal to feelings deep in our unconscious and [tries] to give them an outlet” (p.24).  Mann was in Switzerland when the Nazis assumed power in 1933.  His children advised him not to return to Germany, and he did not do so until 1949.  He was stripped of his German citizenship in 1936 as a traitor to the Reich.

Still another consequential novel that appeared in 1930, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, was one of the 20th century’s first overtly dystopian works of fiction, along with Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (both influenced George Orwell’s 1984, as detailed in Dorian Lynskey’s study of Orwell’s novel, reviewed here last month).   Brave New World used “both science and psychology to create a future world where all are happy, there is stability, and conflict is ended” (p.132).  The dystopian novel opened the question of the ethics of genetic engineering.   In 1930, eugenics was considered a legitimate branch of science, a way governments sought to deal with the undesirables in their population, especially those they regarded as unfit.  Although bioethics was not yet a field in 1930, Huxley’s Brave New World made a contribution to its founding.  Huxley’s dystopian work is a “cautionary tale that asks what might happen next.  It is science fiction, political philosophy, ethics, and a reflection on human nature all at once” (p.132).

Haberman’s least familiar figures, and for that reason perhaps the most intriguing, are the Nardal sisters, Paulette and Jane, French citizens of African descent, born in Martinique and living in 1930 in Paris.  The sisters published no major works equivalent to Civilization and Its Discontents or Revolt of the Masses.  But they founded the highly consequential La Revue du Monde Noir, a bi-lingual, French and English publication that featured contributions from African-American writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, along with French-language intellectuals.   Writings in La Revue challenged head-on the notions underlying French colonialism.

Although France in 1930 was far more welcoming to blacks than the United States, the French vision of what it meant to be black was, as Haberman puts it, a “colonialist construction seen through the eyes of mainly white, wealthy elites” (p.89) that failed to acknowledge the richness and variety of black cultures around the world.  Educated blacks in France were perceived as being  “in the process of becoming cosmopolitan, cultured people in the French tradition, a process they [the French] called their mission civilatrice” (p.89).  Like many blacks in France, Paulette and Jane Nardal “refused to accept this formulation and decided that their identity was more varied and complex than anything the French understood” (p.89).

The Nardal sisters advanced the notion of multiple identities, arguing that the black spirit could be “informed and aided by the association with the West, without losing its own core” (p.92).   Blacks have an “alternative history from that of anyone who was white and born in France. Hence, they needed to attempt to get to a far more complex concept of self, one deeper and richer than those in the majority and the mainstream” (p.100).   The Nardals also came to understand the connection between black culture in Europe and gender.  Black women, “like many females, are a double Other, and this makes them different not only from whites but from Black men as well” (p.101; but conspicuously missing in this work is any sustained discussion of the Jew as the Other, even though anti-Semitism was rising alarmingly in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in 1930).

Between 1927 and 1933,  Bertold Brecht collaborated with Kurt Weill to rethink theatre and opera.  Brecht, alone among the thinkers Haberman portrays, brought an explicit Marxist perspective to his work.  Brecht supplied both the lyrics and dialogue to the pair’s plays, while Weill composed the music.   The Three Penny Opera, their joint work first performed in Berlin in 1928, was a decidedly non-traditional opera that proved to be spectacular success in Weimar Germany.

In 1930, the Brecht and Weill produced The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an even less traditional production.  Brecht termed Mahagonny “epic theatre,” whose purpose was “not to entertain or provide the audience with an imitation of their lives” (p.70), but rather to engage the audience in issues of social justice.  Epic theatre was designed to “force the spectator to be active, to query his own assumptions”(p.78).

Haberman describes Mahagonny as an angry anti-capitalist production, a strange sort of “utopia of desire,” where money rules.  Its lesson: in a capitalist society, all is “commoditized, no relationship is authentic . . . [M]oney cannot satisfy human needs” (p.81-82).  The Nazis, who enjoyed increased popular support throughout 1930, regularly demonstrated against Mahagonny performances. Both Brecht and Weill fled Germany when the Nazis came to power in early 1933.  Neither The Three Penny Opera nor Mahagonny was performed again in Germany until after World War II.

Haberman sees Brecht and Weill as stage and musical companions to surrealist painters such as René Magritte and Salvador Dali, who were also juxtaposing traditional elements to force audiences to ask what was really going on.  Magritte’s The Key to Dreams, a name that is a direct reference to Freud, was a painting about painting and how we construct reality.  Words are not the objects themselves, Magritte seemed to be saying.  Paintings can refer to an object but are not the object itself.   Salvador Dali was the rising star of surrealism in 1930.  His paintings were at once “provocative, mythic, and phallic, while also using juxtaposition to great effect” (p.115).  As with Magritte, the code of understanding in Dali paintings is “closer to Freudian psychology than it is to ‘reason’” (p.115).

The most transformative shift in the visual arts by 1930 was the abandonment of mimesis, the idea that a work of art should represent external reality.  Artists from the many varying schools regarded external reality as “just appearance, not realty at all.  Now it was necessary to go through or beyond appearance to investigate what was real” (p.107).  Artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse “wanted a painting to be seen holistically before being analyzed in its parts” (p.118). Like Woolf in literature, these artists by 1930 were depicting “multiple realities,” with the “whole, deep world of the unconscious guiding us” (p.108).

In the end, Haberman concludes, the perspective of the major artists of 1930 was in line with that of the writers he portrays. All in their own way:

feared where humanity was headed, in some cases they feared what they discovered about human nature. They wrote and created art. They did so in order to both help us know about ourselves and offer some redemption for a hard time. They did so because, in spite of their fears, and in spite of their pessimism, they had hope that our better nature would triumph.   Their works are relevant today as they were in 1930 (p.212).

* * *

                        Articulating their contemporary relevance is the purpose of Haberman’s extensive final chapter and epilogue, where he also seeks to summarize contemporary Europe’s zeitgeist.  The Enlightenment faith in the idea and inevitability of progress has now “more or less ended,” he argues, and the world “no longer seems as automatically better as time moves on” (p.171) – the core insight which World War I provided to the generation of 1930.  The politics of irrationality of the type that so worried Ortega seems again resurgent in today’s Europe.  Nationalism – in Haberman’s view, the most influential of the modern ideologies born in the 19th century – “persists and appears to be growing in Europe in a more frightening manner, in the rise of racist neo-fascist and quasi-fascist parties in many countries. What was once thought impossible after the defeat of Hitlerian Germany is now coming into being” (p.168).

Despite the rise of European social democracy in the aftermath of World War II, there is a trend toward appropriation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with the gap between the rich and poor widening.   Traditional religion has less hold on Europeans today than it did in 1930 — although it had no apparent hold on any of the writers and artists Haberman features. The question of the place for the Other – marginalized groups like the blacks of the Nardal sisters’ project – has come to the fore in today’s Europe.  Haberman frames the question as whether today’s Europe, theoretically open, liberal, tolerant and egalitarian, is so “only for those who conform to the norm – who are white, indigenous to whatever place they live, nominally or deeply Christian, and identifying strongly with the nation.”  Or is there something “built into European culture as it is taught and practiced that automatically marginalizes women, Blacks, Jews, Roma, and Muslims?” (p.185).

After posing this unanswerable question, Haberman finishes by returning to his composite couple, explaining how their lives were changed by events between 1930 and 1945.  They lost a son in battle in World War II and some civilian relatives were also killed.  Haberman then fast-forwards to the couple’s granddaughter, born in 1982, who married at age 30 and is now pregnant.   She and her husband are ambivalent about their future.  Peace is taken for granted in the way it was not in 1930.  But there is pessimism in the economic sphere.  The couple sees the tacit social contract between generations fraying. The issues that move the couple most deeply are the environment and concerns about climate change.

* * *

               Through his individual portraits, Haberman provides a creative elaboration upon the ideas which leading thinkers and artists wrestled with in the anxious year of 1930.  Describing contemporary applications of these ideas , as he attempts to do in the latter portion of his work, would be a notable accomplishment for an entire book and his attempt to do so here falls flat.

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 15, 2020

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under European History, Intellectual 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

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

 

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, Gender Issues, Middle Eastern History

Fathers and (Literary) Sons

 

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know:

The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Scribner)

                 In the second half of the 19th century, Dublin was considered a cultural backwater.  Although less industrial and less populous than Belfast to the north, the city was known for its widespread poverty.  But some of the leading lights in modern literature were raised and spent youthful years in Dublin during the half century, among them playwright and critic Oscar Wilde (1854-1900); poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939); and novelist James Joyce (1882-1941).  Yet, the literary careers of each blossomed more in places like London and Paris than in Dublin.  Was there something in the 19th century Dublin air that encouraged youthful literary aspirations? Were these aspirations which could only be realized away from Dublin?

These questions lurk in the background of Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, the erudite work of Irish journalist and prolific writer Colm Tóibín.  Tóibín wrestles with these questions through the prism of the “three prodigal fathers” (p.22) of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce, as he calls them.  He does so in what amounts to three separate essays, each bearing  a catchy title: “An Eminent Victorian: Sir William Wilde;” “John B. Yeats: The Playboy of West Twenty-Ninth Street;” and “The Two Tenors: James Joyce and His Father.”  In differing degrees, the three essays combine biographical sketches of the three fathers with an exploration of their relationships with their sons and the impact of those relationships upon the sons’ literary output.

Only thin threads hold the three essays together.  The sturdiest is late 19th century Dublin itself, where the three fathers sought to raise families as part of the city’s burgeoning middle class – upper middle class in the case of William Wilde; precarious middle in John Yeats’ case; and at best lower middle class in that of John Stanislaus Joyce.  Wilde and Yeats were urban Irish Protestants, distinctly different from Ireland’s unloved land-owning Protestant gentry, while Joyce was part of Dublin’s majority Catholic population.  Dublin was growing rapidly when the three fathers were raising their families, Tóibín writes, but was “poor, down at heel,” with an image as a “place of isolated individuals, its aura shapeless in some way, a place hidden from itself, mysterious and melancholy” (p.9).

Dublin and Ireland were then part of what was officially termed the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” governed by Parliament in London, with the central British government appointing most local authorities.  None of the three fathers was on the front lines of the movement for self-government (“Home Rule”) that began to gain serious traction around 1870.  Yet each was sympathetic with the notion of Irish independence from Britain, and the political leanings of the three fathers play minor parts in all three essays.

The Wilde and Yeats portraits revolve less around the two fathers’ relationships with their literary sons and more around their relationships with women who were not their wives. In William Wilde’s case, a significantly younger woman with whom he may or may not have had an intimate relationship sued William’s wife Jane for defamation, precipitating a spectacular public trial.  Yeats’ relationship was with a woman his age that came to light through their exchange of letters in the aftermath of the death of Yeats’ wife Susan, at a time when he had left Dublin and taken up residence in New York.  Linking their two stories is Isaac Butt, a prominent Dublin attorney and political activist credited with being the first to use the term “Home Rule.”  Although a friend of William and Jane Wilde, Butt represented Mary Travers, the plaintiff in the defamation action against Jane Wilde.  Butt’s daughter Rosa, in turn, was the woman with whom William Yeats exchanged letters while he was in exile in New York.

John Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce both struggled financially in a way that William Wilde never did.  But from Tóibín’s account, the senior Joyce was by far the least likeable of the three men, with few professional or personal accomplishments to point to.   Unlike either Wilde or Yeats, Joyce had an alcohol problem that frequently led to violence.  These differences may help explain why Tóibín’s Joyce essay takes a path altogether different from those on Wilde and Yeats, diving far more deeply into son James’ literary output than he does with Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats.  Tóibín demonstrates how, in the aftermath of a fractious relationship with his father as an adolescent and young man, James Joyce managed to recreate his father through his writings, rendering him more benign and nuanced.

The book’s title, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know, remains for me a puzzle. Tóibín notes that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce referred to his “cold, mad father” (p.154).  Although undoubtedly a difficult and unpleasant man, it is not clear that John Stanislaus Joyce was anywhere near “mad” in the conventional sense.  And while “bad” and “dangerous” might also fit the senior Joyce, neither adjective applies naturally to the senior Wilde or Yeats.

* * *

                   Of the three fathers, William Wilde (1815-1876) was easily the most successful professionally.  The son of a doctor, William became a noted eye and ear specialist.  But he had plenty of interests beyond medicine.  He was an important antiquarian, topographer, folklore collector and archaeologist, all at a time when the study of ancient Ireland was becoming “both fashionable and politically resonant” (p.39).  He also became  a distinguished statistician who served as Dublin’s Census Commissioner.  Prior to his marriage to Jane Elgee in 1851, William fathered three children out of wedlock.   In addition to their son Oscar, William and Jane had another son, William, and a daughter Isola who died in childhood.

William’s wife Jane, known as “Lady Wilde,” was herself a prominent Irish literary figure, one who was “prone to grandiloquence” and “saw herself in lofty terms” (p.44).  Publishing widely under a pen name Speranza, Jane earned renown through her words and wit in the manner that would subsequently make her son Oscar famous.   With no other aristocracy in Dublin, the Wildes represented what Tóibín describes as a “type of grandeur that they had built with their books and their brains, their independence of mind and their high-toned eccentricity” (p.32).  It was Jane who precipitated Mary Travers’ lawsuit, the core of Tóibín’s Wilde essay.

Mary had been one of William’s patients who at age 19 came to William for ear surgery. Once her treatment ended, she continued to see William.  With  the agreement of Mary’s father, Williams “gave her manuscripts to correct and oversaw her informal education by recommending books to her.  Soon, they began to write to each other. He took her to public events, helped her financially and included her in family outings” (p.55).  But Lady Wilde mistrusted Mary and William seems to have tired of her.

William at one point paid Mary’s fare to visit Australia, where her brothers lived. Twice, she went as far as Liverpool, only to fail in each instance to board the Sydney-bound ship.  But she continued to write William, and he continued to assist her with medical problems. Then she wrote a thinly disguised and highly unflattering portrait of William as a doctor, sent copies to William’s patients and, for good measure,  distributed copies of letters she had received from William — “letters that suggested their relationship had moved beyond that normally associated with a doctor and his patient” (p.58).

Jane sent Mary’s father a letter informing him that his daughter was trying to extort money from the Wildes.  Mary responded by suing Jane for defamation, claiming £2000 in damages, almost a quarter of a million pounds today.  William became a co-defendant because, under the law at the time, a husband was responsible for the civil wrongs committed by his wife.  After the Wildes determined not to settle, a six-day trial took place in December 1864 that, as The Irish Times put it, “shook society in Dublin like a thunderclap” (p.63).

Isaac Butt, Dublin’s best-known barrister, represented Mary at trial even though he was a social friend of the Wilde family. Butt sought to disclaim the idea that Mary might have had an intimate relationship with William.  He portrayed Mary as a young and naïve woman who had been exploited by William.  The most serious allegation against William was that he had raped her while she was unconscious during a medical operation.  The jury determined that Jane’s letter to Mary’s father had defamed her, but awarded only negligible damages. The Wildes were nonetheless liable for court costs in the amount of £2000, the same amount as the damages Mary had sought.

Tóibín notes the similarities between the case against William and Jane and that against their son Oscar three decades later, brought by the Marquees of Queensbury, the father of Oscar’s partner Alfred Douglas.  The two trials were the result of “frenetic, fearless, almost manic activity of both Travers and Queensbury, who sought to embarrass and harass in public and private Sir William and Oscar Wilde respectively, both of whom were becoming increasingly famous and feeling more and more unassailable” (p.64; Oscar Wilde’s trial was the subject of a work reviewed here earlier this year).

But William and Jane were not ostracized and sent to prison, as Oscar was.  His parents’ case “may have nourished the later work [Oscar] Wilde did as a dramatist, but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box, when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence” (p.67-68).  And William rebuilt his life in his 11 remaining years, in a way Oscar was unable to do in the 3-½ years remaining to him after his trial and release from prison.  Mary Travers’ court case “did not seem to affect the lives of the Wildes in any obvious way” (p.66), Tóibín writes.

* * *

                Late in life, John Yeats (1839-1922) achieved a degree of literary success himself and, like his son and the younger Wilde and Joyce, did so away from Dublin, in his case in New York City.  John was the son of a Protestant clergyman whose parents moved easily in the best Dublin society.  They were frequent visitors to the home of William and Jane Wilde, and Isaac Butt was a family friend.  John married Susan Pollexfens in 1863, and the couple had four children together, future poet William Butler, the eldest, called “Willie” within the family, two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan Mary, known as “Lilly” and “Lally,” and a second son, Jack Butler.   John appeared destined to serve as an apprentice to Butt on the pathway to becoming a barrister.  But he had an attraction to portrait painting that drew him away from the law.

Throughout married life, John struggled financially, finding it challenging to support his four children. He was haunted by a lingering sense of remorse at having left the law and being unable to provide his wife Susan and their children with the life Susan had imagined when she married.  John studied art for a while in London.  Always gregarious and considered a stellar conversationalist, John was less successful as a painter, with a tendency to leave his works unfinished.  Son William faulted his father for an “infirmity of will which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career” (p.91).

Yeats’ financial circumstances worsened after Susan died in 1900, at a time when his four children had reached adulthood and had established themselves professionally.  Unlike their father, the four Yeats’ offspring “worked and made money . . . [T]hey were serious, determined and industrious” (p.90).  John frequently criticized William, but continually asked his oldest son to send him money.  In 1907, John sailed with his daughter Lily from Liverpool to New York.

John was then 68, a widower for seven years, with little hope for success as a painter.   When Lily left New York for Dublin six months later, John stayed behind, taking  up residence in a boarding house on West 29th Street.  In New York, John evolved into what Tóibín terms “one of the best letter writers of the age” (p.99), writing with “astonishing freshness and seriousness” (p.100) on art, poetry and life.  Far from his children and familiar surroundings, John was able to “let his mind take him where it would, to seek out good company, to study life closely, to put more energy into his talk and his letters than into his art” (p.104).  Exile and distance from his poet son proved in particular to be a gift for John.

Yeats attempted to guide son William from afar by sending him “intelligent and compelling letters about art and life, about poetry and religion, about his own hopes as an artist and his life in the city.  Since the letters were so well written and original, his son would, at least some of the time, come to appreciate and admire his wayward and improvident father” (p.99).  Instead of witnessing first hand his father’s slow and inevitable physical decline, the son received letters from his father, “filled with good humor and wisdom and a soaring hunger for life and ideas,” rendering his father’s exile “enabling and inspiring for his son’s work” (p.99).  But as the senior Yeats wrote to his son, he was also corresponding with Isaac Butt’s daughter Rosa.

John had met Rosa when both were about 20. Their correspondence began in the year before John’s wife’s death, but became more frequent once he was in New York.   Some kind of relationship had developed between the two when both were in Dublin, but its nature remains a mystery.  Some of John’s letters to Rosa from New York appear to assume that they their relationship went beyond mere friendship.   John “seemed to enjoy writing openly about his physical passion for her, knowing that she would disapprove of his explicit tone. . . There is the freedom in the letters of someone idly dreaming . . . The possibility of his going home remained a constant theme” (p.111-112).

Tóibín describes John’s correspondence to Rosa as centered on “impossible or dreamed-of love and the imagined loved one” (p.119).  A “foolish, passionate man, with his excited, passionate, fantastical imagination,” John wrote to Rosa about the life he imagined, and “gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only somehow possible, but almost present” (p.122).  His letters were “filled with defiance in the face of old age” (p.120), embracing one of son William’s major themes as a poet: the “vitality that remains in the spirit as the body ages” (p.99),  In his final years before his death in New York in 1922, the “old painter still imagined what could have been” (p.129).

* * *

                      More than John Yeats, John Stanislaus Joyce (1849-1931) squandered his opportunities to realize a comfortable bourgeois life for his wife and children.  The senior Joyce was born into a family of well-to-do merchants and property owners in Cork.  He studied medicine at Queens College in Cork but did not graduate. He had a good tenor voice, enjoyed singing and also became involved in amateur theatre.  At age 25, John Stanislaus moved to Dublin to work in a distillery.  When the distillery went broke, John lost both his job and a significant amount of money he had invested in the enterprise.  In May 1880, he married 19-year-old May Murray, without the approval of parents on either side. Together, the couple had ten children, with James, born in 1882, the oldest.

When John Stanislaus and May started their family, they were well off and could expect a life of comfort.  John had by then found a sinecure job as a rate collector, making good money.  The job required him to be out and about all day long, with little supervision. “It was the perfect job for someone who was social and garrulous” (p.139), Tóibín writes.  At the end of the work day,  John frequently found himself in one of Dublin’s many public alehouses.  When John’s mother died,  he inherited several properties in Cork, bringing him additional income.  But despite a good income from his job and the rents on the Cork properties, from the beginning of his marriage John had difficulty living within his means.  He had to remortgage some of his properties and borrow money to supplement his income.  Nor was he particularly successful in his job.

In 1893, with moneylenders after him, rent due on his house, court judgments against him, and bailiffs seizing his furniture, John had to sell his inherited properties in Cork.  That same year, almost all Dublin rate collectors were dismissed.   Most were offered generous pensions. But because of his poor work record, John received a significantly reduced pension (initially he was offered nothing and had to bargain for even the reduced pension).  With nine children to support (one child did not survive), John was able to find only odd and short-term jobs.  Several years later, John’s son Stanislaus, James’ brother, wrote about how his father’s financial difficulties had poisoned the family environment.  Stanislaus noted frequent drunkenness and outrages, in one of which he tried to strangle his wife.  It would be easy, Tóibín writes, to consign John Stanislaus Joyce to the position of “one of the worst Irish husbands and worst Irish fathers in recorded history” (p.147).

But that’s not what James Joyce did with his father in his literature.  James had escaped his father’s clutches at a boarding school, university and later in Italy and Paris.  Since his father’s presence loomed so large in Dublin, James went into exile “not only to escape the city of his birth but so that both Dublin and the man who had begotten him could move into shadow” (p.135).  As a novelist, James “sought to recreate his father, reimagine him, fully invoke him, live in his world” (p.135).  Although he resisted incorporating his anger toward his father into his writing, his father remained “raw and present” (p.173).

In Stephen Hero, an early and subsequently abandoned version of the heavily autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James portrayed his mother as “intelligent, open-minded and sensitive, as well as a devout and serious Catholic who pays attention to her priest,” whereas his father was depicted as “hard-hearted and callous” (p.156-57).  In Dubliners, another of Joyce’s earlier works, a collection of short stories published in 1914, his last story was based on an incident when John Stanislaus had fallen down the stairs of a public ale house.

But in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, Joyce presented his relationship to his father as “oddly mysterious and painful, evoking a tone that is melancholy, puzzled, almost poetic” (p.158).  James rescued his father by moving him “from the private realm, where he clearly is a bully and a monster, into the public sphere.  He allows him to be the man he is with his friends rather than with his family” (p.158-60). But he is no “model citizen or a father to be proud of” (p.158-60).

John Stanislaus reappeared as Simon Dedaleus in James’ epic novel Ulysses, not published in its entirety until 1922 (the ordeal to publish Ulysses is the subject of a work reviewed here in August 2016).  Simon is a “complex figure of moods, an unsettled rather than a solid presence in the book” (p.167).   He is a man “whose children do not have enough money for food as he himself moves easily in the city. . . [He is a] man more at home with his companions and acquaintances than with his family” (p.165).

In James Joyce’s fictive world, Tóibín concludes, “fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, becoming more complex, fulfilling theirs sons’ needs as artists, standing out of the way” (p.136).  From 1920 to his death in 1931, the real world John Stanislaus lived alone in a Dublin boarding house. He probably did not see James during these years.

* * *

               In this slim volume, Colm Tóibín presents three elegantly styled, thought provoking portraits of three very different 19th century Dubliners. With his razor-sharp perspective on Irish literature, sensitivity to Ireland’s historical ambiguities, and insider’s view of Dublin’s geography and demographics, Tóibín himself supplies the glue that binds the volume together.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

December 4, 2019

3 Comments

Filed under History, Literature

Catastrophic Miscalculation

 

 

Benjamin Carter Hett,  The Death of Democracy:

Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

(Henry Holt & Co)

                  Benjamin Carter Hett’s title, The Death of Democracy, may sound similar to several recent works addressing the contemporary decline of liberal democracy throughout the world, including of course in the United States  — the most obvious example being Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s highly regarded How Democracies Die.  Hett’s sub-title better captures the focus and scope of his work: it is an account of how Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party (officially, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) were able to undermine the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I experiment in liberal democracy, and achieve power in the turbulent 1930s.  To be sure, there are snippets here that may send readers back to the present.  

                 Hitler “lied all the time” (p.38), Hett writes.  Like most  “basically ignorant people,” Hitler had a complex about “not needing to learn anything” (p.53), and routinely voiced scorn for intellectuals and experts.  The Nazis found their strongest electoral support – their “base” in today’s lexicon – in rural Protestant areas of the country.  Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, advocated building a “thick wall around Germany . . . a protective wall” (p.109; but with no indication yet to surface that he promised that Poland would pay for the wall).  For the most part, however, Hett, a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, leaves to his readers the option of drawing lessons for our era from his account of Germany’s post-World War I experience.

                 The sobering story of Hitler’s ascendancy has of course been retold frequently, but Hett tells it concisely and well.  He does so by breaking the story into two general chronological parts, 1914-1929 and 1929-1934.  The first, 1914-29, is a macro-account that includes World War I and Germany’s defeat, the vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the turbulent decade of Weimar politics that followed, when extremists of left and right threatened to undermine the fledgling republic.  Yet, Hett reminds us, up until the Great Depression intervened toward the end of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic somehow managed to find its footing.  

                  The second part, 1929-1934, delves deeply into the background behind the Nazi ballot box insurgency in legislative elections in 1930 and 1932 that led Weimar President, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, on January 30, 1933, to appoint Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor  — the head of the Weimar executive branch, roughly equivalent to a Prime Minister within Weimar’s parliamentary democracy.  Hett details the frenetic maneuvering of key Weimar personalities in December 1932 and January 1933 to persuade the aging Hindenburg, then 85 years old, to take the fateful step of appointing a man to run the Weimar government whom he had always distrusted and disdained.  The appointment, Hett emphasizes, was “constitutionally legitimate” and “even democratic” (p.3) under the 1919 Weimar constitution.   

                   Each of he book’s eight chapters begins with a “real time” anecdote that paves the way for the historical narrative that follows.  The first constitutes a powerful scene-setter: the burning of the Reichstag, Weimar’s legislative chamber, on February 28, 1933, one month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor.   The Nazis portrayed the fire as the opening act of a Communist uprising that provided a pretext to invoke emergency powers, marking that February 28 as the “last night of the Weimar Republic, the last night of German democracy” (p.3).  The final anecdote, the introduction to the book’s last chapter, involves the “Night of the Long Knives,” June 30, 1934, when Hitler eliminated much of the potential opposition to his regime.   The six other chapters also begin with real time anecdotes that add spice to the book’s straightforward, narrowly focused yet engrossing historical narrative.

* * *

                    Hett observes at the outset that Hitler’s Germany is “unique among all regimes in human history in at least one respect: serious historians are unanimous in judging it a catastrophe with no redeeming features.  There is no other regime, not even the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that can claim such a dubious distinction” (p.8).  But the agreement ends at this point, he indicates.  Historians and intellectuals continue to grapple with the question how and why civilized Germany, with its abundant contributions to European culture, descended into the barbarism of the Third Reich.  No single answer suffices to explain how the land of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms wound up in the hands of Hitler and Himmler.  

                   Like many analyses of Weimar’s downfall and Hitler’s ascendancy, Hett begins with Germany’s loss in the First World War.  It is no exaggeration, he writes, to say that the “answer to all questions about Weimar lies somewhere in the First World War” (p.11).  Weimar Germany never developed a “general social consensus on why the war had been lost or how to respond to the postwar settlement” (p.32-33).  Hett returns repeatedly to a comparison between August 1914 and November 1918 that found its way into right wing mythology in the post WW I era: the purported unity that bound the country together in August 1914, when Germany sent its soldiers off to what was considered a noble cause, versus the disunity of November 1918 when, according to the mythology which Hindenburg helped foster, German troops on the battlefield suffered a “stab in the back” from elites in Berlin and elsewhere, far from the front lines — with “elites” always of course encompassing Jews.   More than any other political party, the Nazis were able to convince the voting public that they could recreate the spirit of 1914 and expunge the stab-in-the-back “betrayal” of 1918.  

                  Hett also follows other analyses in emphasizing how between 1929 and 1933 conservative political elites came to accept Hitler and his unruly followers as a necessary bulwark against what it perceived as the existential threat of Bolshevism.  Authoritarian by disposition and at best only weakly committed to democratic principles, conservative elites reached the conclusion that if a violent Bolshevik uprising were to be averted on German soil, they had “no choice but to find a way to work with Hitler — to use him and his movement” (p.234).  Those who pushed for a role for Hitler in the Weimar government did so notwithstanding their doubts about the Nazi leader and his party, remaining confident that he could be controlled from within – a strong candidate for history’s most catastrophic miscalculation.

                 But if neither of these points of emphasis could be considered groundbreaking, less conventional is Hett’s view that Nazism is best understood as a reaction to “globalism,” by which he means the liberal, capitalist order emanating from Great Britain and the United States, an order based on free trade, the international gold standard and, for Germans, onerous war reparations payments.  After harnessing superior wealth, resources and power to defeat Germany militarily during World War I, Britain and America continued in the post-war era to define the world in which Germany had to operate.   It was a global order that no German could control, a “way of keeping Germany tied down and harmless” (p.108).  More than anything else, Hett argues, the Nazis were a “nationalist protest movement against globalization” (p.106), even if that term was not in use in the 1920s and 1930s.    

                Germans could accept the hegemony of Anglo-American globalization and try to make it work to their advantage.  Or, “against all odds and perhaps against all reason, they could rebel against it.  This was the fundamental foreign policy choice that faced the Weimar Republic throughout its existence” (p.33).  Accommodation to the liberal capitalist order was the reflex of Germany’s democratic parties and politicians, whereas rebellion was the path of the nationalist right.   Among the nationalist groups choosing the path of rebellion, the Nazis offered the most radical approach.  They maintained that Germany could “cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, with no imports, exports, or foreign investment” (p. 109).  Hitler’s frequent invocation of Germany’s need for lebenstraum, living space, in the east should be seen in this light, Hett argues.  Hitler’s “entire program was fundamentally directed to making Germany economically self-sufficient by conquering the Soviet Union” (p.114).  

                 The Nazis and  Germany’s other political parties trolled for votes within the framework of the 1919 Weimar constitution.  That instrument created what Hett terms a “state-of-the-art modern democracy,”  establishing a “scrupulously just proportional electoral system” (p.7) that depended upon coalitions and compromises among Germany’s diverse range of political parties, with small and marginal parties having   outsized n influence.  The constitution also offered protection for individual liberties, voting rights for women, and express equality between women and men.  But Weimar democracy operated in conditions that were “hardly promising: a catastrophic lost war and a hated peace settlement, followed by extraordinary political and economic turbulence” (p.73).  The Weimar Republic witnessed top-level political instability throughout its fourteen years, with thirteen chancellors and twenty-one different administrations.  Yet, despite unfavorable odds, the Republic survived and even flourished in the latter portion of the 1920s, thanks in no small measure to the instrumental work of Gustav Stresemann, Germany’s Foreign Minister from 1923 up until his death in 1929. 

                 Stresemann’s tenure at the Foreign Ministry marked a period when Germany “shed its pariah status and returned to its place as a respected and important force in European and world politics”  (p.57).  During Stresemann’s tenure, Germany joined the League of Nations and obtained significant debt relief.   Weimar Germany’s integration into the international community in the 1920s under Stresemann presents a “forceful reminder that the Republic was not doomed from the start, contrary to another persistent myth” (p.73), Hett writes.  At the time he died in 1929, Stresemann was convinced that Hitler and his party represented the most dire threat to Germany’s reintegration into the international community.

                  Hitler’s rise as force to be taken seriously in Weimar politics coincided with Stresemann’s years as Germany’s Foreign Minister.  The polar opposite to Stresemann “in every important way” (p.54), Hitler led the so-called Munich Beer Hall putsch in 1923 that sought to overthrow the Weimar government.  After serving only a few months in prison for what amounted to an act of treason, Hitler emerged as a national celebrity. He and his Nazi confederates spent the next several years building the party at the grass roots level.   Between 1925 and 1929, Nazi party membership increased from 25,000 to about 180,000.   Hitler by then was convinced that his party could come to power only by peaceable means. 

                The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed dramatically increased unemployment and bankruptcy rates across Germany, enhancing the appeal not only of the Nazis on the political right but also of the Communists on the left.  A potent force with some 360,000 party members by the early 1930s, the German Communist Party was “just as dedicated as the nationalist right to overturning the democratic system” (p.74).   The Communists consequently refused to engage in political coalition building with the  Social Democrats, Germany’s strongest democratic party which, like the Communists, drew its base from the urban working classes.  The Communists hated no party, Hett observes, maybe not even the Nazis, more than the Social Democrats, whom they considered “not just enemies . . . [but] traitors” (p.65).  Stalin’s German auxiliaries, he notes ruefully, “could, and did, frustrate efforts at forming a united left that might have kept the Nazis from power” (p.113). 

                 The Communists had their own paramilitary forces, much like the Nazis’ SA (or Brownshirts), and conflicts between the two were rampant throughout much of Germany as the 1920s came to a close.  By the early 1930s, conditions in major German cities “came close to a state of civil war” (p.127).     

* * *

                   The second half of the book zeroes in on the maneuvering that took place between 1929 and 1933, as Weimar conservatives wrestled with the recurring question: what to do with Hitler and his Nazi party, increasingly successful at the polls at a time when economic conditions were worsening and civil war was threatening.  The lead roles in what amounts to a “palace intrigue” tale belong to three men: Franz von Papen, Kurt von Schleicher, and President Hindenburg.  Papen served as Chancellor from May to December 1932, and as Hitler’s Vice Chancellor from January 1933 into 1934.  Schleicher served as Defense Minister in 1932 and as Germany’s last Chancellor before Hitler, from December 1932 to January 1933, but was at least equally influential out of government.  

                   Hett describes Schleicher as arguably the “most important actor in the last five years of the Weimar Republic” (p.81).  Before becoming Defense Minister, Schleicher served as a sort of lobbyist for the army and, from behind the scenes “made and unmade chancellors and administrations” (p.12).  He was a “champion manipulator and intriguer, always creeping from door to door, whispering in important ears. . . [He was] calculating, manipulative, and often dishonest” (p.81).   Papen, a career military officer and devout Catholic, had an aristocratic air, “smooth, urbane, and always elegantly tailored” (p.146), but was considered an intellectual lightweight who lacked gravitas and expertise in policymaking.

                The Nazis’ string of successes at the ballot box began before Papen’s chancellorship, in the fall of 1930, when they exceeded their own expectations by winning 107 seats in the Reichstag with 18.3% of the vote, compared to 12 seats and 2.6% of the vote in 1928.  In sixty years of German national elections, Hett notes, no party had ever risen so far so quickly as the Nazis in 1930.  The equally anti-democratic Communists also realized substantial gains.  Then, in July 1932, the Nazis won another stunning electoral victory in legislative elections, earning 37.3% of the vote and 230 Reichstag seats.  Although not a majority, the Nazis became by a wide margin the Reichstag’s largest party.  The Communists were the only other major party to gain seats.  The success of anti-democratic parties on both the left and right, Hett writes, was an “unsurprising product of the dramatically worsening economic situation since 1931 and of growing German anger at uncontrollable global forces” (p.150).  

                 The Nazi electoral successes convinced Schleicher that they would be “ideal foot soldiers” in coping with the civil unrest that was threatening to engulf the country.  But he was “not so foolish that he wanted the Nazis to have any real power.  His strategy always ran simultaneously on two tracks: trying to find a way to use the Nazis, if they could be used, but preparing to fight them if they could not be.  It probably never occurred to him that he might be outmaneuvered in his own devious game” (p.93). 

                   In May 1932, Schleicher convinced Hindenburg to appoint Papen as Chancellor.  Schleicher arranged for himself to become defense minister in the new administration and “imagined he would be the real power in the cabinet,” with Papen serving as “his puppet”  (p.147).  Papen’s cabinet, dubbed the “Barons’ cabinet,” was more right wing and socially elite than any of its predecessors.  Papen’s most dramatic lurch away from democratic constitutionality and the rule of law came through what was  known as the “Papen coup,” a national takeover of most of the functions of Prussia, Germany’s largest and most influential constituent state where the Social Democrats were the dominant party.  Papen himself became special  “Reich commissar” and head of the Prussian government.  He defended this move as a preventive action against a communist insurrection.  Hett characterizes the maneuver as a “decisive coup in the coffin of German democracy” (p.150), comparing it to an American president simultaneously removing the governors of New York and California from office and taking over their functions.

            Hett’s narrative reaches a dramatic crescendo in its account of the fateful and frantic months of December 1932 and January 1933, centered around a flurry of meetings in which Papen, Schleicher and Hindenburg searched for an appropriate role for Hitler and the Nazis, with Hindenburg’s son Oskar, a contemporary of Papen and Schleicher, often in attendance.  Hitler consistently refused any role in the government but the chancellorship and, throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg just as consistently opposed Hitler’s appointment to that position..

            In the first such meeting, on December 1, 1932, when Papen proposed that Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Schleicher countered by proposing himself as Chancellor.  Hindenburg wavered, then determined to give Schleicher a chance to find the best way forward.  Two days later, Schleicher, stepping out fully from his long years in the political backroom, was sworn in as the chancellor.  Schleicher would “try his luck at a broad coalition, his last, desperate effort to bring political stability on right-wing terms without civil war” (p.161).

            Throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg found the “very idea of having as his chancellor the man he called ‘the Bohemian private’ an outrage” (p.154).  As late as January 26th, Hindenburg told a friend that Hitler was “at best qualified to be his postal minister” (p.177).  But the following day, Friday, January 27, 1933, the Reichstag forced Hindenburg’s hand when senior Reichstag leaders from all parties agreed to hold a session the following week to vote no confidence in the Schleicher government.

             Schleicher saw the appointment of Hitler as the only way out.  Hindenburg still didn’t agree, and Schleicher and his cabinet resigned rather than face the no-confidence vote.  It was only on the following day, Saturday, January 28, 1933, that Hindenburg reluctantly agreed that no other constitutional solution appeared possible other than to form a government under Hitler’s leadership.  Schleicher would serve as Vice-Chancellor, part of a strong “counterweight against National Socialist predominance” (p.178).  Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor the following Monday, January 30th

                 Schleicher, Papen and their associates sincerely believed, Hett writes, that the presence of conservatives in the cabinet, along with the authority of Hindenburg and, in the last resort, the army, “would surely keep Hitler on the straight and narrow” (p.182).  But as a result of Papen’s 1932 “coup” against the Prussian government, the key Prussian ministries were now part of the national government.  Hitler arranged for Hermann Göring to be named Prussian interior minister, placing the Nazis in control of the powerful Prussian state police.

                 From the beginning, the Nazis struck out at anyone who might be a Nazi opponent.  Hindenburg signed a decree on February 4, 1933, giving the police wide powers to break up political meetings, ban associations, and shutdown media outlets.  The Nazis spent much of February 1933 awaiting a Communist coup that never materialized.  Then the Reichstag fire occurred, six days before the country was to vote in another round of legislative elections.  There is still no consensus, Hett indicates, whether the Nazis themselves started the fire.  There is a consensus, however, that Marinus van der Lubbe, the 24 year old Dutch citizen apprehended inside the Reichstag at the time of the fire, could not have started it by himself. 

                  The Nazis immediately characterized the fire as an act of political arson, the opening act of a Communist uprising.  On the morning following the fire, the cabinet passed and Hindenburg signed an executive order known informally as the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” which  “tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic” (p.187).  The decree cancelled freedom of speech and assembly, the confidentiality of post and telegraphic communications, and freedom from arbitrary searches, arrest and detention.  The decree became the “legal foundation for Hitler’s twelve-year dictatorship” (p.187-88), in effect the “Constitution” of the Third Reich.  In the course of the next four months, in a “remarkably fast and relentless process of consolidating power” (p.206), most other guarantees of liberty and the rule of law were swept away.  

                 Hett’s narrative finishes in the summer of 1934, first with the June 30th  “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Hitler eliminated the sources of opposition and potential opposition to the Nazi regime.  Hitler contended that he had squelched a percolating plot among his rowdy SA storm troopers, an argument that Hess considers a pretext for Hitler to strike against his more dangerous enemies within the conservative establishment.  In large part because of the genuine unpopularity of the SA, the Night of the Long Knives “restored a good deal of the regime’s popularity within Germany – and the conservative resistance was shattered” (p.230).

                 Hindenburg, long the most influential and perhaps most resistant among Germany’s conservative elite, sent Hitler a telegram praising  his “decisive intervention,” through which his Chancellor had “nipped all treasonous machinations in the bud” and “saved the German people from great danger” (p.229).  Schleicher was among the victims of the June 30th purge, killed by Nazi assassins in his home.  Papen, unlike Schleicher, had been plotting against Hitler but was spared after writing a groveling letter to Hitler complementing him for his “soldierly decisiveness” in “saving the fatherland from an enormous danger” (p.230).

                  Hindenburg died a little more than a month later, on August 2, 1934.  He went to his grave “serene in the belief that his good name had been secured by Hitler’s success in overcoming the political divisions of the early 1930s” (p.235).  Hitler took over immediately the powers of the presidency.  No one could ever replace the esteemed war hero, Hitler explained to the German public, and the office of the president itself was therefore abolished.  Hitler assumed the formal title of “Führer and Reich Chancellor.”  All members of the armed forces and all civil servants were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally.  Hitler’s’ hold on power was “now complete, and all efforts to control or ‘tame’ him had decisively failed”  (p.231).  From Hindenburg’s death in August 1934 onward, “the switches were set for war – a war to overcome the global economic dominance of Great Britain and the United Sates and to make Germany an economic superpower by seizing a massive land empire in eastern Europe” (p.231). 

* * *

                   Whatever one’s views on parallels between Germany in the early 1930s and the United States in the current era, everyone who values democracy should have an understanding of the case of Weimar Germany.  Benjamin Hett presents that intricate case  meticulously — and often chillingly.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 19, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under German History, 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

The Contrarian’s Disconcerting Dualism

 

Fintan O’Toole, Judging Shaw:

The Radicalism of GBS (Royal Irish Academy, $40.00) 

            By 1920, theatergoers throughout the world recognized the three letters “GBS” as a shorthand reference to George Bernard Shaw, not only the era’s most prolific and successful English language playwright but also a prominent social and political commentator with radical left-wing views.  GBS in 1920 was Shaw’s self-created brand, which he cultivated carefully and marketed shamelessly.  In Judging Shaw: The Radicalism of GBS, prominent Irish journalist and cultural critic Fintan O’Toole explores how the brand GBS interacted with Shaw the man and evolved over the years.  O’Toole does so through eight thematic essays, each a section on a separate aspect of Shaw’s long life (1856-1950), but without adhering to a strict chronology.  His work is more appraisal than biography.

Author of over sixty plays, among them Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923), Shaw was also a prodigious writer of letters, pamphlets, and speeches.  By one estimate, O’Toole notes, Shaw wrote at least a quarter of a million letters and postcards.  Although he analyses Shaw’s plays, O’Toole also draws liberally upon them and other writings to cast light upon Shaw’s social and political thought – upon the “Radicalism of GBS” to use the book’s sub-title.  At the book’s heart lies Shaw’s disconcerting dualism: in the post-World War I era, the outspoken political progressive became an apologist for the totalitarian regimes in Italy, Germany and Soviet Russia, as well as an ostensible proponent of eugenics.  It is primarily in Shaw’s capacity as a social and political thinker that O’Toole engages his readers in an exercise in “Judging Shaw,” the book’s title.

Although not a conventional biography, the book contains a detailed and helpful chronology at the outset, with year-by-year highlights of Shaw’s life.  It also contains an impressive series of visual memorabilia between each section. The series includes relevant photos but also vivid photocopies of letters, drafts of published writings, and other reminders of Shaw’s contrarian career.

* * *

                O’Toole’s initial section, “The Invention of GBS,” describes  Shaw as “among the first private citizens in world history to create for themselves a personal brand with global resonance.  GBS was an almost universal signifier” (p.20).  None of Shaw’s predecessors created a brand that was “as deliberate, as resonant, as widespread and as sustained as GBS. He shattered cultural boundaries in ways that still seem breathtakingly bold, confounding the apparently obvious differences between seriousness and showmanship, personality and politics, art and propaganda, the mainstream and the outré, the voice in the wilderness and the voice on the radio, moral purpose and charlatanism” (p.23).  GBS, the “invention of a single, obscure impoverished Irishman,” was “one of the great achievements of the history of advertising” which produced a “unique form of celebrity: a vast popularity that depended on a reputation for insisting on unpopular ideas and causes, for pleasing the public by provoking it to the point of distraction” (p.21-22).  Quite simply, GBS was “Shaw’s greatest character” (p.22).

O’Toole’s initial section also looks at Shaw’s early years growing up in a Protestant family in Dublin.  Shaw’s ancestors on the side of his father had been quite prosperous, but his grandfather lost the family money and his alcoholic father, George Carr Shaw, struggled to earn a living sufficient for Shaw and his two older sisters.  The realization that George Carr was a “drunk,” O’Toole writes, “introduced him to reality in a way that permanently shaped his consciousness” (p.26).   Shaw’s career might be seen as a “backhanded compliment to his family.  His teetotalism and vegetarianism were reactions against the toxicity of alcoholic addiction. His ferocious, almost manic work ethic was surely driven by the fecklessness and failure of his Papa” (p.30-31).

Shaw acquired his artistic sensibility mostly from his mother, Bessie Gurly.  O’Toole recounts how Bessie invited another man, George John Vandeleur Lee, Bessie’s piano teacher, to live with the family. Lee became a substitute father for Shaw, from whom the young man derived his lifelong affinity for classical music, along with a “studied individuality of ideas about food and health” (p.37).  Lee had a certain flamboyance about him that presaged the GBS mark.  Shaw’s relationship to Lee involved a process of “mentally killing off his real father and replacing him, for a time at least, with Lee” (p.36-37), O’Toole writes.  There was some speculation that Lee might have been Shaw’s actual father.  This is surely wrong, O’Toole argues, but if the young Shaw may have looked like Lee, the reason was “not genetic but mimetic. Consciously or not, he imitated the man who had displaced his father.  Shaw never explicitly acknowledged Lee’s influence on him, but it is stamped on one of his most successful plays, Pygmalion. . . [where] Henry Higgins is a mélange of GBS and Lee” (p.38).

Shaw left Dublin for London in April 1876, three months before his 20th birthday, the “culmination of an imaginative process of slow disengagement from Dublin and thus from the physical realities of his youth” (p.47).  With Shaw’s arrival in London, where he lived for most of the rest of his years, O’Toole abandons any pretense at chronological biography in favor of his thematic essays.  One, “GBS versus England,” addresses Shaw’s general relationship to England, where he always retained a sense of himself as an exile, followed by “GBS versus Ireland.” Here, O’Toole explains Shaw’s relationship to Ireland and the Irish independence movement during his adult years.  Shaw “always saw an independent Ireland remaining voluntarily as an active member of a democratized Commonwealth.  But he never deviated from a passionate insistence that Ireland was and must be its own country and that British rule was an illegitimate imposition. He insisted that aggressive Irish nationalism was a fever that could be cured only by freedom” (p.113).

In the next section, “The Thinking Cap and the Jester’s Bells,” O’Toole turns specifically to Shaw’s plays and how he used the stage to shatter multiple norms.  Shaw wrote in a society and a culture “deeply committed to notions of human difference – that the upper class was vastly different from the lower, the imperial power from its subjects, the superior races from the inferior.”  Shaw’s dramaturgy was a “conscious revolt against these notions” (p.153).  Shaw used the stage to suggest that “how we behave is a function not of our characters, but of social roles and circumstance” (p.162-63).  O’Toole compares Shaw’s characters to a set of Russian dolls: “we never know whether, if enough layers were exposed, we would actually find a ‘real’ self. . . [T]he haunting thought is that the real self may not exist” (p.170).

Unlike most playwrights of his day, Shaw took great care in preparing a preface to his plays.  The preface helped Shaw’s readers and viewers see him “not as a famous playwright but as a famous man who wrote plays and used his celebrity to generate an audience for them” (p.95).  Shaw’s plays were democratic in their themes but also in their targeted audiences and readership, persons of modest income and education, the first generation of mass readers.  Shaw’s plays appealed to:

the millions who devoured newspapers and haunted public libraries, who joined trade unions and feminist organizations, social clubs and socialist societies, who hungered for ideas about the world. . . The history of the cheap paperback book is intertwined with the history of GBS. And not for nothing – they both belonged in the hands of working men and women (p.308-09).

In two sections, “GBS’s War on Poverty” and “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” O’Toole draws heavily on Shaw’s plays as well as his other writings to set out the contours of Shaw’s political and social thought.  At least until the 1960s, Shaw was “by far the most widely read socialist thinker in the English language.  And at the heart of his thought was that visceral hatred of poverty he breathed in with the fetid air of the Dublin slums” (p.197).  More than any other factor, Shaw’s deep hatred for economic oppression and inequality shaped his social thought.

Shaw challenged the perception of poverty as a “product of personal failure or mere bad luck, or as a necessary and inevitable corollary of economic progress” (p.198).  For Shaw, poverty was “not the cause of crime – it is the crime” (p.204).  Moralizing constructs like the “deserving poor” were only “self-serving cant” (p.310).  Shaw began to write in an era like ours, O’Toole observes, when wealth was expanding rapidly but distributed ever more unequally, giving his thought “renewed relevance in the twenty-first century” (p.198).

Shaw was one of the first intellectuals to suggest that children have rights independent of their parents.  He became a fierce fighter for woman’s suffrage and advocated for repeal of laws against consensual adult homosexual activity.  Almost alone among public figures, Shaw stood by and defended Oscar Wilde when Wilde was released from prison after serving nearly two years for “gross indecency,” i.e., homosexual acts (the subject of a review here earlier this year).

But Shaw’s progressive heroism was more than tempered for me by O’Toole’s section “The Lethal Chamber: The Dark Side of GBS,” in which the task of “judging Shaw” considers his embrace of some of the 20th century’s darkest moments: Fascism, Nazism and Communism.  Shaw also appeared to embrace the now discredited notion of eugenics, the use of selective breeding to “ensure that ‘bad’ human traits, ranging from physical and mental disabilities to moral delinquency, were ‘bred out’ of the human race” (p.267).  O’Toole provides startling quotations in which Shaw seems to support not just determining who should be allowed to give birth but also a massive increase in capital punishment for those inclined to criminality or what was considered deviant behavior.  “A part of eugenic politics,” Shaw told an audience in 1910, “would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber.  A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them” (p.268).  Shaw’s critics jumped on this and similar statements as evidence of the extremes to which his socialism invariably led.

Here, O’Toole turns lawyer for Shaw’s defense.  Shaw’s critics were willfully missing the irony behind his provocative suggestions, O’Toole argues.  Shaw was using the device of “pushing an idea to a grotesque conclusion in order to highlight an absurdity or an injustice” (p.269).  O’Toole compares Shaw to the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who argued in a deadpan tone that the rich should be allowed to eat the children of the poor.  But when O’Toole comes to Shaw’s attraction to Nazism and Fascism in the 1930s, he admits that he cannot serve effectively as Shaw’s lawyer.

Shaw imagined fascism as an “incomplete and underdeveloped version of his own communism” (p.277), O’Toole writes.  He saw Mussolini’s persecution of left-wing parties “not as part of the essence of fascism, but merely as a mistake” (p.277).  After a 1927 lunch with famed socialists Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Beatrice recorded that Shaw had “gabbled” on the subject of Mussolini, demonstrating that he had “lost touch with political reality” and “could no longer be taken seriously as a political thinker” (p.276).  Webb blamed Shaw’s enthusiasm for Mussolini on his intellectual isolation and weakness for flattery, the result of his “living a luxurious life in the midst of a worthless multitude of idle admirers” (p.277;  Webb’s notes on this lunch appear as one of the between-section visuals, at p.294-95)

The Webbs must have been even more aghast with Shaw a few years later as Hitler rose to power in Germany.   Shaw had presciently seen the folly of the Versailles Treaty and, like John Maynard Keynes, had argued that it was little more than an invitation to another war.   Shaw’s early lack of objections to Hitler may have been in part because Shaw viewed Hitler’s rise as a natural reaction to Versailles.  “His sympathy for Hitler was driven in part by a sense that the rise of the Nazi leader was proving GBS’s warnings correct,” O’Toole writes (p.281).  Shaw supported Hitler’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles, and rapid rebuilding of Germany’s armed forces.

Throughout the 1930s, Shaw maintained a “hopeless inability to understand what Nazism was about” (p.279).  Although Shaw despised Nazi racial theories, as he despised all racial theories, his “great delusion” was to think that the problem with anti-Semitism was an “excrescence of the ‘great Nazi movement’ that must be capable of something nobler. . . What Shaw seemed incapable of grasping was that anti-Semitism was not a stain on the otherwise pure cloth of Nazism. It was Hitler’s primary color” (p.279-80).  Shaw “blinded himself to the murderousness implicit in Nazism and choreographed his own ridiculous dance around one of the central realities of the 1930s” (p.282).  It was only after Germany invaded the Soviet Union that Shaw admitted he had been wrong about Hitler’s intentions.  But here, too, his apology was couched in terms that were neither “gracious” nor a “searching self-reflection – Shaw essentially apologized for Hitler not being as intelligent as GBS” (p.288).

Shaw’s infatuation with Communism is easier to square with his left-wing political outlook.   Shaw was hardly the only Westerner of a leftist bent who saw a potential “socialist paradise” in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and applauded its apparent rapid modernization while the Western democracies remained mired in a worldwide economic depression.  O’Toole recounts an interview with Stalin that Shaw and Nancy Astor conducted when the pair traveled to Moscow in 1931.  Astor, Britain’s first female parliamentarian although an American by birth, asked Stalin why he slaughtered so many people.  Shaw seemed to have been satisfied with Stalin’s “bland assurance that ‘the need for dealing with political prisoners drastically would soon cease’” (p.279).  Thereafter, O’Toole indicates, Shaw’s view of Stalin “approached hero-worship: a photograph of Stalin was beside his deathbed, though with characteristic perversity it was balanced by one of Mahatma Gandhi” (p.278-79).

As he considers Shaw’s embrace of these totalitarian regimes as part of the task of “judging Shaw,” O’Toole sounds more like a prosecutor delivering an impassioned closing argument:

The great seer failed to see the true nature of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism. The great skeptic allowed himself to believe just what he wanted to believe, that the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were rough harbingers of real progress and true democracy.  GBS was by no means the only artist or intellectual to be deluded by the promises of regimes that ‘got things done’ while democracies struggled to end the Great Depression.  But no other artist or intellectual had his standing as a global sage.  His sagacity proved to be useless when it mattered most (p.275).

After wearing both a defense lawyer’s hat and that of a prosecutor, O’Toole seems to find a judicial robe when he reminds his readers that Shaw’s dark phase coincided with an almost entirely barren period for him as a playwright and writer.   From the late 1920s onward through World War II, Shaw’s output came to an almost absolute halt.  In O’Toole’s view, the Great War marked the death of GBS, depriving Shaw of his most potent message.  Shaw had used mockery, paradox and comic absurdity to remind his readers and viewers that what was termed “civilization” was merely a “veneer on cruelty and hypocrisy. But the Great War swatted aside the gadfly. It revealed, through the scale of its horror, all the hidden truths that GBS had delighted in exposing” (p.240).

The great failure of GBS the sage in the post-World War I era, O’Toole contends, “cannot be divorced from the waning of the powers of GBS the dramatist.  It was in his art that Shaw tested and contradicted and argued with himself.  But that ability dried up” (p.289). Unlike artistic creators as varied as Beethoven, Titian, Goya and W.B. Yeats, all of whom found newborn creativity late in life, Shaw was “unable to develop a successful late style” (p.289).  His last great play was in 1923, Saint Joan, when he was 68. He “long outlived the GBS who could spin ideas and contradictions on the end of his fingertips” (p.290).

* * *

                The GBS brand may have died in the wake of World War I, and Shaw the social and political commentator remains tainted by his dalliances with the totalitarian ideologies of the 1930s.  Yet, in closing out this erudite and elegantly written exercise in judging Shaw, O’Toole concludes that nearly three quarters of a century after his death, Shaw’s status as playwright and artist — and contrarian — seems  “more secure now than might have been predicted even a few decades ago” (p.305-06).  Shaw’s revolutionary impact continues to lie in his insistence that the “right to question everything, to hold nothing sacred” belongs to the “common man and woman. And that it was not just a right – it was a duty” (p.306).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 29, 2019

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under British History, English History, History, Literature, Political Theory, Politics

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Raphael Minder, The Struggle for Catalonia:

Rebel Politics in Spain (Hurst, £15.99 ppb)

            Two years ago, in the last quarter of 2017, Spain faced its most severe constitutional crisis since its transformation into a modern democracy began in 1975 in the aftermath of the death of long-term military dictator Francisco Franco.  On October 1, 2017, the regional (and semi-autonomous) province of Catalonia, the northeast corner of Spain that incudes Barcelona, held a non-binding referendum on the question whether the region should declare its independence and secede from Spain. The central government in Madrid vigorously opposed the referendum and took measures to impede it.

90% of Catalans who voted approved the referendum. But several major Catalan parties boycotted the referendum, and only 43% of eligible voters actually voted.   Later that month, on October 27, the Catalan regional parliament adopted a resolution unilaterally declaring the province an independent republic.  The central government responded by invoking the 1978 Spanish constitution to remove regional authorities and enforce direct rule from Madrid over the region.  Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, fled to Belgium with key members of his cabinet, with Spain’s Attorney General pressing for their return to Spain to face charges of sedition and misuse of public funds.

At this writing, the 2017 Spanish secession crisis continues to simmer, with no clear winner.  Catalonia remains a part of the Spanish republic – indeed one of its most prosperous parts, with an economy larger than that of Portugal, accounting for almost twenty percent of Spain’s GDP.  Puigdemont and his cabinet colleagues remain outside Spain, still sought by Spanish justice.  The country has held two national elections since the October 2017 crisis, prompting some newspapers to label Spain the “new Italy.”  The secessionist movement seems somewhat less potent than it did two years ago, but has in no sense disappeared.

Raphael Minder’s The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain first appeared in the spring of 2017, and thus does not address that year’s momentous last quarter events.  But it almost appears to anticipate them.  Minder, a Swiss-born, Oxford-educated journalist who is now the Madrid-based correspondent for the New York Times, ranges widely in describing Catalan life and culture, including language, religion, sports, tourism and cuisine.  He seeks to explain the factors that have produced the mindset of contemporary Catalans – of those who believe, often fervently, that their region’s future lies outside the Spanish republic and those who, with equal fervor, maintain that Catalonia is and should remain part of Spain.  Throughout, he relies heavily on the views of academics, Catalan especially but not exclusively, for their takes on his broad range of subjects.  He  also includes the fruits of his discussions and interviews with a diverse range of Catalans and those interested in the future of the region, including journalists and business people.

Minder engages the arguments for and against secession mostly indirectly and obliquely, scrupulously avoiding the appearance of taking sides in the polemical debates on the subject.  Catalonia’s complicated contemporary politics, with multiple parties representing all points on the spectrum on the secession question, are thus part of Minder’s story but far from the major part.  He treats Catalonia’s history, but not systematically, preferring to weave pivotal historical background into his consideration of contemporary Catalonia and its culture.

The historical background includes the 2008 global financial crisis, in Minder’s view the most immediate catalyst for the current Catalan separatist challenge.  During the recession that followed, several Catalan parties and much of the public became “increasingly convinced that Catalonia had more to gain than to lose by breaking away from a crisis-hit Spain. As the recession deepened, secessionism shifted from fringe to mainstream thinking in Catalonia” (p.204).  Minder also returns repeatedly to other pivotal historical events and periods which have abetted the secessionist urge, especially Barcelona’s fall in 1714 to Phillip V, ending the War of Spanish Succession; and Spain’s Franco period, including both the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, and the long Franco dictatorship, 1939-1975.

The 1714 conquest by Phillip V, the grandson of Louis XIV who was born at Versailles and became the first Bourbon king of Spain, constitutes the “historical wrong that needs to be challenged for Catalonia to assert its nationhood” (p.21), Minder writes.  For many Catalans, Bourbon rule entailed a “model of governance that sought to crush diversity in Spain. The Bourbons imported and imposed French centralism, which left no room for the recognition of the singularity of Catalonia” (p.193).  Phillip’s troops completed their conquest on September 11, 1714, Catalonia’s 9/11.  Long before hijacked airliners destroyed the Twin Towers in Manhattan, Catalans observed September 11 as a day of commemoration and remembrance.

Two centuries after Phillip’s conquest, Barcelona and Catalonia constituted the center of resistance to General Franco’s 1936 anti-republican coup and the ensuing conflict, the fiercest in Europe since World War I (assiduous readers of this blog will recall my 2017 review of Adam Hochschild’s book on the Spanish Civil War).  Minder suggests that Catalonia may have been less anti-Franco during the Franco regime itself than popular mythology holds, with many businesses and Catalonian elites supporting the regime.  Nevertheless, Franco distrusted Catalonia more than any other region during his long rule.

Minder further addresses secessionist movements elsewhere, particularly in Scotland and Spain’s Basque country, concluding that they have little relevance to the Catalan separatist cause.  The current wave of Catalan secessionism coincides with the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world.   Catalan secessionism might seem at first glance to be a cousin to the xenophobic nationalism of, for example, Hungary.  Both embody a form of tribalism, based on a powerful sense of identity and the prioritizing of a particular set of historical traditions over all others, and both thus constitute a challenge to modern liberal democracy.  Yet Catalonia has traditionally been one of the most progressive pockets of Spain, a sort of melting pot for migrants from other parts of the country and elsewhere; it was notably welcoming to Middle Eastern immigrants during the refugee crisis of this decade.  The main link between today’s Catalonia and Hungary with its xenophobic nationalism may be that the European Union takes an equally dim view of both.

* * *

               The Catalan language constitutes a natural starting point in seeking to grasp the diverse components of Catalan culture.  It is the glue that not only holds the components together but also links the region to other parts of the world where the language is spoken, including the area in and around Perpignan in Southern France and, most unlikely, in pockets of Sardinia.  About 11 million people understand Catalan while 9.1 million people speak the language, according to a recent government study. After Barcelona’s fall to Phillip V in 1714, Spain’s Bourbon monarchy banned the official use of Catalan.  In the late 19th century, a movement of Catalan poets and authors took on the task of reviving the language, “which was by then widely considered to be ‘doomed’ and irrelevant” (p.29).  In the early post-Franco years, Catalan became the obligatory first language in Catalan schools.

Although Catalans appreciate having their own language, a minority of Catalan speakers, fairly described as linguistic extremists, have pushed to make Catalan the only official language of Catalonia. “Certain separatists have shown a complete disregard for the benefits of a multilingual upbringing and society” (p.34), Minder writes.  The irony is that part of the wealth of Catalonia’s linguistic and literary tradition “lies in its ability both to attract and interact with other cultures” (p.35).  If its language sets Catalonia off from the rest of Spain, so too does its relationship with the most traditional of Spanish institutions, the monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Minder considers the Spanish monarchy to be the most discredited national institution in Catalonia. “It is common to find Catalans displaying an indifference towards the monarchy that sometimes borders on ignorance” (p.193), he writes.  One Catalan told Minder that most of his fellow Catalans “feel no more for Spain’s King than they would for the Queen of England” (p.191). The relevance of Catholicism, moreover, has “declined faster in Catalonia than in other parts of Spain” (p.188).  A Catalan theologian and lawyer explained to Minder that Catalonia had:

modernized early because of the industrial revolution, and then it embraced anarchism and other anti-religious ideas more enthusiastically than other parts of Spain. . . After the civil war, Franco promoted his National Catholicism from Madrid. This too convinced many Catalans to break free of the church because it was an institution associated with a dictatorship. The fact that the Catalan church withdrew its support from the regime during Franco’s final years did little to reverse the decline (p.187-88).

Football might be considered Catalonia’s secular religion today, with enthusiasm for its flagship team, FC Barcelona (or “Borça”), a shared passion across the region. But, Minder notes, football and politics have become increasingly intertwined in Catalonia.   Some FC Barcelona fans shout for independence during matches and wave the independence flag, Estelada.  Fans also sometimes boo when the Spanish national anthem is played.  Bullfighting, once the rival to football as Spain’s national sport, is by contrast on the decline in Catalonia.  In 2010, shortly after a controversial decision of the constitutional court struck down a portion of Catalan’s statute of autonomy, the Catalan parliament banned bullfighting as unjustified animal cruelty.  Animal rights activists applauded the ban while bullfighting proponents countered that it was politically motivated.  Some Catalan politicians acknowledged that the ban “helped present Catalonia as more modern than the rest of Spain” (p.177).

Sports enthusiasm in Catalonia took on a new cast in 1992, when Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games, the “real moment of transformation” for the city and the region, Minder writes, “brought about by sports rather than culture” (p.157).  The 1992 games allowed Barcelona to show itself off as a center for innovation.  The games also provided a giant shot in the arm for the region’s tourism industry, with the number of visitors roughly eight times greater now than in the years prior to 1992.   Today, Barcelona faces the dilemma of too much tourism – the city has more visitors than it can comfortably accommodate.

Minder includes Catalonia’s distinct cuisine as another component of its culture.  Catalonia has been a leader in European gastronomy since at least the 14th century, he indicates.  Catalonia today has more Michelin- starred restaurants than any other region in Spain, roughly one third of all such restaurants in the country.  Minder quotes an American food writer who describes Catalan cooking as looking outward, “toward Europe and the Mediterranean, rather than back into the Iberian interior . . . It is a real cuisine, distinct and elaborate in a way that the cooking of, say, Castile, Andalusia and Extremadura . . . [is] not” (p.282).

* * *

               Minder dates the start of the modern secessionist movement to 2006, when Catalonia adopted a new statute of autonomy.  Parts of that statute, as noted above, were struck down by Spain’s constitutional court in 2010.  The court’s decision “changed the mindset of many Catalans” (p.249-50), he writes, generating more enthusiasm for secession in Catalonia than had the adoption of the original statute.  In the interim, of course, the 2008 financial crisis intervened. The bursting of Spain’s property bubble in 2008 led to a huge number of people unable to pay their mortgages, in Catalonia and throughout Spain.  Although nobody knows exactly how many Catalans converted to secession after the 2008 financial crisis, politicians and sociologists generally agree that about half of those who voted for separatist parties in a Catalan regional election in 2015 had not supported secessionism a decade earlier.  In the 2015 election , 48 percent of Catalans cast their ballots in favor of separatist parties, “enough for separatists to gain a parliamentary majority” (p.11).

So is secession a good idea for Catalonia? Is it likely to succeed? Minder might provide different answers to these related but distinct questions today, in light of the events of the last quarter of 2017 and Spain’s current situation.  But in the early part of 2017, he answered both with a definite maybe.  The creation of a new Catalan state “does not look like a pipedream,” he writes.  But “neither, of course, does it seem inevitable” (p.300).  Although Minder notices a secessionist mindset taking hold among younger Catalonians, he finds secession unlikely to succeed as long as the region’s main separatist parties “find more reasons for disagreement than consensus.  Separatist politicians have sought to brush their differences under the carpet until their statehood project matures, but the voters have the right to receive a clearer roadmap before deciding in which direction Catalonia should go” (p.7).  Catalan politicians “need to consider the divisions that they have helped widen within a society that has always had its split personality, torn between what Catalans call their ‘seny i rauxa,’ or sanity and rage” (p.300).

Catalan secessionism differs  from secessionism in Scotland in that there are many parties with independence tendencies in Catalonia, often with conflicting agendas, whereas a single party has represented the cause of Scottish independence.  Scotland’s nationalist politicians, moreover, “have not seen any benefit in banding together with an independence movement that faces greater obstacles in Catalonia” (p.148).  Nor does secessionism in Spain’s Basque region resemble that of Catalonia. The Basque and Catalan regions have markedly different economic clout, and there are only about 2 million people in the Basque region, compared to more than 7 million in Catalonia.  Moreover, the Basque history of anti-state violence and terrorism has no analogue in Catalonia.  For these and other reasons, Basque and Catalan elites “have not come together to coordinate their response to separatism” (p.238).  But if neither Scotland nor the Basque region offers Catalonia either a viable model to follow or a potential partnership, I couldn’t help thinking as I worked my way through Minder’s comprehensive survey that the best lesson for Catalonia may lie in the Brexit ordeal currently convulsing Britain, namely that breaking away can be far more complicated than it initially appears.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 13, 2019

 

 

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Anything But Bland

 

Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell:

A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Other Press) 

            Mark Mazower, the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of contemporary America’s most eminent historians of modern Europe, the author of several books on Greek and Balkan history, along with others on 20th century Europe generally.  Born in Britain in 1958, Mazower grew up in the Golders Green neighborhood of North London.  His home environment bordered on bland: it was thoroughly stable if unflashy, but most assuredly not a place where his parents dwelled upon the family’s past.  Before writing this affecting family memoir, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home, Mazower probably did not realize the extent to which his family background, at least on his father’s side, was anything but bland.

            Mazower’s quest to learn more about his father’s family history led him to surprising revelations about his paternal grandparents, Max and Frouma, both Russian Jews.  Grandfather Max, the memoir’s main character, had been a leader in the Bund, the underground Jewish labor movement that flourished in late 19th and early 20th century Russia and played key roles in the anti-Tsarist uprisings of 1905 and 1917.  Grandmother Frouma saw her family entirely uprooted by the civil wars that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917. 

                By the early 1920s, Max and Frouma had both left Russia for England.  Max never returned after leaving for the last time in 1923; Frouma did not return until 1959.  Max too left family members behind in Russia who were caught up in the civil wars that ravaged Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover.   Some family members on both sides who survived the civil wars perished later in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, and in World War II and the Holocaust.  Max and Frouma settled in North London, far from the tumult of Russia, where they lived lives of bourgeois respectability as part of a thriving Russian-Jewish immigrant community concentrated in and around their neighborhood of Highgate, not far from the cemetery where Karl Marx is buried.

            Mazower also uncovered much new information about the two older half-siblings his father had grown up with: half-brother André, Max’s son by a relationship with Sofia Krylenko, herself a leading anti-Bolshevik Leftist on the European Continent in the 1920s; and half-sister Ira, Frouma’s daughter by an earlier marriage to a swashbuckling soldier in the Tsarist army who died fighting the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.  André and Ira, spectacularly different in personality, both led eccentric lives that included turns to political conservatism as adults.

             In the first two thirds of the memoir, Mazower shares his insights into Max and Frouma, André and Ira, and the families Max and Frouma left behind in Russia, along with fascinating detail on the Bund.  In the last third, in the most personal and heartfelt portion of the memoir, he turns to his father William, referred to as “Dad” throughout.  Here, Mazower explains how his Dad had the quiet, nurturing childhood that had been denied to both his parents, and to André and Ira.  His mother,“Mum,” enters the story only briefly, and only at the end. 

            As he links the turbulence of early 20th century Russia to the tranquility and stability of mid-20th century Highgate, Mazower poses and tries to answer for his grandparents broader questions about assimilation and place – how and why do we come to feel that we belong to any particular location?  What psychic struggles were involved for his grandparents to leave Russia behind and make Highgate home? What did it mean for Max never to see his birthplace again after he left in 1923?  How did Frouma come to terms with being separated from her family for 30 years?

              Mazower never knew his grandfather, who died in 1952, before he was born; and barely knew his grandmother, who died in 1964, when he was six years old.  He began thinking about writing a family memoir around 2009, the year his father was ill and died.  It was a time when Mazower returned frequently from Manhattan to Highgate and his own boyhood neighborhood, nearby Golders Green, feeling “acutely nostalgic for my native city” (p.5).   The “Journey Home” portion of the subtitle applies more to Mazower than to any character in his memoir.  The  title, “What You Did Not Tell,” is directed at his grandfather and his father.  Both seemed congenitally incapable of talking about their pasts.  But Max’s silence, unlike that of Mazower’s father, “had hidden real secrets” (p.6).  

* * *

               The oldest of three brothers, Max was born in 1874 in Gradno, in today’s Belarus, a town in the Pale of Settlement, that “vast swath of western Russia to which the empire’s Jews had been almost entirely confined by imperial order” (p.21).  Max was of the same generation as Vladimir Lenin and future Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, and almost certainly crossed paths with each during his younger years (Litvinov later lived for a while in Highgate, where he also crossed paths with Max).  Little is known about Max’s early life except that his father died when he was 14.  But he seems to have been involved from his teenage years onward in the “General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia” — shortened simply to the Bund.  More than any of the other intriguing and endearing charcters in this memoir, Max is a figure of genuine historical interest because of his role in the Bund.  

             Although only barely remembered today, the Bund in the first decade of the 20th century had become, “by some considerable margin,” the “largest and best-organized socialist movement in the [Russian] empire, dwarfing Lenin’s quarrelsome band of followers.  Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Bund successfully combined revolutionary agitation with organizing workers to improve wages and working conditions” (p.37).  The Bund wanted no single leader, and it aimed to speak mostly for Russian Jews, not all Russians.  National, cultural, and linguistic differences needed to be acknowledged, not ignored. 

               Although the Bund “rejected the terrorist tradition of Russian revolutionary activism,” it was “certainly neither pacifist nor prepared to allow the terror unleashed by the authorities go unchecked” (p.38).   Bund members hailed the initial revolution that ousted the Tsar in the spring of 1917.  Many were elected to new workers’ councils.   But the November 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power split the Bund apart.  Some Bundists went over to the Bolsheviks, but the majority did not, “believing they were dictatorial and dangerous.  The Bolsheviks reciprocated their suspicion”  (p.59).  By the mid-1920s, the Bolsheviks had largely wiped out the Bund

              Max was the Bund’s “organizer par excellence” (p.51), a behind-the-scenes man who lived a double life in which caution, silence and mistrust were keys to survival.  Outwardly a conventionally bourgeois salesman for a Russian shipping firm in Vilna (today’s Vilnius, Lithuania), Max was simultaneously a revolutionary activist who wrote, translated, published and distributed seditious tracts.  But he was “neither a rhetorician nor a lover of the limelight” (p.51).   He published nothing under his own name.  He forged passports and purchased guns. When the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising broke out, Max was assigned to coordinate the Bund’s activities in Łódź, in today’s Poland.  He never spoke again about this experience, but it formed the “climax of his life as an agitator” (p.42).

              Max was arrested in the aftermath of the 1905 uprising and imprisoned in Siberia.  An escape in 1907 led him all the way from Siberia to Dresden, Germany, at a time when he seems to have concluded that the possibility of overthrowing the Tsars had been foreclosed.  Eager to put his semi-clandestine existence and constant police surveillance behind him, while in Dresden he responded to an ad of the London office of Yost Typewriter Company.  An American firm, Yost was anxious to expand into the Tsarist Empire and was looking for a marketing manager with knowledge of Russian. Yost offered Max a job as a “glorified salesman” (p.55), charged with opening up the Russian market.  Over the next decade and a half – the tumultuous period that spanned World War I, the 1917 Revolution, and the post-revolution civil wars in Russia — Max lived in rented North London rooms while he spent much time back in Russia selling typewriters.

              During a  visit to Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg) sometime in the early 1920s, Max met Frouma Toumarkine.  Born in 1892 and thus 18 years younger than Max, Frouma was one of eight siblings, five girls, three boys, members of a close-knit clan of moderately prosperous Russian Jews.  Her father was a Moscow timber merchant.  Unlike Max, Frouma had a formal secondary school education, and had entered Kiev University shortly before World War I.  When the war broke out, she left university to sign up as an auxiliary nurse.  

             In her capacity as nurse, Frouma met her first husband, Alexander Batlermanants, a medical officer in the Tsarist army, more than 20 years older.  From a wealthy family of Jewish origins, Batlermanants liked to gamble, the “characteristic vice of the Russian upper classes” (p.170-71).  He was self-centered, with “suspect charm” and a “complete lack of dependability” (p.171).  The couple’s daughter Ira – officially Irina – was born in 1912.   Batlermanants died fighting for the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war that broke out after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 

               Mazower was unable to discover many details about Max and Frouma’s courtship.  But he learned that Max returned to England in the summer of 1924 from one of his trips to Eastern Europe with Frouma, then a 32-year-old Russian widow, and eight year old Ira.  Frouma was pregnant when she arrived in London and spoke almost no English. The couple married in London in December 1924, and Mazower’s father William – William was supposedly the only English name Frouma then knew — was born the following year, 1925.

               Shortly after their arrival back in London, Max had a house built in Highgate, at 20 Oakeshott Avenue. Bordering Hampstead Heath, Highgate was full of recently constructed single-family dwellings, built along shade-filled streets — the “epitome of affordable bourgeois comfort” (p.189).  Max and Frouma never again moved from Highgate area.  “There is a privilege in being able to stay put, in choosing when to move,” Mazower writes, and the “upheavals, fears, and deprivations of their early lives had equipped Dad’s parents to appreciate it” (p.9).  For years, Max and Frouma opened their doors to other Russian émigrés, especially old Bundist comrades, including many Max had not known personally, “as though the domestic space he had never really known as a child emerged late in his life to help shelter the remnants of a movement that had found history against it” (p.86).

                 Frouma, the memoir’s most endearing character, transformed the Oakeshott Avenue house into a home with her warmth and intuitive affection.  Her “vitality invigorated the home of the Mazowers” and her “energy kept the family together” (p.166).  Throughout her time in London, Frouma sorely missed her family back in Russia.  She toyed with the idea of returning to Russia.  To preserve and nurture ties with loved ones and her homeland, Frouma wrote  letters, the “lifeblood” of her family’s continued existence “after it had been sundered” (p.196).  For Frouma, the nurturing of family ties was a “way to withstand the pain of history” (p.6).  Her son William was the anchor that kept her in England.

                 But Frouma and Max’s household also included William’s half-siblings, André and Ira.  André, born in 1909 and 16 years older than William, was a “shadowy and constantly shifting presence” (p.102) at 20 Oakeshott Avenue, rarely seen as William grew up.  The story of André’s mother Sofia Krylenko, and her relationship with Max, was at the pinnacle of Max’s most closely guarded secrets.  But Mazower was able to learn that Sofia had been a prominent Russian revolutionary in her own right, a woman of “culture and independence and means, a modernist, a free spirit” (p.133), whom Max probably met when both were exiles in Germany.  Unlike Max, Sofia never made the turn to familial life.  She “remained an activist and castigated others for their compromises” (p. 135).  She was institutionalized during World War II and probably died during the war.

                Mazower established that Sofia’s son André came to London in 1913, when he was not yet four years old, but was able to uncover little else about the boy’s early years.  He considers the possibility that Max was not André’s father, a possibility that André encouraged as an adult.  At a minimum, Mazower concludes, Max acted as if André were his son.   André went on to attend Cambridge University, where he tried his hand at poetry and came under the influence of the poet T.S. Eliot.  As he moved into adulthood, he remained financially dependent upon Max for long stretches of time.  Otherwise, there was little contact between the two.  He would show up in Highgate unannounced, and recounted little about where he had been or where he was going next.  Frouma wrote of on-going tension between Max and André.

                  André wrote The Red Thread, a controversial tract that indulged in discredited anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  He converted to Catholicism, moved to Spain and, much to Max’s chagrin, supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  Despite his tilt to the right side of the political spectrum, André shared with his revolutionary mother Sofia what Mazower describes as a “propensity for ideological extremism, an attraction to secrecy and the conspiratorial worldview, and perhaps too the combination of self-pity, stubbornness, and self-romanticization that often accompanied them” (p.162).  His repudiation of the leftist views of Max and Sofia was in Mazower’s view André’s way of dealing with the sense of being “unmoored by the storms of history, his form of reaction to living the aftermath of revolution”  (p.162).  André died at age 95, in 2005.

            In sharp contrast to André, Frouma’s daughter Ira was omnipresent in the Mazower family’s life as William grew up.  Born in Russia in 1912, by the time she was five, Ira had lived through a world war, a revolution, a civil war, mass epidemic and famine.  In what for her must have been “insufferably tranquil” North London, Ira became a “sardonic, self-absorbed, willful English-speaking teenager with an artistic temperament” (p.219).  Throughout her life, Ira pursued an ideal of “beauty and glamour as if seeking to wipe out her earliest memories and revive what they had effaced” (p.223).  In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Ira first married at age 17, in 1935.  The marriage lasted just weeks. 

                After World War II, Ira turned to clothes and fashion, initially a “source of fantasy,” her way of “turning life at home into something stylish and stylized” (p.226).  Her big break came when she took a position as art editor of a popular fashion magazine.  She proved to be a talented writer who demonstrated an “easy way with words” and did not “take herself too seriously” (p.227).  Ira wrote The Glass of Fashion, a “paean to glamour” (p.227) for austere post-war Britain, in which she argued that fashion was a good escape for women, reflecting the “daydreams of millions of women” (p.227).  The book received good reviews.  She went on to write several modestly successful fantasy novels, “packed with court intrigue, noble gamblers, dashing rakes, illegitimacy, mad passion and fatal attractions” (p.231).

                While living in Highgate with Max and Frouma and working in central London, Ira fell in love with the family’s neighbor, Richard Jeffries, known as “Jeff,” a banker in the City who was married with several children.  Max and Frouma considered Jeff “very English,” i.e., native born and not Jewish.  After Jeff left his first wife to marry Ira, the couple lived a lavish lifestyle, featuring fancy hotels, a Jaguar, luxury cruises, and lots to drink.  Ira wrote a memoir “designed to turn childhood pain into 1950s cocktail entertainment,” a sort of “Ballets Russes fantasy” with a “lighthearted style” which kept at bay the “fears, knowledge, and memories that lay close beneath the surface” after her life had become prosperous and comfortable  (p.221-22).  Like André, with whom she otherwise had very little in common, Ira too became “quite reactionary” as an adult, given to “making outrageous statements about peasants and workers” (p.218).

                In 1985, Jeff had a heart attack while driving, and was killed.  Not yet 70, Ira died of an overdose three days after Jeff’s funeral.  To Mazower, Ira’s death almost seemed as if she was living out one of her novels.  He describes his father’s half-sister as a woman who sought to “banish the memory of revolutionary deprivation, re-creating in the safety of an English suburb something of the comfort that had been snatched from her in childhood” (p.220). 

                 After the turbulent lives of Frouma and Max, and the unconventional lives of André and Ira, the memoir switches gears when Mazower addresses his father William.  William’s childhood was characterized by a “high degree of tenderness and gentleness,” along with the “omnipresence of his mother’s affection” (p.244).  Although Max was aloof and distant, “more or less incapable of demonstrating physical affection” with his son, Mazower’s Dad “never questioned that his father loved him, and felt both protective and proud of him as Max aged” (p.49).  Like his father, William was “not a talkative man, and he shied away from the personal like a nervous horse” (p.1).   

            William was a 14-year-old schoolboy when World War II broke out.  By war’s end in 1945, he was a “trained soldier with multiple technical skills.”  Although he never saw combat,  he had been through “bombing and air raids and knew about weapons and had seen the devastation they caused” (p.279).  After the war ended, he spent time with the British Army in occupied Germany.   He had been admitted in 1942 to Oxford’s prestigious Balliol College — the “powerhouse of the British political elite in the mid-twentieth century” (p.298) – but was not able to complete his studies at Balliol until several years after the war. 

              William spent his entire professional career as a middle manager in a multinational company, showing “no interest at all in climbing the greasy pole to executive glory” (p.333). He married in 1955, with children coming quickly thereafter: four boys, of which our author was the oldest.  William chose to be more present in his sons’ lives than his father had been in his.  But the responsibility he felt as the son of immigrants never left him.  His settled upbringing helps explain the “gratitude and respect” Dad “always felt to his parents, and his sense of obligation to them” (p.238-39). 

* * *

            The turbulence and upheavals of the twentieth century that had altered his grandparents’ lives and robbed his father’s half-siblings of normal childhoods had an impact on his father as well, Mazower concludes, “insofar as he understood the relationship to the place of his birth in a very specific and deeply felt way and because he knew what good fortune was whenever he looked at his family tree” (p.347).  As he journeyed physically and emotionally from New York to London to piece together this beguiling memoir, Mazower too must surely have recognized the good fortune he discovered in his family tree.   

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky USA

July 21, 2019

2 Comments

Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, English History, European History, History, Russian History

Imprisonment and Exile as Liberation

 

Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde:

The Unrepentant Years (Harvard University Press)

            In February 1895, Dublin-born Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), then 40 years old, was at the top of his game as a poet, playwright and critic, known throughout the English-speaking literary world for his brilliant wit, glittering conversational skills and charming if flamboyant appearance.   Two of his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were playing to packed houses in London’s West End, with the latter about to open in New York.  Wilde was married to wealthy Englishwoman Constance Lloyd and the couple had two sons whom Wilde adored, ten-year-old Cyril and nine-year-old Vyvan.

            Wilde’s marriage to Constance was by then more than a bit shaky, in no small part because Wilde had fallen passionately and recklessly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, a brash, unpredictable, and frequently imprudent aristocrat, sixteen years younger than Wilde.  Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, heartily disapproved of the relationship between the two men, threatening at one point to “make a public scandal in a way you little dream of” if Douglas did not end it.   This included showing up at Wilde’s house accompanied by a boxer, and almost disrupting the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, before Wilde got wind of his intentions and barred him from the performance.  Then, on February 18, 1895, the Marquis left a calling card at Wilde’s home addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite,” misspelling “sodomite.”  Against the advice of nearly everyone, including George Bernard Shaw, Wilde decided to sue the Marquis for criminal libel in an effort to put an end to the harassment, once and for all.  It was not a good decision. 

            Douglas’ father employed spies to dig up evidence that Wilde was in reality a “sodomite,” a term frequently used in late Victorian England as a synonym for homosexual.  His lawyers introduced romantic and suggestive letters from Wilde to the Marquis’s son.  The court found the Marquis’s description of Wilde as a “posing sodomite” to be legally justified, and Wilde withdrew his suit.  He was then arrested on charges of “gross indecency” under a loosely worded and subjective statute that made almost any private and consensual action potentially subject to criminal prosecution.  After a sensational trial that aroused much interest in England and abroad, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. 

               In Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, Nicholas Frankel, Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, focuses upon Wilde’s last years, both his imprisonment, from May 1895 to May 1897, and the remaining three and a half years of his life, which he spent in exile in Dieppe, in Northern France, Naples, Sicily, and above all Paris, where he died in November 1900.  Unlike more comprehensive Wilde biographies, Frankel argues that his “represents the first sustained effort to understand Wilde’s imagination through the prism of his final years” (p.16).  Frankel provides a perceptive account of the unforgiving prison conditions that prevailed in late Victorian England, and much insight into the surprisingly open environment available to homosexuals on parts of the European continent as the 19th century came to a close. 

                 But the sturdiest thread tying together Frankel’s biographical narrative is Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, the “defining love affair of his life. . . [which] lasted well beyond his imprisonment,” an affair that was “at times intense, passionate, petty, rhapsodic, tender, ill-tempered, and vituperative” (p.31).  Wilde spent only limited time with Douglas after his release from prison, the rest seemingly in an endless pursuit of a variety of men – mostly younger men and boys.  But even when the two were not together, Douglas dominated Wilde’s psyche.

                Wilde fled Britain immediately upon his release from prison in May 1897, never to return.  He realized then that he needed to “reinvent himself as someone who could live and write unapologetically in spite of the poverty, ostracism, and isolation that he already knew he would face upon release” (p.77).  He never regained his full literary aplomb after his release from prison.  But to emphasize this, Frankel argues,  is to miss  the import of Wilde’s post-prison years.  Paradoxically, Frankel writes, imprisonment and exile liberated Wilde to “pursue an uninhibited life, and the pleasure he received in consequence could be enjoyed more fully, as a total experience of heart, mind, soul and body, with conversation as its medium and laughter its index . .  . Wilde’s greatest achievement in exile was himself” (p.303).

* * *

                Wilde served his prison term in several jails (“gaols” in the British spelling).  The prison system in Britain in Wilde’s day was known for being “harshly punitive,” centered on  “hard labor, hard board, and hard fare” (p.36).  The prison population included children as well as seasoned criminals.  Almost every prisoner was held in solitary confinement, with one hour out per day, and no talking among prisoners allowed.  There was little sense that prisoners could be reformed or rehabilitated. 

                Shortly after his release, Wilde wrote a long letter to the Daily Chronicle, a paper interested in prison reform, documenting the “brutality of the current British prison system and the terrible cruelty that it inflicted on child prisoners especially” (p.97).  He had kind words for the other prisoners, the “only really humanizing influence in prison.”  By contrast, prison authorities were “obliged to execute some of the most inhumane regulations” and were the “source of mindless cruelty” (p.98).  The letter, which Frankel describes as a  “masterpiece of plain rhetoric” (p.99), had a clear effect on the 1898 Prisons Act, marking the beginnings of modern penal reform in Great Britain by setting the stage for the subsequent abolition of hard labor and the establishment of separate institutions for young offenders. 

                Wilde’s prison experience also produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a lengthy poem still today considered one of the most cogent analyses of prison conditions, an “indictment not merely of the late-Victorian prison system but of the society that convicted and imprisoned Wilde” and, indirectly, a “moving and unapologetic reassertion of Wilde’s sexual orientation” (p.169-70).   The poem was based on the execution of fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge, which had a “lasting effect on Wilde’s sense of himself and other prisoners as victims of a cruel, inhuman machine” (p.62).  The Ballad of Reading Gaol ends with Wilde’s “personal views on the justice system and its antithetical character to Christianity” (p.179).  The poem turned out to be the best selling of Wilde’s published writings in his lifetime and has never since been out of print.

                Although Wilde had begun his prison sentence vowing undying love for Lord Douglas, thoughts of Douglas rendered him angry, alienated and depressed as his prison term progressed.  At one point, he considered reconciliation with his wife Constance, who had officially barred him from seeing his children, in exchange for a small allowance upon his release.  During the prison term, Constance temporarily put her divorce plans on hold, but shortly thereafter reversed herself, changed her name, and took her sons to Genoa, Italy, where she died prematurely in 1898.  Wilde never saw his sons again,  “arguably the most tragic element of his final years” (p.103), Frankel suggests.

               In Frankel’s view, Wilde’s changing affections for Douglas were a reflection of his isolation and depression.  Wilde wrote a lengthy letter to Douglas while in prison (toward the end of his term, he was accorded special writing and reading privileges).  The letter has come to be known a De Profundis, much of which was Wilde’s expression of how he wanted to live and what he wanted to do upon release from prison.  But the first third was full of vitriolic recriminations against Douglas.   Prison regulations prohibited Wilde from sending the letter during his incarceration and Douglas claimed he never received a copy.   Frankel sees the intensity of Wilde’s attack on Douglas as a “clue that Wilde still loved him and intended some kind of reconciliation with him upon release,” (p.77), but that he wanted to set the terms for that reconciliation.   

                Shortly after Wilde’s release in May 1897, the pair met in Rouen, Normandy, but it was a fleeting encounter.  They met up again six weeks later in Naples, where they tried over the course of three months to reestablish their relationship.   Naples in the last decade of the 19th century was a city to which Northern European homosexuals naturally gravitated.  “Homosexuality was not a crime in Italy: Italian police, politicians, and prosecutors made little attempt to ban homosexual behavior, expel homosexuals expatriates, or otherwise harass them, and . . . Southern Italy provided an especially appealing destination for Northern homosexuals in flight from strict homophobic laws in their home countries” (p.129). 

            Wilde and Douglas rented a villa in Naples, and had four house servants.  Wilde took Italian lessons from an Italian poet and translator.   They both turned their attentions to writing, with Wilde completing the Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Although they were happy together, the English community in Naples ostracized them. A representative of the British Embassy in Rome traveled to Naples to tell Douglas “discretely” that his cohabitation with Wilde was causing a scandal back home and pressured Douglas to “eject Wilde from the house”  (p.153).  Moreover, both men had extravagant tastes and money was a never-ending problem, one that put an end altogether to the sojourn in Naples.  

               Douglas received money from his mother, Lady Queensbury, now divorced from the Marquis, and Wilde had an allowance as part of his settlement with Constance.   But Lady Queensbury threatened to cut off her son’s allowance if he continued to cohabit with Wilde.   Douglas concluded that he had no choice but to leave Wilde, while demanding that his mother send Wilde £200.   She did so, but only after receiving Wilde’s pledge that he would never again live under the same roof as her son.   Although both Douglas and Wilde expected their relationship to continue in some form thereafter, in fact their time as a couple ended in Naples.

               Wilde arrived in Paris in February 1898 and, with the exception of a two-month return visit to Italy from March to May 1900, remained there up to his death.  Paris for Wilde represented the “glittering capital of the World Republic of Letters, and he had always enjoyed a greater sense of intellectual freedom and recognition in the city. . . [I]t was above all the contrast between English public condemnation and French acceptance of his most controversial works that led Wilde to feel more at home among the French” (p.194-95). 

                  With a thriving and extensive homosexual subculture, centered on cafés and bars near the Champs Elysées, Paris had “long possessed a reputation for openness and toleration, especially in the eyes of the British” (p.193).  Homosexuals bonded socially as well as sexually in late 19th century Paris, Frankel writes, “relatively untroubled by any fear of police repression and scrutiny” (p.207).  Many of the active homosexuals were quite young, between 14 and 20.  Wilde called meeting with these young men “feasting with panthers,” and made no effort to hide his determination to continue such “feasting,” now that he lived singly, with no social standing to protect and hence little reason to be furtive.  “Within days of his arrival in Paris, Wilde began a series of open, public liaisons with young men offering him personal and sexual companionship” (p.207).

                 Frankel gives particular attention to a friendship of another sort which Wilde struck up in Paris, with Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man later determined to have framed Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  L’Affaire Dreyfus, with its clear anti-Semitic overtones, was at its height when Wilde arrived in Paris in mid-February 1898 (I reviewed three books on the Dreyfus affair here in February 2012).  Esterhazy’s combination of “charm, bravura, and obvious criminal guilt fascinated Wilde” (p.12).  Although his friendship with Esterhazy has since elicited “severe moral disapproval,” Frankel sees it as “perfectly consistent with much that Wilde had written and done at the height of his social and literary success” (p.231).  Esterhazy, with his “frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind,” represented the “true liar” (p.231) whom Wilde had celebrated in his writings.  But the friendship ended suddenly when the proof against Esterhazy became irrefutable and he fled France – for England. 

               Paris provided opportunities for Douglas and Wilde to see one another “without attracting the disapproving attentions of English journalists”  (p.212).  They met frequently, often dining out together, although Frankel finds it unlikely that they had a sexual relationship during this time.  Both were pursuing younger men; they often shared partners.  And they continued to quarrel over money, with Wilde pressing the case that Douglas should be supporting him financially.  Douglas initially rejected Wilde’s entreaties, but he sent Wilde about £125 in the last months of 1900.  In August of that year, Wilde and Douglas dined together for the last time, at the Café de la Paix near the Opéra, their preferred dining site. 

               The saddest element of Wilde’s final year in Frankel’s view was that he “could no longer write.  For at least two years after his release, he had remained determined to prove that he still possessed literary genius and that prison had not killed his creative spirit”  (p.261).  Although his arrival in Paris in February 1898 had coincided with the publication in England of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with significant critical and commercial success, Wilde came to the realization in Paris that there would be no “artistic resurrection.”  He would “never again recover the social and literary standing he had lost” (p.205).  

                 By 1900, Wilde had become increasingly unable to “step out of the wreckage his life had become: he could no longer write creatively, his health was declining, and he was rapidly losing the confidence of some of his most loyal friends and supporters” (p.258). He succumbed to “fits of lassitude and self-pity” (p.205), with depression, sadness and drinking to excess dominating his last year.  Wilde by then was a “physically altered person” who had “put on weight, and his once luxurious hair was thinning and turning grey.  He had grown distinctly deaf . . . and he now often spoke with his hand in front of his mouth to hide his bad teeth” (p.257).  But if he could no longer write, he could still tell beautiful stories to anyone willing to listen, talking with a  “brilliance and fertility of tongue and imagination that nobody could match” (p.262).     

                In early September 1900, Wilde suffered a fatal relapse of an ear infection that had afflicted him while in prison and went untreated. The only solution was a radical operation with a high risk of permanent hearing loss.  Wilde submitted to such an operation on October 10, 1900, creating an open wound that left him in constant pain and required daily dressing and cavity packing.   Although he realized some improvement toward the end of October, in November the infection spread to his brain.  He died on November 30,1900, in his Paris hotel room, six weeks short of his 46th birthday, alone and with little fanfare.   Douglas paid about £20 in funeral costs.

* * *

                 Queen Victoria died less than two months after Wilde. Their deaths together, Frankel contends, marked the end of the Victorianism with which Wilde had always been at odds.  Frankel concludes his thoughtful biography by noting that Wilde had served as the “harbinger of new attitudes that would eventually come to replace the repressive Victorian laws and morality surrounding matters of sex and gender” (p.294-95).   His imprisonment and exile may have liberated future generations more than they liberated Wilde himself.     

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C., USA

June 26, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under English History, History, Literature