Into The Unknown @ Barbican

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition, with a number of distinct parts located around the Barbican complex.

The main show is in The Curve, the one, continuous, curved exhibition space behind the Barbican theatre. Having worked through this you exit the other side into a foyer space where you can watch three contemporary sci-fi short films on a projection screen. Fifty yards away, opposite the main bar, is a cinema-sized projector screen showing a film by Isaac Julien, Encore II (Radioactive) from 2004. Towards the stairs is a darkened room showing an experimental film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain by Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour and Danish author, Søren Lind. And downstairs, in what is usually the Pit theatre, there is a funky art installation, In Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross.

There’s a lot to take in.

Installation view showing several of the video screens shoing clips from classic sci-fi movies

Installation view highlighting several of the video screens showing clips from classic sci-fi movies

The main exhibition is in The Curve and is divided into four or five sections each with a wall label introduction. These labels are surprisingly vague and generalised and made me reflect that there is both too much and too little to say about science fiction. Quite quickly I found myself making my own summary of themes and ideas which emerged from the varied objects on display. Sci-fi can cover:

  • On earth Lost worlds on earth, journeys to the centre of the earth, monsters on earth
  • In space Monsters from space, space travel to the moon or planets or other solar systems, space stations
  • Aliens Stand alone alien civilisations which have nothing to do with earth or humans, whose laws, histories etc we enter in their own right
  • Time travel to the past or future
  • The Future Future utopias or dystopias, with or without a nuclear apocalypses/plague etc thrown in
  • AI and robots Robots and artificial intelligence, which almost always turns out to be a bad thing, from Frankenstein’s monster onwards
  • Altered states of consciousness caused by drugs or various forms of artificial reality, probably most popularly captured in the Matrix franchise

See what I mean by ‘too much? ‘Science fiction’ in fact covers a vast range of subjects, themes and ideas – and that’s before you infringe on the neighbouring territory of ‘fantasy’.

But by ‘too little’ I mean that, in the end, a lot of sci-fi is pretty obvious. In Alien they wake up an alien which kills them all. In E.T. an alien is left behind by his ship and found by some kids. In Star Wars the rebel forces have to defeat the Empire. Not rocket science, is it? Not difficult to understand or enjoy.

In Thunderbirds Thunderbirds save the day. In Star Trek Captain Kirk saves the day. In Dr Who Dr Who saves the day. Watching clips from all these films and TV shows on the numerous projector screens scattered all through the exhibition made me realise just how many of these TV shows and movies are aimed, essentially, at children.

(Also, having watched Thunderbird Two take off on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, I could have done with similar clips from Joe 90 or Fireball XL5 or UFO, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or Stingray – classic TV series from the great Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. They could do with an exhibition in their own right.)

Comics and mags

The essentially juvenile nature of sci-fi is emphasised by the pulp magazines and lurid book jackets from the 40s, 50s and 60s on display here. Amazing stories, Astounding stories, Startling stories, Space stories, Thrilling wonder stories – often with nubile young women whose clothes are falling off.

Golden Age of Sci fi comics

Comics from the Golden Age of Sci fi

Similarly the sensational pulp side of sci-fi is epitomised by a neat display case of the boxes of sci-fi Super 8 films.

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

Illustrations

Books, comics, illustrations, models, film and TV clips, costumes, props, artwork – the exhibition as a whole gives a lovely impression of being a bric-a-brac shop, almost a jumble sale, with artefacts from every period of sci-fi thrown in in glorious profusion. There’s only a very loose chronological order, but it starts with early illustrations for – and editions of – Jules Verne’s classic adventure series – voyages round the world, to the moon, to the bottom of the sea and so on – as well as models of the various contraptions which feature in Verne’s novels, the Nautilus submarine, the space ship to the moon, and so on.

Next to them is a set of paintings of ‘Dinotopia’, a fantasy world created by artist James Gurney in which humans live alongside tamed dinosaurs – beautifully painted, high quality and vivid book illustrations.

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

This tradition of sci-fi illustrations goes all the way through to modern art work for movies (Star Wars, Alien) alongside purely imaginary, maybe computer-enhanced, illustrations of future cities. On a screen late in the show is projected a series of quite stunning visions of future cities by a range of contemporary sci-fi artists.

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

You get the impression that the art of science fiction – not made to illustrate a novel, not for a comic and not design work for a movie, but for itself, for the sheer joy of depicting fantastic, imaginary scenes – is an under-explored genre. A different exhibition might have concentrated just on the art of sci-fi.

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

But the exhibition is continually pulling us back to sci-fi’s cheap, pulpy roots, with display cases of comics and books, setting literary classics alongside more pulpy works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Verne to Cormac McCarthy via Ursula LeGuin, and many more.

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar (1915)

Masks

Given that there are half a dozen screens dotted around showing continuous loops of sci-fi classics, (alongside some more obscure foreign, and older, movies) your first, and second, impression is that the show sees science fiction through the lens of films. After all, the more private, and demanding, experience of reading is hard to capture in an exhibition. Whereas watching a clip from Jurassic Park is about as lazy and undemanding experience as a human being can have.

Installation view of the exhibition with screens shoing classic sci-fi moviescases of classic sci-fi books, wall displays of sci fi art

Installation view of the exhibition with screens showing classic sci-fi movies, cases of classic sci-fi books and wall displays of sci fi art

The film-orientation of the show is reflected in the large number of props from movies and TV shows. Several large sections of the show feature models of masks, space ships, and space suits used in movies, including quite a few display cases housing ghoulish masks.

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Including probably the most famous sci-fi face of all time – the alien.

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

Spacesuits

On the same ooh-aaah level, the exhibition features life-size space-suits as actually worn in movies like Interstellar, Sunshine, Alien, Star Trek, Moon and so on. The space suit worn by Leonard Nimoy! Oooh! The actual suit worn by John Hurt in Alien!!

These don’t really tell you anything – reinforcing my sense that there’s less to sci-fi than meets the eye – they are just lovely objects for fans to drool over.

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

Alien, again.

Space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

The space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

There were some headphones for visitors to listen to audio clips from sci fi classics like The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury or Stanislav Lem’s Solaris but, symptomatically, no one was using them when I passed by and I didn’t use them either. I wanted to look at beautiful things, at the models of space ships and space suits and movie props. On reflection, I am surprised there wasn’t a section on gadgets, which should have included the phaser and the tricorder and communicator from Star Trek at the very least, alongside Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver and… well, you can make your own list.

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Oh my God they’ve got Robbie the Robot!! and the robot from the Will Smith vehicle, I, Robot.

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

Underneath Robbie was a display of teeny weeny vintage robot toys, such as you might find in any junk shop. It was hard not to feel yourself getting younger and younger as you soaked yourself in this comic, mag, fantasy, geek paradise.

I felt myself turning into one of the characters in Big Bang Theory leafing through the comics at Stu’s comic shop.

The films

If the Curve part of the show felt like a warm bath of nostalgia for sci-fi addicts, not so the films in the rest of the show, the ones you can watch after exiting the main exhibition in the Barbican foyer areas. These were contemporary, strange and disturbing.

To start with there were sections of Pierre-Jean Gilroux’s sumptuous, mesmerising and haunting films, titled Invisible Cities, parts 1 to 4.

Beautiful is, ultimately, reassuring.

By contrast, Afronaut directed by Frances Bodoma, is a kind of fantasy alternative reality in which poverty-stricken Ghanaians in what seems to be a shanty in the desert attempt to recreate the Apollo space mission. They train a hauntingly confused-looking albino black woman for space travel by rolling her down a hill inside a trash can and tossing her in a blanket, before stuffing her inside a space ship made from corrugated iron and lighting firecrackers under it.

In the weird alternative reality of the movie both she and her half dozen supporters undergo a genuinely transcendent experience, and the ship does appear to carry her to the moon.

The Blue Moon music on this clip below doesn’t do the full movie justice, makes it seem far too familiar and assimilable. In fact Afronaut‘s soundtrack is a confusing hubbub, the characters’ voices out-of-synch with their lips, or obscured by gritty dust and metal sounds, by the banging of metal, by chanting – all of which contributes to the powerful sense of entering a genuinely altered reality.

A bit more conventionally, the short film Pumzi is written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, and tells the story of Asha, a young scientist living in an underground complex in Kenya some decades in the future after ‘the (inevitable) War’, who decides to leave her safe environment and go questing over the desolate surface of the earth looking for life.

Even if this is a rather familiar topos, it is stunningly beautifully shot. Apparently, this movie is part of a movement known as Afrofuturism which envisages a future civilisation in Africa populated by black Africans. I read in the commentary that Pumzi undermines Hollywood norms and stereotypes but, in my opinion, the idea of a hero/ine escaping from a repressive, post-apocalypse society seems as old as sci-fi and has certainly been done in countless commercial films (Zardoz, Logan’s Run). Also, the fact that the heroine is beautiful, young, slender and scantily dressed seems to me to be reinforcing pretty much the central sexist movie stereotype i.e. women in movies must be slender and nubile.

But the entirely African setting, and entirely black cast, make a welcome change from watching Tom Cruise fighting aliens.

Conclusions

I loved science fiction when I was a boy back in the 1970s when science fiction movies were as rare as hen’s teeth and discussing Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein marked you out as a member of a tiny sub-set of geeks.

Nowadays barely a week goes by without a new sci fi movie being released, hundreds have been released in the past decade. Why the change? In discussion with my son we developed the idea that science fiction allows you to have all the thrills and spills which movies were designed for – chases, fights, shoot-outs, big explosions, spectacle and so on – with none of the moral challenges inherent in many of the older movie genres.

Nobody can make Biblical epics nowadays because most people are not Christians. War epics can’t really be such death-or-glory bubblegum entertainments after Saving Private Ryan showed the full, not-at-all funny, not-at-all-entertaining gory reality of war. Spy thrillers are at a loss since the end of the Cold War (though the War on Terror happily provides the setting for a new breed of terror thrillers). And westerns, one of the staples of my youth, have simply disappeared.

What science fiction provides is the Pure Baddy, untroubled by moral issues or cultural qualms. Whether it’s the Empire and Darth Vadar or something more disturbing like the extra terrestrials in 1979’s Alien or this year’s Life, the issue of good and bad is black and white, men and women battling against The Bad Thing –  just as it was in each of the Star Trek movies or the Jurassic Park or Matrix franchises. Bad aliens trying to kill hero; hero fights back.

Just as simplistically, sci-fi movies can offer images of heroic American patriotism which other genres now struggle with – take Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) or Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), who both triumph against the odds, shucks, folks it was nothing, while the audience cheers and the Oscar nominations roll in.

So mainstream science fiction is a way of allowing film to do what it has always done best – shock and awe, with awesome special effects, giant monsters, extreme situations and sexy young heroes/heroines.

None of this is very subversive: the exact opposite, in fact. When I watched the hero of Jurassic World (2015) strip off his shirt to reveal his astonishing physique, and the heroine, Bryce Dallas Howard, quickly lose her smart business suit and strip down to her sweat-soaked underwear, I wondered if a film could possibly be more sexist. But in mainstream sci-fi it doesn’t matter – we are all reduced to melon-heads screaming each time a velociraptor jumps out of the screen at us.

By contrast, almost the only thing in the entire show which gave me that genuine frisson of fear, that sense of the weird, inexplicable and uncanny, was the film Afronauts. I had no idea how it was going to end, I didn’t understand it a lot of the time, I felt I had entered a genuinely unpredictable and uncanny space. I’d like more of that, please.

Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

‘Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!’ (Hungarian communist Tibor Szamuely, quoted page 134)

The sub-title sums it up – Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923. We Brits, like the French, date the end of the Great War to Armistice Day 11 November 1918, and the two-minute silence every year rubs in our happy sense of finality and completion.

But across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, from Finland, through the Baltic states, all of Russia, Poland, down through the Balkans, across Anatolia and the entire Middle East, the violence didn’t end. In many places it intensified, and dragged on for a further four or five years.

Individual studies have long been available on the plight of individual nations – revolutionary Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey and so on. But Gerwarth claims his book is the first one to bring together the tumult in all these places and deal with them as symptoms of one deep cause: losing the war not only led to the break-up of Europe’s defeated empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire – it undermined the very idea of traditional governments and plunged huge areas into appalling violence.

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

  1. Wars between countries (of the traditional type) – thus war between Greece and Turkey carried on until 1923 (200,000 military casualties), Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1920 (250,000 dead or missing), Romania’s invasion of Hungary in 1919-1920.
  2. Nationalist wars of independence i.e. wars to assert the independence of ethnic groups claiming a new autonomy – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians.
  3. Revolutionary violence i.e. the attempt to overthrow existing governments in the name of socialist or other political causes — there were revolutionary communist putsches in Berlin and Munich, in Vienna, Hungary became a communist state under Bela Kun for 115 days in 1919.
  4. Civil wars – the Russian civil war was the biggest, with some 3 million dead in its three year duration, but Gerwarth also describes the Finnish Civil War, which I’d never heard of, in which over 1% of the population died and whose ramifications, apparently, continue to this day.

The lesson is best summarised in a blurb on the back of the book by the ever-incisive Max Hastings. For many nations and peoples violent conflict had started before 1914 and continued for another 3, 4, 5 years after 1918 — until, exhausted by conflict, for these people, order became more important than freedom. As the right-wing Waldemar Pabst, murderer of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and organiser of Austria’s paramilitary Heimwehr put it, people across these chaotic regions needed:

the replacement of the old trinity of the French Revolution [liberté, egalité, fraternité]… with a new trinity: authority, order and justice.’ (quoted on p.141)

The communist coups in all these places were defeated because the majority of the population didn’t want it, while the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’.

No wonder T.S. Eliot, writing about his famous masterpiece the Waste Land, could refer in 1923 to ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

Gerwarth’s book gives the detail of this panorama, especially in the relatively unknown regions of central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania – and with special attention to the catastrophic Greek invasion of Turkey and ensuing war.

Turkey

Turkey experienced the Young Turk revolution against the old rule of the Sultan in 1908. During the ensuing confusion across the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary annexed the Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina then in 1911 Italy invaded and seized modern-day Libya from the Turks. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 led to the loss of almost all of the Empire’s European territories, and was followed by a series of coups and counter coups in Istanbul.

All this upheaval was before Turkey even entered the Great War, which it did with an attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914. Skipping over the Great War itself – which featured, for Turkey, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Arab Revolt of 1916 – defeat in the war led the Allies to dismember the remainder of the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.

Opposition to this treaty led to the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname ‘Atatürk’) and the final abolition of the sultanate and the old Ottoman forms of government in 1922.

At which point the Greeks invaded, hoping to take advantage of Turkey’s weakness and seize the Aegean coast and islands. But the Greek attack ran out of steam, the tide turned and Turkish forces under Atatürk swept the Greek forces back down to the sea. Greek atrocities against Turkish villagers was followed by counter-reprisals by the Turks against the Greek population of the coast, which escalated into the mass exchange of populations. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to flee the Turkish mainland.

The point is that by 1923 Turkey had been in violent political turmoil for some 15 years. You can see why the majority of the population will have opted, in Max Hasting’s words, for Order over Freedom, for any party which could guarantee peace and stability.

Brutalisation and extermination

Gerwarth questions the ‘brutalisation thesis’, an idea I had broadly subscribed to.

This theory is that the Great War, with its four long years of grindingly brutal bloodshed, dehumanised enormous numbers of fighting men, who returned to their respective societies hardened to violence, desensitised, and that this permanently brutalised European society. It introduced a new note of total war, of the killing of civilian populations, the complete destruction of towns and cities, which hadn’t existed before. Up till now I had found this thesis persuasive.

Gerwarth says modern scholarship questions the brutalisation thesis because it can be shown that the vast majority of troops on all sides simply returned to their societies, were demobbed and got on with civilian lives in peace. The percentage who went into paramilitiaries and Freikorps units, the numbers which indulged in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, was very small.

But he partly contradicts himself by going on to say that the violence immediately after the war was new in nature: all the parties in the Great War were fighting, ultimately, to wring concessions from opposing regimes which they envisaged staying in place and legitimacy. This is how war had been fought in Europe for centuries. You defeat your enemy; he cedes you this or that bit of territory or foreign colony, and things continue as before.

But in the post-war period a completely new ideology appeared – something unprecedented in history – the wish not just to defeat but to exterminate your enemy, whether they be class enemies (hated by communists) or ethnic enemies (hated by all brands of nationalists) or ‘reds’ (hated by conservatives and the new fascist parties alike).

This extermination ideology mixed with the unprecedented collapse of empires which gave rise to a host of new small nations to create a new idea – that these new small nations emerging in and after the war needed to feel ‘cleansed’ and ‘pure’. Everyone not genuinely German or Czech or Hungarian or Ukrainian or whatever, must be expelled.

This new doctrine led to the vast relocations of peoples in the name of what a later generation would call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that name doesn’t really capture the extraordinary scale of the movements and the depths of the hatreds and bitternesses which it unleashed.

For example, the final peace in the Turko-Greek war resulted in the relocation of some 2 million civilians (1.2 million Greeks expelled from Turkey, 400,000 Muslims expelled from Greece). Huge numbers of other ethnic groups were moved around between the new post-war nations e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc.

And of course Britain experienced none of this. Between the wars we found Europe east of Germany a dangerous and exotic place (see the pre-war thrillers of Eric Ambler for the noir feel of spies and secret police they convey) but also left us incapable of really imagining what it felt like to live in such completely fractured and damaged societies.


The ‘only now…’ school of history

Although the facts, figures, atrocities, murders, rapes and violence which plagued this period are hard to read about, one of the most striking things in the whole book comes in Gerwarth’s introduction where he discusses the ebb and flow of fashion, or waves of historical interpretation regarding this period.

He dismisses traditional French and especially British attitudes towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans as a form of ‘orientalism’ i.e. the racist belief that there is something intrinsically violent and brutal about the people of those regions. Part of this attitude no doubt stems from Great War-era propaganda which portrayed the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as somehow intrinsically despotic and repressive. Part from the ongoing political violence in these countries which generally ended up being ruled by very conservative or semi-fascist regimes.

Modern scholarship, Gerwarth says, has switched to the opposite view, with many modern historians claiming those regimes were more liberal than is often claimed, more stable and more open to reform than the wartime allies claimed. As he puts it:

This reassessment has been an emphatic one for both Imperial Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, which appear in a much more benign (or at least more ambivalent) light to historians today than they did in the first eight decades after 1918. (p.7)

That last phrase leapt out at me. He seems to be saying that modern historians, working solely from written documents, claim to know more about these empires than people alive at the time, than contemporaries who travelled through and experienced them and encountered and spoke with their rulers or populations and fought against them.

Quite casually, it seems to me, he is making a sweeping and quite unnerving statement about the control which historians exert over ‘reality’. Gerwarth’s remark echoes similar sentiments I’ve recently read by historians like Rana Mitter (China’s War with Japan 1937–1945) and Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome) to the effect that only now are we getting to properly understand period A or B of history because of reasons x, y or z (the most common reason for reassessments of 20th century history being the new access to archives previously unobtainable in the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China).

I am a sceptic. I don’t believe we can now anything with much certainty. And a fan of later Wittgenstein who theorised that almost all communication – talking, texts, movies, you name it – are best understood as games, games with rules and regulations but games nonetheless, which change and evolve as the players do, and are interpreted differently by different players, at different times.

Currently there are some seven and a half billion humans alive on the planet – so there’s the potential for at least seven billion or so interpretations of anything.

If academic historians produce narratives which broadly agree it is because they’re playing the same academic game according to the same rules – they share agreed definitions of what history actually is, of how you define ‘evidence’, of what historical scholarship is, agreement about appropriate formats to present it in, about style and voice and rhetorics (dispassionate, objective, factual etc).

But the fact that the same set of evidence – the nature of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can give rise to such wildly divergent interpretations, even among the professionals, only fuels my profound scepticism about our ability to know anything. For decades historians have thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a repressive autocracy which was too encrusted and conservative to cope with changes in technology and society and so was doomed to collapse. Now, Gerwarth informs me, modern scholarship claims that, on the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was more flexible and adaptive than its contemporaries or anyone writing in the last 80 years has thought.

For contemporary historians to claim that only now can the truth revealed strikes me as, to put it politely, optimistic.

  1. Unless you are a religious zealot, there is no absolute truth
  2. There are plenty of dissenting voices to any historical interpretation
  3. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that future historians will in turn disagree and reinterpret everything all over again a) because fashions change b) because they’ll be able to do so in the light of events which haven’t happened yet and trends which aren’t clear to us

When I was a young man ‘we’ i.e. all the students I knew and most of the media and political commentators all thought Ronald Reagan was a doddery imbecile. Now I read books about the Cold War which claim he was among the all-time greatest American Presidents for playing the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism.

Which story is true ? Or are they both true and will more ‘truths’ be revealed in the future? If Vladimir Putin unleashes a nuclear war, will the collapse of communism – which 20 years later has given rise to a new aggressive Russian nationalism – come, in time, to be seen as a bad thing, as the prelude to some disastrous world war?

History is, in the end, a matter of opinion, a clash of opinions. These historians may well use evidence scrupulously to support thoroughly researched points of view – but they can only access a subset of the evidence (no historian can read everything, no historian can read every human language, no book can reference every text ever written during a period) and will tend to use that evidence selectively to support the thesis or idea a historian has developed.

Therefore, I don’t believe that any of the history books I’m currently reading reveal the only-now-can-it-be-told truth.

But I do understand that academics are under more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries by churning out articles and books. It follows that historians, like literary critics and other humanities scholars, must come up with new interpretations, or apply their interpretations to new subjects, simply in order to keep their jobs. It’s in this context that I read the pronouncements of only now historians – as the kind of rhetoric which gets articles published and books commissioned, which can be proclaimed in lecture theatres, at international conferences and – if you’re lucky and manage to wangle a lucrative TV deal – spoken to camera (as done by Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson, Ruth Goodman, Bettany Hughes, Dan Jones, David Reynolds, Simon Schama, Dan Snow, David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Michael Wood).

In other words, I read statements like this as reflections of the economic and cultural climate, or discourse, of our times – heavily embedded in the economic necessity of historians to revise and review their predecessors’ findings and assumptions in order to keep their jobs. Maybe these new interpretations are bolstered by more data, more information and more research than ever before. Maybe they are closer to some kind of historical ‘truth’. But sure as eggs is eggs, in a generation’s time, they in their turn will be outmoded and outdated, fading in the sunlight outside second-hand bookshops.

For now the new historical consensus is a new twist, a new wrinkle, which appeals by its novelty and its exciting ability to generate new ideas and insights. It spawns new discourse. It creates new vistas of text. It continues the never-ending game of human understanding.

History is a cousin of literature with delusions of grandeur – at least literature knows that it is made up. And both genres, anyway, come under the broader rubric of rhetoric i.e. the systematic attempt to persuade the reader of something.

Notes and bibliography

One of the blurbs on the back says Gerwarth’s achievement has been to synthesise an unprecedented amount of primary and secondary material into his new narrative. This is supported by the elephantine size of the book’s appendices. The book has 446 numbered pages but no fewer than 161 of these are made up of the acknowledgements (5 pages), index (22 pages), bibliography (62 pages) and endnotes (72 pages). If you subtract the Introduction (15 pages), Epilogue (19 pages) and the three blank pages at the start of each of the three parts, then there’s only 446-198 = 248 pages of main text. Only 55% of the book’s total pages are actual text.

But it’s the length of the bibliography and endnotes which impresses – 134 pages! I think it’s the only set of endnotes I know which is so long that it has 8 pages of glossy illustrations embedded within it, rather than in the actual text.


Conclusion

As with so many histories of the 20th century I am left thinking that humanity is fundamentally incapable of governing itself.

Bumbling fools I can see why so many people believe in a God — because they just can’t face the terrible thought that this is it – Donald Trump and Theresa May, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, these are as good as you’re going to get, humanity! These are the people in charge and people like this will always be in charge: not the terrifyingly efficient totalitarian monsters of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but bumbling fools, incompetents and paranoid bullies.

The most ill-fated bumblers in this book must be the rulers of post-war Greece who decided (egged on by the foolish David Lloyd-George) to invade the western coast of Turkey in 1921. The book ends with a comprehensive account of their miserable failure, which resulted not only in appalling massacres and bloodshed as the humiliated Greek army retreated to the coast and was shipped back to Greece, but led to the expulsion of all Greek communities from Turkey – some 1.2 million people – vastly swelling the Greek population and leaving the country almost bankrupt for decades to come.

Hats off to the Greek Prime Minister who supervised all this, Eleftherios Venizelos. Well done, sir.

Intractable But half the reasons politicians appear idiots, especially in retrospect, is because they are dealing with impossible problems. The current crew who are bumbling their way through Brexit cannot succeed because they have been set an impossible task.

Similarly, the Western politicians and their civil servants who met at Versailles after the Great War were faced with the impossible challenge of completely redrawing the map of all Europe as well as the Middle East, following the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, with a view to giving the peoples of Europe their own ‘nation states’.

Quite simply, this proved too complicated a task to achieve, and their multiple failures to achieve it not only led to the Second World War but linger on to this day.

To this day ethnic tensions continue to exist in Hungary and Bulgaria about unfair borders, not to mention among the statelets of former Yugoslavia whose borders are very much still not settled.

And what about the violent can of worms which are the borders of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan – or the claims for statehood of the Kurds, still the cause of terrorism and counter-terrorism in eastern Turkey, still fighting to maintain their independence in northern Iraq.

If the diplomats of Versailles failed to solve many of these problems, have we in our times done so very much better? How are Afghanistan and Iraq looking after 15 years of intervention from the West? Are they the peace-loving democracies which George W. Bush promised?

Not easy, is it? It’s so easy to ridicule diplomats and civil servants of the Versailles settlements for making a pig’s ear of so much of their task. But have we done much better? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Reading this book makes you think that managing human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

Rainbow nation or pogroms? Reading page after page after page describing how people who were essentially the same flesh and blood but happened to speak different languages or have different religious beliefs or wear funny hats or the wrong design of jacket, proved not only incapable of living together, but all too often turned on each other in homicidal frenzy — reading these 250 pages of mayhem, pogroms, genocide, mass rape and massacres makes me worry, as ever, about the viability of modern multicultural societies.

People from different races, ethnic groups, languages, religions and traditions living alongside each other all sounds fine so long as the society they inhabit is relatively peaceful and stable. But put it under pressure, submit it to economic collapse, poverty and hardship, and the history is right here to prove that time and again people will use the pettiest differences as excuses to start picking on each other. And that once the violence starts, it again and again spirals out of control until no one can stop it.

And sometimes the knowledge that we have created for ourselves just such a multicultural society, which is going to come under an increasing number of economic, social and environmental stresses in the years ahead, fills me with fear.

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing all over Europe between 1918 to 1923


Related links

Great War-related blog posts

Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

Charles felt dirty, he was aware inside himself of a mass of damp and sticky innards. (p.202)

The Reprieve is the second novel in Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. It is a long, panoramic account of the lives of some 130 characters during the fateful week in September 1938 when all Europe held its breath as Germany threatened to invade Czechoslovakia and spark a continent-wide war in order to ‘liberate’ the Sudeten Germans.

At the last minute, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier persuaded the Czech government to cede to Nazi Germany Czechoslovakia’s western border regions, containing not only many ethnic Germans, but all her defences and much of her industry. Hitler accepted this deal, the threat of an armed confrontation disappeared, and all Europe breathed a sigh of relief.

Hence the book’s title – The Reprieve. This epic betrayal bought the western democracies exactly one year’s remission, until Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 began the Second World War in Europe.

The Reprieve is drastically different from its predecessor, The Age of Reason. That book had a cast of seven or eight characters but essentially rotated around the plight of one central figure – the depressive philosophy professor, Mathieu Delarue, who was trying to find the money to pay for his mistress’s abortion. It covered just two days and was divided into chapters, 18 to be precise, each of which began in a new scene or setting, in the conventional manner. The Reprieve, by contrast, is much longer and divided into seven very long sections, one covering each day from Friday 23 September to Friday 30 September.

But The Reprieve is massively different from a traditional novel – indeed it is a form of experimental novel – in two key respects:

  1. It has an enormous cast of characters, some from its predecessor, The Age of Reason, but most entirely new. And they are in locations all across France, as well as Germany, England and Spain. There are even scenes depicting the leading politicians of the day as they handled the negotiations about Czechoslovakia – Daladier, Chamberlain and even Hitler himself (we even get to see some of Hitler’s dreams!) So there is an astonishingly large number and wide breadth of characterisation.
  2. And, most distinctively, it jumps between the settings of the different characters, between conversations between characters, and even between characters’ thoughts – with no warning, sometimes in successive paragraphs (easy enough to grasp), sometimes in successive sentences (you need your wits about you) and sometimes in the same sentence. The same sentence can begin describing the thoughts of a character in Morocco and end by describing another in Paris, or Munich or a Czech village. Some sentences jump between multiple consciousnesses.

I found this technique absolutely riveting. It makes reading into a parlour game, a Where’s Wally challenge, a test of the reader’s alertness. I suppose it is also meant to give a panoramic impression of the age, and of the very weird intense atmosphere which united the inhabitants of the entire population of Europe as probably never before, with everyone huddled round their radios or snapped up the latest editions of newspapers to find out whether we were going to war. Thus, again and again throughout the long dense text, characters’ thoughts and feelings and impressions overlap and intermingle.

Sartre sometimes uses James Joyce’s technique of associating certain phrases with certain settings or characters, to evoke their mood or consciousness – but mostly you have to be very alert throughout as it is often only one word which reveals that the text has now jumped from one character to a completely different one – is now in the desert, on the beach, in the city streets, on a plane – and which of its huge cast of characters we are now following.

Generally, all these new characters have one or a few longish (a page, maybe) sections in which to establish their situation and character – after which brief introduction the text freely switches to them at a moment’s notice, for a paragraph, for a few sentences, or even for a few words embedded in a sentence about other characters. Occasionally, what have been established as key words or phrases are blended together in kind of poetic rhapsodies, in fugues which counterpoint a whole host of characters and destinies into webs of words.

Chamberlain was asleep, Mathieu was asleep, the Kabyle put the ladder against the charabanc, hoisted the trunk onto his shoulder, and scrambled up without holding onto the rungs. Ivich was asleep, Daniel swung his legs out of bed, a bell echoed in his head, Pierre looked at the pink and black soles of the Kabyle’s feet.

I found this ‘simultaneous method’ quite spellbinding.

Lunch-time! they had entered the blinding tunnel of mid-day: outside – the sky, white with heat; outside – the dead, white roads, no man’s land, and war: behind the closed shutters, they sat stifling in the heat, Daniel put his napkin on his knees, Hannequin tied his napkin round his neck, Brunet took the paper napkin from the table, Jeannine wheeled Charles into the large and almost empty dining-room with its smudgy windows… (p.101)

I like its profusion, its variety and its sense of the diversity of life!

A happy side-effect of this approach is that the lengthy – the really, really long passages in The Age of Reason in which Mathieu or Daniel or Boris dwelt on the emptiness of their lives, the meaningless of existence and in which they obsessed about the ugliness of their bodies and of everyone else’s bodies, and generally marinaded in disgust and revulsion at life — these are all a lot less in evidence and, when they do occur, are pared back to the bone. Some such passages are still attached to Mathieu, Brunet and a few others, but the overall effect it is far less self-indulgently solipsistic and self-pitying than in the first novel.

Instead of focusing in to create a stickily claustrophobic effect, the text is continually exploding out in multiple directions, jumping across numerous locations, invoking a big cast, creating a sense of openness, breadth, fecundity.

This greater objectivity is indicated in a small but telling moment when Mathieu (35) is telling Odette about the ugly sister of a student of his, Ivich (18), who he’s snogged a few times and might be in a relationship with, is detailing her list of psychological quirks (hates being touched, hates summer, hates her own appearance etc) and, having heard all about it, Odette briskly thinks, ‘A good spanking is what she wants’ (p.23).

And I couldn’t help thinking that a good spanking and being told to grow up is what most of the characters in The Age of Reason wanted.

The characters in order of appearance

I set off imagining it would be a relatively straightforward task to name and give brief thumbnail descriptions of the characters, but soon ran into problems.

Should I include characters who aren’t named or make only fleeting entrances, like the unnamed Arab who puts Maud’s suitcase on the bus roof, or the unnamed steward on the liner, or the unnamed lady sitting next to Hannequin on the train or the unnamed lady who gets Zézette’s signature for a feminist peace petition in the street etc?

Or should I go to the other extreme and only include characters who have substantial speaking parts and whose lives we get to know a bit? I compromised by listing every named character, no matter how brief their appearance.

  • Godesberg, Germany The old gentleman, key to the negotiations, who is revealed to be Neville ChamberlainNevile Henderson (British Ambassador to Berlin), Sir Horace Wilson (special emissary from Chamberlain to Hitler). Later attended by Woodhouse.
  • Pravnitz, Czechoslovakia Milan Hlinka, former woodcutter, now schoolteacher of a Sudeten town which is being taken over by the Czech Nazis, is sheltering in his house with his pregnant schoolteacher wife, Anna, and a child, Marikka, sent there by their concerned parents. In the house opposite live the Jägerschmitts, a German family who had fled a few days earlier as a result of Czech persecution, but now return in triumph, knowing that Hitler is about to triumph and that their – the Gis the cermans’ – day has come.
  • South of France Mathieu Delarue is on holiday at Juans-les-Pins with his brother, Jacques, and his comely wife, Odette. In The Age of Reason Jacques gave Mathieu a common-sense lecture about it being time he grew up and assumed his responsibilities, so now Jacques is the mouthpiece for the bourgeois view that the whole crisis is the fault of the Czechs, who are refusing to see reason and must bow down to Herr Hitler’s very reasonable demands (p.92, 95, 96, 178).
  • Paris Maurice is a young, strong working class member of the Communist Party, walking the streets with his shallow girlfriend, Zézette. They bump into Brunet, the tall, strong, mature Communist, one-time friend of Mathieu and inspiration to younger party members (who we know from The Age of Reason). (Brunet bumps into Joseph Mercier, Professor of Natural History, a momentary encounter seen by both.) Later Maurice makes love to Zézette in a hotel bedroom next to Philippe’s room. Next day he leads a protest at the Gare de l’Est, talks to Simon, and Dubech and Laurent. Maurice is mobilised along with Dornier and Bébert
  • Paris Stephen Hartley, New York journalist, getting his secretary/wife Sylvia to organise a berth on the last boat leaving France.
  • A sanatorium at Berck-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais Charles is crippled by some disease, has to lie prone on a trolley, refers to able people as ‘the stand-ups’, is cared for by sentimental nurse Jeannine, resents ‘the little Dorliac woman’ who gives the nurses generous tips. On the day of the move he is attended by Madame Louise and finds himself in the transport train next to the irritating practical joker Blanchard.
  • Marseilles Sheep farmer Gros-Louis has come to Marseilles looking for a job. He hitches up with an unnamed Negro for a spell. He meets Mario and Starace, the sailors, they take him to a bar to meet prostitute Daisy, get him drunk, and beat him up down a back alley. Next morning, still bloody, he tries to get work at a depot, but Ribadeau the foreman points out to him that he’s been called up.
  • Rural France Daniel (the suave homosexual from The Age of Reason) is on holiday with his new wife, heavily pregnant Marcelle, one-time lover of Mathieu. He hates the countryside. He despises Marcelle. He is longing for a war to break out and rescue him from his predicament.

‘Oh God, if only war would come!’ A thunderbolt which would shatter this smooth-faced world, plough the countryside into a quagmire, dig shell-holes in the fields, and fashion these flat monotonous lands into the likeness of a storm-tossed sea.’ (p.42)

  • Staying at their hotel is a retired colonel, M. de Lestrange. The hotel-keeper’s son, Émile.
  • Marrakesh, Morocco Supercilious Pierre is on holiday having an affair with Maud Dassignies, a member of Baby’s Lady Orchestra. He despises her. On the boat home, she shares a cramped 3rd class cabin with other band members France, Ruby and Doucette and two unnamed women.
  • Paris Pitteaux is editor of a review named The Pacifist (p.125). His secretary, Irène, lets a young tearaway, Philippe Grésigne into his office to see him. The suggestion is that the boy is a rent boy and Pitteaux had some kind of sex with him, now the boy wants more money. Later Pitteaux is called to the house of General Lacaze, who is Philippe’s step-father, husband of Mme Lacaze, where he meets M. Jardies a mental specialist. Philippe has left a note, stolen 10,000 Francs and run away to make some grand pacifist gesture. The General holds Pitteaux responsible. Philippe goes to see a forger to forge him a passport, stays the night in a cheap hotel and hears Maurice making love to Zézette next door. — Irène lectures her kid brother René who is being mobilised. — Philippe falls asleep in a cafe owned by M. and Mme Cazin. The waiter is Felix.
  • Paris Armand Viguier, 80 years old, is dead. He lies stretched out on his bed among his luxury belongings while Sartre speculates poetically about his life dissipating into the objects around him, into an infinite future etc. He body is attended by a nurse, until an elderly relative, Madame Verchoux, arrives. Mme Lieutier asks the butcher in the shop opposite, M. Désiré, about M. Viguier, joined by Mme Bonnetain. –55
  • Marseilles Sarah, the plump placid friend of Mathieu’s from The Age of Reason, has come south to see her husband, Gomez, with their small son, Pablo who glamorises his father’s warriorhood. For a year earlier Gomez had simply walked out of their Paris apartment, headed to Spain and joined the Republican army. Now he has a week’s leave. Sarah she calls to them to come and hear the Negro singing in the street, the same one Gros-Louis had hung out with for a while earlier.
  • Crévilly, France Daddy Croulard, the old soldier, is instructed by the gendarmerie lieutenant to stick up posters round town calling for the mobilisation of all French adult men. Maublanc, a peasant, along with Chapin, Tournus, Cauchios, Simeon, Poulaille, Fraigneau drive their oxen and carts to the nearest barracks as a result of the mobilisation notices they’d read. Louisa Corneille, sister of the level-crossing guard, fiancée of Jean Matrat, watches them pass. Conversation between Madame Reboulier, Marie, Stephanie the tobacconist’s wife, Jeanne Fraigneau. Later Mother Tremblin, Jeanne, Ursule, the Clapot sisters, Little Rose… — 79
  • Paris A Jewish exile from Austria, Schalom, asks help from Georges Levy, then has a long interview with M. Birnenschatz, who we see wave off his pretty daughter, Ella. Then M. Birnenschatz’s talks to one of his staff, Weiss, who has been called up. Weiss says he is sticking up for Jews but Birnenschatz, although he is a Jewish refugee from Cracow, refuses to acknowledge his Jewishness, insists he is a Frenchman first and foremost.
  • Paris One-eyed Pascal is selling irises and buttercups at the Quai de Passy and watches the stream of cars packed with household goods, of families fleeing Paris.
  • Saint-Flour, France François Hannequin, pharmacist, tells his wife, Espérance Dieulafoy, that he is being mobilised and she fusses about the shirts and socks and boots he’ll need to pack. They meet Madame Calvé and Marie, Charlot the ticket collector and M. Pineau the notary.
  • France Jean Servier is a worker reading the sports page of the newspaper. Lucien Rénier finishes his lunch. François Destutt is a laboratory assistant at the Institut Derrien. René Malleville. Pierre Charnier.— 96
  • England Dawburn, journalist for the Morning Post attends a press conference given by an exhausted Chamberlain.
  • France Georges, a particularly feeble, ill, weak man, puts up with his querulous wife, goes in to see his baby daughter and – with typically Sartrean gloom – foresees her futile life, growing up weak and sickly like him, scorned by his schoolmates, feebly suffering, pointlessly struggling through her wretched existence.
  • Paris Maubert and Thérèse have fun tearing down mobilisation posters from the walls. –101
  • A hotel lobby in Paris Boris and Lola, who we know from The Age of Reason, watch numerous guests packing up and fleeing Paris e.g. Madame Delarive and overhear the conversation of a widow and a beribboned old man blaming the Popular Front and the ‘reds’ for arming Spain in 1936 instead of preparing to confront Herr Hitler.
  • A Paris brothel Philippe, determined to be a pacifist hero and do something significant, gets drunk and ends up in a brothel, where he is tended by kindly Negro prostitute, Flossie, who shows him to her friend,
  • The French government Daladier, Sarrault, Bonnet, Champetier de Ribes, Reynaud, 
  • London Fred watches Mr Chamberlain walk by and feels cheered.
  • Berlin Sportpalast The centrepiece of the Monday 26 September chapter is Hitler giving his speech about Czechoslovakia in which we are shown lots of characters across Europe tuning in, listening and reacting, including Karl, a devoted Nazi.
  • Round a radio are Germaine Chabrol and his wife.
  • Barcelona Gomez listens to the broadcast with comrades Herrera and Tilquin.
  • A bar in Paris where Bruno translates Hitler’s speech to the landlord, the Marseillais, the man from the north, Chomis, Charlier.
  • Mathieu’s flat in Paris His concierge, Madame Garinet.
  • Laon, France Ivich, back in her bourgeois home realises she rather likes her father, the Russian exile M. Serguine. –126
  • A nightclub in Paris Irène is being pestered to have sex by boyfriend Marc, who has been called up. Suddenly she sees Philippe, the boy everyone is looking for, being tended by a handsome Negress. When he leaves, Irène pursues him. Philippe shouts ‘Down with the war,’ is promptly beaten up, and is rescued by Mathieu. Irène begs him to help her take the half-conscious Philippe back to her flat. Being French, they go to bed. Being French, Mathieu has a long soliloquy about being, being in the flesh, being inside someone, being inside another person’s body, mind, memory. And so on.
  • Munich Jan Masaryk, Czech government representative at Munich, is left no option by Daladier and Chamberlain but to hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler. This scene is intercut with a completely different scene in which Ivich is angrily losing her virginity to an unnamed man, and hating every second of it – effectively being raped. So that a woman being raped is counterpointed with Czechoslovakia being betrayed and handed over to Hitler.

The interplay of characters, phrases and perceptions overlapping one character into another, is never totally incomprehensible (as it often is in the grand-daddy of this kind of experimentalism, James Joyce) and gives a wonderfully musical sense of counterpoint, of melodies or rhythms interweaving and interplaying. I found it immensely enjoyable.

Aloneness, freedom and decision

Sartre’s more thoughtful characters are oppressed by their self-awareness. They are always horrifyingly aware of themselves looking at themselves, barely able to keep up the pretence of existence, always at risk of drowning in an oppressive flood of impressions, of things.

I come upon nothing but my own self. Scarcely that: a succession of small impulses, darting centrifugally here and there, but no focus. And yet there is a focus: that focus is my self, and the horror lies there. (p.114)

Being a self is horrific in Sartre’s worldview.

And what prompts this nauseous sense of existing in the various characters, is the oppressive extent to which, at so many points, they feel utterly abandoned, adrift, alone.

Mathieu stopped and gazed up at it. A quite ordinary and unprivileged sky. And myself a nondescript entity beneath that vast indifferent arc. (p.296)

This is a key psychological basis of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Every adult human is completely alone and completely free – no ties bind us, only what we choose. Everyone must decide for themselves, without ‘bad faith’ i.e. without blaming circumstances or upbringing or this or that political or cultural situation. Our decisions make us who we are, but we can only fully grasp this, and the crushing responsibility it brings, once we have psychologically experienced our terrible aloneness.

  • ‘We are now alone.’ (p.6) Milan
  • He felt alone (p.9) Milan
  • ‘Now we are quite alone.’ (p.10) Milan
  • A man felt isolated (p.13) Maurice
  • Daniel thought: ‘I am alone’. (p.43) Daniel
  • At the moment he was alone. (p.96) Maurice
  • … they are alone upon the earth.. (p.99) Pierre on the Arabs
  • Gros-Louis was glad of their company, but he still felt solitary. (p.135)
  • … she was quite alone… (p.140) Maud, as she masturbates the captain of the liner
  • He was no longer alone (p.159) Philippe in the boarding house
  • For the moment he was there, an innocent, ugly little boy with a diminutive shadow at his feet, alone in the world… (p.196)
  • So you are quite alone?’ ‘Quite.’ He repeated: ‘Quite alone in the world.’ (p.209) Charles talking to Catherine in the evacuation train
  • The Moroccan climbed over the cracked soil of Spain, he thought of Tangier, and he felt alone. (p.220) Soon afterwards the Moroccan is shot dead by a Belgian
  • He was alone in the night, so small and solitary, he knew and understood nothing, like a man about to die. (p.250) Gros-Louis, the illiterate peasant
  • There was no longer anyone in the world but Karl and his Führer. The Führer was speaking in front of a large swastika’d standard, he was speaking to Karl, and to him alone. (p.271)
  • She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris also had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between things and people were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice. (p.273) [Ella]
  • He was alone on this bridge, alone in the world, accountable to no man. (p.308) [Mathieu]
  • I’m alone in the street, surrounded by sleeping people, ignored by everyone. (p.310)  [Irene]
  • She felt utterly alone. (p.360) [Maud after peace is declared]

At some point or other, all the characters realise their solitude, alone on the surface of a friendless planet, confronting their futures, their destinies completely unaided.

A man alone, forgotten, devoured by darkness, confronted that fragile eternity. (p.297)

In Sartre’s philosophy, we are each of us completely free, utterly free to make decisions according to our own sense of values – and our decisions therefore define us. And the responsibility, the implications of this radical, total freedom, is crushing.

  • ‘I am free,’ he said suddenly. And his joy shrivelled into horror. (p.299)
  • I am free, he said to himself, and his mouth was dry… Freedom is exile, and I cam condemned to be free. (p.308)
  • I shall be my own witness, I am accountable to no one but myself. (p.337)

If there are any character developments (and for the most part there aren’t: Boris hates Lola, Ivich hates Mathieu, Daniel hates Mathieu etc) the two main ones are:

  1. Mathieu with a start realises he is free, but realises that the nature of that ‘freedom’ is completely unlike what he expected: he expected a sense of deliverance and joy, but instead he experiences terror and physical anxiety. He is free to do anything. (In fact, of course, he doesn’t do much; he sleeps with Irène and volunteers for the army. Big deal.)
  2. Daniel has a religious conversion. Being French, and so Catholic, this is expressed in the same language of extremity, the same hysterical exaggeration, as the other characters’ ‘existential’ musings. To be precise, Daniel becomes aware of being seen, not by a human, but by some unknown see-er who can see right into his soul. And that fixes his mobile tremulous over-intelligent personality. It fixes and transfixes him. It objectifies him. He experiences a massive relief.

Sarte Bullshit bingo

As with The Age of Reason, I began chuckling every time I read characteristic Sartrean key words – despair, anguish etc – and burst out laughing whenever one of his stricken characters had another outbreak of Weltschmerz and nausea – like the numerous episodes where Mathieu and Daniel, in particular, are likely to completely lose their sense of themselves and become pure looks, observing but empty consciousnesses, at one with the surrounding objects, their futures foreknown, foretold, suspended, empty, futile etc etc.

Key terms in Sartre Bullshit Bingo would have to include:

  • nauseam, vomit, slime, sick, disgust, contempt, revulsion, anguish, hate, despise, horror, dismal, white (as in the blinding white glare of the noonday sun), insect (people routinely feel like one; Hitler is described as having an insect face)

Prose poetry

You might not expect it from his reputation, but Sartre is a surprisingly poetic writer. A lot of the rhapsody is negative (slime and vomit and bodily functions) or describes rather esoteric psychological insights into the nature of death, destiny, and his persistent hallucination that the objects around us are watching us, respond to our thoughts, embody our moods.

But in other places, especially in the many descriptions of the sea associated with the Mathieu sections, Sartre is a swift and vivid writer of pure prose poetry.

Odette returned with a smile. It wasn’t the conventional smile that he expected, but a special smile just for him; in one instant the sea had reappeared, the lightly heaving sea, the Chinese shadows speeding across the water, the green aloes and the green pine-needles that carpeted the ground, the stippled shadows of the tall pines, the dense white heat, the smell of resin, all the richness of a September morning at Juan-les-Pins. (p.94)

Summary

Le Sursis is well worth reading:

  1. As a vivid picture of the atmosphere of France, and to some extent the rest of Europe, during that turbulent week in September 1938.
  2. As a fiction in its own right, especially the experimental use of a vast cast of characters whose thoughts and actions blend into each other in such an arresting challenging way.
  3. As an insight into the psychological basis of existentialism, which comes across as the codification of the very peculiar psychological states experienced by its inventor, M. Jean-Paul Sartre who suffers an oppressive sense of self-consciousness, which veers from feeling so emptied-out that he becomes simply a seeing object, a stone which perceives, through to the other extreme of becoming so exquisitely over-sensitive to the suffocating existence of the world around him, and of his own strangling self-consciousness, that he wants to stop it, to cease being so self-conscious, to become as senseless as a stone. Hence the passage where Mathieu looks over the parapet of the Pont-Neuf in Paris and wants to jump into the Seine (pp.308-309), to cease, imagining himself already dead, imagining himself in the past tense (and so on and so on).

Above all, though, it is a good indicator of the wretchedly demoralised state of French culture in the late 1930s which goes a long way to explaining why France surrendered so easily when she was finally attacked by the Nazis in June 1940 – surrendered and quickly set up the Vichy regime which enthusiastically collaborated with the Germans.

Mathieu, Boris, Daniel, Ivich, Philippe – they all lack backbone, spine, a real sense of purpose. When the test came, they all collapsed like a pack of cards. The book is a powerful portrait of a demoralised nation.


Credit

Le Sursis by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. This translation by Eric Sutton was published as The Reprieve by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. The Reprieve was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint, which I bought 40 years ago for 85p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

The room was filled with stale heat which had spent its force outside, and left its radiance in the folds of the curtain, and was stagnating there, inert and ominous like a human destiny. (p.66)

Sartre was one of great cultural icons of the mid-twentieth century, the popular face of French existentialist philosophy which he wrote about in countless essays, articles, books and plays, and summarised in his epic and impenetrable treatise, Being and Nothingness.

Most people prefer to sip their Sartre-lite via his half dozen plays (including Huis Close with its famous line ‘Hell is other people’), his début novel Nausea, or the Roads To Freedom trilogy, three novels about France just before World War Two – The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron In The Soul.

The Age of Reason

The Age of Reason is the first of the trilogy, a third-person narrative set in Paris in 1938 which focuses on two days in the life of Mathieu Delarue (French for ‘of the street’). Mathieu is a 34-year-old, tall, gangly philosophy teacher who spends a lot of time mooching round the streets of Paris feeling sorry for himself. He has a sickly lover, Marcelle, who has just announced she’s pregnant and so Mathieu immediately decides she must have an abortion. He visits his fat placid friend Sarah to ask her help, watched by the aloof Brunet, a committed communist and old friend. Slowly Mathieu realises the cheap abortionists he had been considering (400 Francs) risk seriously injuring Marcelle; Sarah knows a high class abortionist, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, but he charges 4,000 Frances – where on earth can Mathieu get that kind of money?

Mathieu asks his sleek gay friend Daniel for the money. Daniel has it but maliciously refuses. He visits his older brother, Jacques, a successful lawyer, who reads him a lecture about his bohemian lifestyle and says he’ll give him 10,000 Francs if he’ll marry Marcelle. Mathieu refuses. He wants to stay free. He is obsessed with his freedom to do and be. Jacque says he is being childish, he is refusing to grow up – he has now reached the age of reason and he must choose to be an adult, to settle down, to marry, to accept that he has a nice government job (as a tenured professor at the Lycée Buffon) a nice government pension and a nice obliging mistress: in what way is he any kind of rebel or non-conformist?

While he ponders these ‘moral’ quandaries Mathieu hangs out with Ivich, kid sister of Boris Serguine, one of his pupils. Ivich is plain and prickly but Mathieu finds himself making a pass at her in a taxi on the way to an art exhibition. Bad mistake. She is prickly and resentful for the rest of the book.

Boris, meanwhile, is having an affair with Lola Montero, the ageing (well, 40 makes her ageing in this book) nightclub singer. He likes the way her face and body are wrinkled, he likes her ‘experience’, whereas she rather more straightforwardly likes having a young lover – it makes her feel young; she tells Mathieu that Boris is her ‘last chance’. If Boris left she would throw herself in the river (p.37). All the characters are like that – hysterical.

Boris like all the other characters doesn’t appear to have a job and is oppressed by his own ‘freedom’ – which some among us might relabel his lack of a job, a career or any responsibilities. So he’s invented a pastime of shoplifting, to give himself a heady sense of ‘being in the moment’.

Meanwhile, we have several long sections devoted to the sleek, plausible homosexual Daniel Sereno. First of all he elaborately packs up his three cats into a basket, takes a succession of trams across town to the Seine and gets as far as tying a paving stone to a string and to the basket, preparing to drown them – for no particular reason, out of motiveless malice – when he realises he can’t go through with it, cuts the string and retraces his step to his apartment.

Later there’s a description of Daniel going to a covered amusement arcade to watch young toughs hanging around waiting to be picked up by gay cruisers. He is filled with contempt and longing for both types. He eyes a sleek 50-year-old man picking up one of the toughs and is boiling over with hatred and self-loathing, when he is himself unexpectedly accosted by a young catamite he got a job at a chemist’s shop. The lad has lost the job and now wants some money. The 50-year-old observes all this and gives Daniel a wink of complicity as he walks by. Daniel is revolted with himself, with the world.

The most frequent word in the text (apart from ‘the’ and ‘and’) is ‘disgust’. All the characters are disgusted with their lovers, with sex, with Paris, with life, but most of all with themselves. The whole novel is an orgy of self-conscious self-loathing.

Mathieu handed her [Lola] the bag: she took a powder-box out of it, and eyed her face with disgust. (p.210)

In a long sequence towards the end of the book Mathieu drops in on a nightclub to meet Boris and Ivich and watch Lola sing. All four characters go through flashes of loathing and hating each other, but also need each other. Boris tries to touch Lola for the money he knows Mathieu needs but makes up a clumsy cover story and causes a big argument with the singer. He loathes her. She hates him. Etc.

Meanwhile, left at the table together, Ivich and Mathieu spend some time loathing each other – why on earth did he kiss such a plain pasty prickly young woman, thinks Mathieu. Ivich is on edge because she’s certain she’ll fail her exams and be forced to return to her parents’ smotheringly bourgeois home in provincial Laon. Boris had bought a large clasp knife and on a whim Ivich uses it to cut a deep slash right across her palm. Not to be outdone Mathieu lets the knife drop point-downwards into his own palm. It pins his hand to the table beneath. When Lola and Borins come back from their argumentative dance it is to find Ivich and Mathieu bleeding badly and linked by a new complicity. The waiter takes them to the cloakroom attendant who patches them up.

Next morning Mathieu meets Ivich at the Dome cafe and they start drinking to get rid of their hangovers, when Boris appears completely dazed. Lola is dead. They went back to her apartment, she took some more drugs (she snorts heroin) and in the morning was cold, still, with her eyes open. Boris begs Mathieu to go to Lola’s apartment and retrieve his bundle of love letters from her suitcase. Mathieu does so partly to impress Ivich and when he is there, in the darkness of the death room, comes across the bundles of thousands of Francs which Lola has been saving for years. All he need do is take 4,000 and he will have the fee for the high class abortion and ensure Marcelle’s well-being. But stupid scruples prevent him – he drops the notes back in the case and is half way across the room when Lola calls out.

She is not dead at all! This was a genuinely dramatic moment, a Grand Guignol moment, and I was as surprised as Mathieu. Turns out Lola was in a drug-induced fugue and now she slowly stirs and recovers.  Recovering from his surprise, Mathieu makes sure she is alright and returns to Boris and Ivich at the café. Here, Boris refuses to believe that Lola is still alive; and, when Mathieu finally persuades him, Boris refuses to accept it. To him Lola is dead; he has got used to it, he had moved on. He doesn’t want to go back to her, to the woman he thought was a corpse.

Meanwhile, in another strand of the plot, it turns out that the sleek homosexual Daniel has been visiting Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, for some time, unbeknown to Mathieu. Daniel is revolted by her (‘He despised Marcelle profoundly’, p.89) but also fascinated by her as a specimen. When Mathieu comes to him to ask for a loan of 4,000 Francs, Daniel wickedly conceives a plan to persuade Marcelle to admit to herself that she wants to keep the baby – and to make her say this to Mathieu – and thus to force Mathieu into having to marry her. The thought of manipulating his ‘friend’ amuses the cynical Daniel (‘When Mathieu adopted a Quakerish attitude, Daniel hated him’, p.94).

Towards the end of the story, Mathieu sneaks back into Lola’s apartment with the key Boris gave him and this time does steal 4,000 of her Francs. He goes to Marcelle’s flat and now finds her strangely attractive and solicitous. (What he doesn’t realise is that Marcelle has been led on by Daniel to believe that Mathieu would propose to her.) When he does nothing of the sort but instead proudly brandishes the money for the abortion, Marcelle’s face falls, she is ashen, she says, ‘So that’s what you think of me’. Mathieu tries to make the situation better, but then, finally, admits – he doesn’t love her any more.

They part. Mathieu goes back to his apartment, where in fact he’d left Ivich sobering up after getting paralytic at lunch time after she’d learned she’d failed her exams and would be sent back to her wretched bourgeois home in the country. The two of them are struggling with whether they love or hate each other, when Lola storms in clutching a bag which probably contains a gun.

On the verge of hysterics, Lola accuses Boris of stealing the 4,000 Francs from her. Mathieu persuades Lola to let the terrified Ivich depart and then confesses that he, Mathieu, stole the money. Around about here it struck me that all these characters are French; maybe that’s why they all hysterically over-react to everything.

He felt ridiculous and detestable… He felt absolutely alone… He felt as though he were plunged in a sinister and preposterous nightmare… Her eyes were glittering with impotent hatred… He saw the back of that tall black figure moving with the blind momentum of catastrophe… ‘I’m even more disgusted with myself…’ Daniel filled him with horror… He was alone… ‘You hate me’ …

Lola is still shrieking her accusations when Daniel dramatically enters stage right, and proffers her an envelope containing the very same amount of bank notes she’s shrieking that Mathieu stole from her. It seems that he visited Marcelle soon after Mathieu left, she gave them the money to give back to Mathieu, and he has stumbled upon this ridiculous scene. Daniel hands the money to Lola. Voilà!

(Some of the writing feels like it’s from a pulp novel. The hysterical over-reacting to everything feels like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Stripped of the relentless nihilism, it is, in fact, a bedroom farce. Mathieu should be played by Brian Rix.)

Lola is eventually pacified and stumbles off wailingly asking why Boris won’t come back to her.

Once alone with Mathieu, Daniel announces with a flourish that he is going to marry Marcelle. They are going to keep the baby. Mathieu feels like fainting. Daniel goes one step further and reveals to Mathieu that he is gay. What? They both need a drink and broach Mathieu’s bottle of rum. Gay? And going to marry Marcelle? Eh bien – Mathieu, the author and the reader all give a deep Gallic shrug – pourquois pas?


Disgust and loathing

As you can see there’s a fair bit of toing and froing among this cast of deadbeats and losers, but the ‘plot’ is mostly beside the point. The purpose of the novel is to show the Sartrean worldview through six or seven glutinously imagined characters – and that worldview is one of gloomy despair, morbid fear of getting old, of disgust at other people’s decaying, wrinkled, smelly bodies, revulsion at your own physical existence, and a pervasive, sickly hyper-sensitive self-awareness.

The characters ‘suddenly feeling old’, like they do in so many middle-class novels, is trite enough:

  • Good Lord she’s getting old (p.14)
  • ‘I’m getting old. Here I am, lounging in a chair and believing in nothing…’ (p.48)
  • She had suddenly aged. (p.275)

And white bourgeois fictional characters feeling ashamed of their bodies is fairly commonplace. Mathieu is continually oppressed by his sense of his own body, ugly and lank:

  • … a tall and naked figure, moulded out of dough (p.43).
  • Mathieu felt uneasily obtrusive: a heap of refuse against a wall. (p.72)
  • Mathieu made a gesture of disgust. (p.100)

It’s a little unusual that all the characters are consumed with disgust.

  • She disliked her body. (p.68)
  • Daniel envisaged himself with disgust. (p.85)
  • Daniel eyed him with disgust. (p.132)
  • ‘She revolts me.’ (Boris on Lola, p.213)

But the universal revulsion at the physical, at being human, is an incessant chorus of dismay and revulsion which envelops the whole book, gushing forth on every single one of the 300 pages. One strand is Mathieu’s dislike (and fear) of children:

  • Mathieu felt uneasy, without quite knowing why. He had the sense of being engulfed by the child’s eyes. ‘Children are greedy little devils,’ he thought, ‘all their senses are mouths.’ (p.43)
  • He looked at the child and he looked at the fly. A child. A bit of thinking flesh that screams and bleeds when it is killed. (p.44)
  • A child: another consciousness, a little centre-point of light that would flutter round and round, dashing against the walls, and never be able to escape. (p.46)

But this fear of the physical reaches orgasms of revulsion in Mathieu’s revolting imagining of a) sex b) of the little blister of flesh, the foetus growing inside his mistress’s heavy, smelly pink body, and c) how it will be pricked, slashed and sucked out in the abortion.

  • And what about the others? Those who have solemnly decided to become fathers, and feel progenitively inclined when they look at their wives’ bodies – do they understand any more than I do? They go blindly on – three flicks of a duck’s tail. What follows is a gelatinous job done in a dark room, like photography. (p.21)
  • In a pink room within a female body, there was a blister, growing larger… There was no time to lose, for the blister was expanding at that very moment: it was making obscure efforts to emerge, to extricate itself from the darkness, and growing into something like that, a little pallid, flabby object that clung to the world and sucked its sap. (p.44)
  • And she thought: ‘It’s there’. In that belly a little strawberry of blood was making haste to live, with a sort of guileless urgency, a besotted little strawberry, not even yet an animal, soon to be scarped out of existence by a knife. (p.69)

Unpleasant enough, but the text goes way beyond a universal physical revulsion into metaphysical disgust. Consciousness itself is seen as an impossible heavy, wearing, and disgusting phenomenon. It starts with his dislike of children, progresses through his disgust at the growing foetus, and spreads like a stain into a helpless horror at the sheer disgustingness of being alive, at being conscious, at having:

An absurd, superfluous life… (p.70)

Walking down the street is a trial for several of the characters: the heat, the sunlight, the other people, the noise threatens to overwhelm and drown them, to flood and erase their sense of self.

His solitude was so complete, beneath a lovely sky as mellow and serene as a good conscience, amid that busy throng, that he was amazed at his own existence: he must be somebody else’s nightmare, and whoever it was would certainly awaken soon. (p.150)

And this morbid self-consciousness reaches new heights in a disgust at being seen. It is bad enough to be a consciousness trapped inside a revolting body: but in some sense other people trap you in their gaze. You become an object for others, with no escape from their controlling gaze. Thus, when Mathieu leaves the pink prison of Marcelle’s bedroom he is so oppressed by the sense that she is still imagining him, that he feels he is still there – he has to go out of his way into a bar and chat to the staff and customers solely in order to exist for someone else.

He felt the need of being seen. Just of being seen. (p.19)

Boris is similarly self-conscious. In the nightclub he feels Lola’s scrutiny as a physical sensation.

He had a pain in his right side as a consequence of being looked at. (p.24)

This is one aspect of Sartre’s existential philosophy: the aspect he called being-for-others, the external objective side of ourselves which is permanently on display, unfree, trapped. On the other hand it can sometimes restore us to a sense of ourselves when we are lost. Daniel, after having sex with a rent boy, is so disgusted he contemplates suicide and, holding the razor in his hand, becomes almost completely empty of thought and feeling, just a pinprick of consciousness, an arm, a slice of sharpened metal. Eventually, he tears himself free and runs hysterically down into the street.

He must run, he must get away as far as possible, immerse himself in noise and light, in a throng of people, he must become a man among his fellows, and feel the eyes of other men upon him. (p.268)

Freedom

This brings us to the issue of ‘freedom’. Critics I’ve read say the novel is a meditation on freedom, in particular Sartre’s convoluted idea of freedom which is not a positive, but a kind of terrifying nothingness into which we’re hurled and from which we have to create our own lives from scratch, with no help or guidance from outworn creeds or dead religions. And hence the over-arching title of the series, Roads To Freedom as it indeed dramatises different characters’ journeys towards different definitions of freedom.

But this gives an inaccurately optimistic sense of the novel; in reality it is Mathieu’s gloomy meditations on his directionless life which have the most power. The bus he’s riding in brakes suddenly and Mathieu suddenly realises:

‘No, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.’ Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation: he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate: to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight around with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.’ (p.243)

Maybe. Maybe that is the ‘human condition’ but why give it such a negative spin? Why ‘condemned’, why not ‘liberated in the sunshine’ to walk and run and skateboard and surf and buy a Harley Davidson and travel the world? The freedom part may be right (I disagree) but the immensely negative emotional interpretation Sartre gives it is entirely his own (and his own problem).

Anyway, I am with Mathieu’s brother, Jacques, when he says that Mathieu is a self-centred good-for-nothing who has no direction or purpose, who’s kept his mistress dangling for seven long years, and makes a fetish of his own inability to make decisions.

The most schematic part of the book is the character of Brunet, who is an almost comical stereotype of the Strong, Conscientious Communist. He invites Mathieu to join the Party. He explains that being a member has given him a sense of purpose and brotherhood with other members all round the world.

‘You are the son of a bourgeois, you couldn’t come to us straightaway, you had to free yourself first. And now it’s done, you are free. But what’s the use of that same freedom, if not to join us…You live in a void, you have cut your bourgeois connections, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there… You renounced everything in order to be free… Take one step further, renounce your freedom: and everything shall be rendered unto you.’ (p.118)

By sinking his individuality into a strong disciplined political movement he has gained his individuality. Mathieu listens sympathetically – Brunet is an old friend, and also an imposing presence, tall, physically superb, muscular hands, a man of the people – but as with his mistress or his friends or his job, Mathieu can’t quite bring himself to make a decision. One day he will, he tells Brunet, he tells himself, one day he will make the Great Decision which demonstrates his freedom… just not yet, not yet…

Reading the Brunet sections makes you wonder whether the aim of the book is Communist propaganda (after the war, when this book was being written, Sartre came out as a self-proclaimed Marxist). Maybe the entire novel is designed to show up the pettiness and negativity of the petit bourgeoisie, to show the pointless, aimless lives of modern people who have not accepted The Cause, who have not given their lives a Purpose by committing to the Communist Party. Maybe.

Alternatively, the young student Bruno – who hates being described as Mathieu’s ‘disciple’ – has his own, rather immature definition of freedom.

The individual’s duty is to do what he wants to do, to think whatever he likes, to be accountable to no one but himself, to challenge every idea and every person. (p.138)

Put like that, maybe Sartre and his philosophy have disappeared because they have been so thoroughly subsumed into our modern attitude. Boris’s credo pretty much sums up the attitude of my daughter, aged 16. Maybe these ‘freedom’ sections which caused so much debate in 1945, now seem thin and lifeless because we all think like that, talk like that, and have the t-shirt. Maybe.

Either way, the dozen or so ‘freedom’ sections feel like plasters strapped onto the groaning seething mass of disgust, appalled descriptions of physical functions and an apparently never-ending series of ways for the characters to feel disgusted and revolted by each other. The pregnant Marcelle has morning sickness:

A long filament hung from her lips, she had to cough it away… She watched the dabs of mucus sliding slowly towards the drainpipe leaving glossy, viscous tracks behind them, like snails. (p.68)

This is just one of hundreds and hundreds of vividly described moments of revulsion, nausea, disgust and loathing which saturate the text.

Back in the day, educated people agonised about how to find meaning in a world stripped bare of religion and the old certainties, and threatened by Nazism and totalitarianism. Sartre’s novels and plays, on one level, set out to dramatise that predicament and are of fascinating historical interest. But that predicament, that sense of a personal crisis inextricably linked to the crisis of an entire continent (at a central moment Mathieu buys a newspaper and reads about the latest nationalist atrocity in the Spanish Civil War and is possessed by nausea and fear), and the burning necessity to Make a Choice, to throw in your lot with one political party or the other… all that is long gone.

What has really endured of this book is the relentlessness of everyone’s misery and of their super disgust at being human, at having bodies, at ageing, at living.

  • am my own taste, I exist. That’s what existence means: draining one’s own self dry without the sense of thirst. Thirty-five years. For thirty-five years I’ve been sipping at myself and I’m getting old.’ (p.48)
  • ‘I am utterly immured in my own self.’ (p.186)
  • He spoke with disgust and in short spasms. ‘I’ll try to change,’ he said. ‘I’m contemptible,’ he thought… They walked in silence, side by side, immersed in sunlight, and in mutual detestation. But, at the same time, Mathieu saw himself with Ivich’s eyes, and was filled with self-contempt. (p.80)
  • That ghastly self-contempt, that utterly weak, futile, weak, moribund self-contempt, which seemed at every moment on the point of self-annihilation, but always survived. (p.270)

Fat unhappy Marcelle – trapped by illness in her pink bedroom, stifled by the mother she shares her apartment with – is the central symbol of the squalid reality of the physical body, of nausea at its revolting fecundity, a claustrophobic image of unhappiness.

She sometimes had the feeling that her life had come to a stop one day at noon, and she herself was an embodied, eternal noontide brooding upon her little world, a dank and rainy world, without hope or purpose…. She felt sick…then a sense of uttermost disgust gathered upon her tongue… She disliked her body… the sight of women suckling their babies in the Luxemberg: a feeling beyond fear and disgust…she dreaded having to despise him… (p.67)

But she is only the most extreme example of the quality all the characters share, Sartre’s own disgust and revulsion at life, of being alive, of being human.

In a few days she would be nothing but a lump of misery… A slime of pity had engulfed him. He had no sympathy for Marcelle, and he felt profoundly disgusted… (p.160)

‘The slime of pity’ – Sartre likes slime, viscous trails, vomit, mucus, semen, blood.

I read this book on a lovely sunny day and couldn’t help thinking that all the characters in it needed to get out more, to get a hobby, get some exercise, and generally get a life. None of them have jobs (Mathieu has stopped work for the vacation) or children – they are completely free of timetables and responsibilities, utterly free to be as unhappy and negative as they please.

‘Oh,’ Ivich said vehemently, ‘how I hate the summer.’ (p.73)

The absolute determination of all the characters to be as miserable as possible eventually becomes quite funny. Sometimes it felt like ‘Monty Python and the French Philosopher’, with John Cleese saying in a heavy French accent, ‘Oh no, I feeel ze anguish of freedom oppressing my consciousness and feeelling me with despair at ze ‘uman condeetion’. Some bits made me laugh out loud, they were so over the top.

Love was not something to be felt, not a particular emotion, nor yet a particular shade of feeling, it was much more like a lowering curse on the horizon, a precursor of disaster.’ (p. 250)

Yes, Jean-Paul – love is a curse and a disaster.

If you hate summer, loathe being touched, are so morbidly self-conscious that other people looking at you hurts you, if you are revolted by your bodily functions and oppressed by a feeling of futility and pointlessness, ‘burdened by events to come’ and prey to ‘an intolerable anguish’ (p.83) – then this is the book for you!

Scandal

A footnote in The Last Chance explains that the right-wing Vichy regime which ran unoccupied France till 1944, executed a woman for providing an abortion. The subject of abortion appeared squalid to me, in 1977, but we all miss a lot if we don’t realise that the subject matter was so scandalous that Sartre couldn’t think of publishing the novel till after the Liberation, and even then it called down on his head a ton of criticism from all the respectable, right-thinking critics of his day.

Translation

L’Age de Raison was translated into English by Eric Sutton in 1947. Or at least into a form of English.

‘Glad I am to see you, Ivich.’
‘Good morning,’ said she. (p.52)

As with Darkness at Noon, which I’ve just read, the text’s source in another language is obvious on every page in an English which often clings to French word order and phraseology. The continual alien cadence of the sentences helps to ease the entrance, facilitates acceptance, of what is at the end of the day, a very very alien worldview.


Credit

L’Age de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. The translation by Eric Sutton was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. This was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint which I bought 40 years ago for 75p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Related links

Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison

The full title is Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell and it does what it says on the tin. This long densely-printed paperback is a treasure trove of Orwell’s best book, film and theatre reviews, along with his BBC radio broadcasts and numerous magazine articles, interviews and short essays. It does not include the full-length, often literary-minded essays – these are collected in a number of other selections.

Peter Davison (b.1926) has devoted his life to editing the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, to identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format, first published in 1998. For this massive labour of love Davison was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

In the 480 pages of this handsome Penguin paperback Davison presents a selection of the very best of Orwell’s writings from across his fairly short (20 years, 1930-1950) but prolific career. It brings together an astonishing variety of writings, from a school poem right at the start, to an deleted passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. For a start, it is an eye-opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the twentieth century. He writes for:

  • The Adelphi (literary magazine), New Statesman and Nation (founded by the Fabian Society), New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Left Forum, Horizon (founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender), Tribune (founded in 1937 by Labour MPs), Left News, Partisan Review (an American left-wing magazine), The Listener (the BBC’s radio magazine), PoetryThe ObserverThe Manchester Evening News (founded 1868), The Windmillthe Times Literary SupplementThe New Yorker and more.

Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long, notes explaining the background of each of the magazines in question and Orwell’s relation to them – for example, including correspondence between the editors of Partisan Review and Orwell, when they commissioned a regular ‘London Letter’ from him in December 1940.

Orwell worked for the BBC from the start of 1941 to November 1943. He was involved in a variety of projects, initially writing and reading weekly News Reviews, generally describing the political situation, which were broadcast to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these). But he also worked on a variety of other programmes, for example, giving four talks on literary criticism in 1941, or six editions of a poetry magazine, for which he personally persuaded leading poets of the day to contribute – and so on.

Orwell quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join the left-wing newspaper Tribune as its literary editor. He commissioned others to write its book reviews, wrote reviews of his own, and created a regular weekly slot called ‘As I Please’ in which he wrote about subjects that took his fancy. He wrote 80 As I Please columns, and since each one often contained three or so subjects, that’s a lot of issues, ideas and areas of contemporary life which he covered. To take a random selection, subjects included: insulting nicknames, Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism, clothes rationing, the decline of religious belief, Dickens and country life, foreign words, flying bombs, the Warsaw Uprising, and so on.

One of the standout items is a page on ‘the colour bar’ (As I Please 37, Tribune 11 August 1944) which argues why it is so important to call out racist pubs, clubs, restaurants who forbid admission to non-whites, which sounds very relevant to our own race-conscious times.

The ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf. (p.290)

If one thing emerges it is that, although he writes occasional literary criticism on authors he likes or thinks important – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Henry Miller, Jack London – the lion’s share of the texts, whether BBC broadcasts, book reviews, Letters from London or As I Please columns, are concerned with politics and with Orwell’s particularly pessimistic take on the world around him.

Stepping back from the multitudinous details of these pieces, it’s possible to summarise Orwell’s core worldview thus:

  1. The world is going to hell: capitalism is visibly collapsing before our eyes: its days are numbered.
  2. Already it has been replaced across much of Europe by a new kind of authoritarian government – totalitarianism – which seeks to control not just what people do and say but even what they think.
  3. Ranged against these forces of social and mental repression is the key Orwellian virtue of Decency, the term which sums up honesty, fair play, justice and which, in Wigan Pier, he put at the centre of his definition of Socialism.
  4. Imaginative literature, of the kind he likes and would like to write himself, is only possible in a world of free individuals, free to think what they want and free to express it how they want.
  5. Given that the old order, with its antiquated class system and its reassuring certainties, is being swept away, the only way to preserve decency and the dignity of the individual in the coming world will be by supporting a democratic Socialism – Socialism because the only choice is between Socialism and Fascism – and ‘democratic’ to signal its difference from Stalinist totalitarianism.

Almost all Orwell’s writing takes place against this bleak background and pretty much every one of the pieces here refers to at least one of these ideas: whether he’s reviewing plays, films or books, one or other element of the basic argument crops up – capitalism is collapsing; totalitarian thought-control threatens; the private decency of the old writers is no longer possible; only a Socialist revolution and the advent of democratic Socialism can a) fight off totalitarianism b) ensure the survival into the future of all the aspects of human decency and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is very interesting to learn that this tendency, the tendency of all his writing to return to the same fundamental issue, was noticed at the time. The book includes the first ever sustained essay written about Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s leading reader, Daniel George, who comments:

Most of Orwell’s essays have a literary starting-point. But he quickly deserts literature for life and politics… All of these [the essays in Orwell’s Critical Essays, published 1946] become, sooner or later, but chiefly, moralisings upon modern tendencies in thought and behaviour; and all illustrate his dislike – almost his fear – of a totalitarian system of government… Insidious persuasion is his method… (Davison pp.375, 377, 379)

In the light of the enormous effort Orwell poured into his writings, it seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of what he predicted actually came about. Certainly Stalinist totalitarianism conquered Eastern Europe, but the Fascist powers in Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated. America emerged as the world’s military and economic superpower, capable of defending democracy in Europe and the Pacific, at the same time! In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a decade of the end of the war into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell fails to see this coming because of his instinctive anti-Americanism. It comes out strongest in the novels whose protagonists routinely despise American consumer culture, despise soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. This cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made Orwell underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’ as the war draw to an end – i.e. not only the survival, but the triumph of the kind of consumer capitalism he despised and thought was doomed, and the concomitant flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The totalitarian mind-control which remodelled human nature to render it supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves – this never happened. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and its control of Eastern Europe, there was samizdat literature, there were dissidents, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and again in the 1970s, setting up Charter 77.

(To be fair, in a mea culpa piece for Partisan Review dated October 1944, Orwell does concede that nearly all his predictions about the war had turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist Revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

And although I wanted to like Orwell, as I read through these pieces I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with him, on issues large and small. He is against the metric system and in favour of keeping rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights (p.416) – an opinion of purely historic interest to us today. He speculates that, if four-letter words were freely published in fiction and newspapers, it might remove their magic and mystique,

and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common. (p.396)

Well, that didn’t work out, did it? On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, put simply, it triumphed and defeated communism around the world. He says the novel is dying – well, the 1950s saw some great novels written and the 1960s saw an explosion of writing of every type. He says the English language is in irreversible decline – well, that’s what gloomy Guses in every age claim, the English language looks alive and kicking to me today.

And quite often not only does his journalism reference one or more elements of the worldview I summarised above, but it takes a visceral pleasure in saying so. He is thrilled by the bleak future he envisions. It gives him – and is designed to give his reader – the shivers.

The era of free speech is closing down… The time is coming – not next year, perhaps not for ten or twenty years, but it is coming – when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands. (Written in 1938 – p.69)

That just didn’t happen. As political and social and cultural prophet, Orwell is wrong again and again. When blurb writers and reviewers claim that Orwell ‘still speaks to our time’, is ‘more relevant than ever’, I don’t get it. We do not today face the threat of external totalitarian regimes invading and conquering us. If we do face a political challenge today, it is from the political instability caused by the prolonged rule of neo-liberal capitalist ideology which has produced an unequal society, exacerbated by the tensions caused by mass immigration.

But then, society was also grossly unequal in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. In fact, it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it is always struggling with various crises of unrest and complaint. I am old enough to remember the endless strikes of the 1970s, the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the Poll Tax riots in the early 1990s. In comparison the situation we find ourselves in now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia for a large percentage of the population.

And far from living in a society of zombies who supinely accept the mind-numbing slogans of a totalitarian government, do we not live in the extreme opposite – a society which, due to the internet, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, and millions of blogs like my one, has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

On the plus side Orwell’s journalism offers trenchant commentaries on particular events of his day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics. It contains thoughts on social issues and trends which are often overlooked by the history books. The fact that shopkeepers got ruder as rationing got tighter (p.308), tensions between American soldiers and the native English, the significance of the lonely hearts columns in wartime newspapers (p.278) – Orwell’s writings present a fascinating social and intellectual record of his age, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. This volume amounts to a useful primer on the texture of ordinary life in the era of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Maybe the best way of seeing all these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves often suggest they are read – is as a steady, thorough and obsessive working-out of the themes and ideas which reach their perfect expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Whenever Orwell mentions thought-control, or the implications of totalitarian society on culture, or the death of free speech, or control of the past, or the likely division of the world into three superstates (p.315), the reader can’t help but think of hos these ideas will end up informing his great novel.

In this respect, Orwell was tremendously lucky. As this selection shows, from almost the start of his career he was obsessed with the idea of totalitarianism and how it would destroy the decencies and freedoms he remembered from the Edwardian boyhood which he held so dear. Over and over again he nags and worries at the implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he was lucky enough to find an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And lucky that he managed to complete his masterwork, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s.

That he was able to finish the book which is one of the great masterpieces of the century was partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades – as the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book testify.

This book contains scores of passing insights and ideas, all expressed in his brisk, no-nonsense prose, deliberately denuded of rhetoric and fancy, always nudging and persuading you to agree with his common-sense-sounding assumptions. These are all enjoyable and make the book a great pleasure to read. But what it shows more than anything else is the length of time and the depth and variety of thinking which went into the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Anti-Left

Another major theme which emerges is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the left-wing orthodoxy in the England of his day. Barely a page goes by without some withering criticism of left-wing intellectuals. This is because, ever since his experience in Spain in 1937, he had grasped that Soviet Communism was a completely amoral extension of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy. Orwell’s image of totalitarian thought control doesn’t come from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from his actual personal experience of the kind of lies and distortions carried out by the communists in Spain, as he watched them take over the republican cause and proceeded to vilify, arrest, torture and execute all their political enemies.

When he came back to England he found that all the left-wing publishers refused to publish his account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia because they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’,because they wouldn’t accept its criticism of Soviet policy. And when the book was eventually published, it prompted negative reviews from most of the left-wing press as well as personal attacks calling Orwell a lackey for capitalism and imperialism, a Trotskyist, a saboteur etc, all the hate terminology he’d seen the Stalinists using in Spain.

And he realised – It could happen here. It could happen here because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class had given its heart to a foreign power and to a Great Leader who they slavishly believed would transform the world and make them happy. And because the left-wing intellectuals have imposed a stifling orthodoxy of thought over all the publications they control, creating an atmosphere of political correctness which you speak out against at your peril.

Thus, although he routinely criticises the Tories, whether in or out of power, the lies of the right-wing press, and has harsh words for the Catholic church’s instinctive support of all right-wing causes – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. The real enemy is the slavish devotees of Stalin’s Soviet communism.

Typical comments are:

  • I don’t share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country and am not dismayed by a British victory. (p.304)
  • Particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matter. (p.303)

Now readers up-to-speed with left-wing politics in general and the tortuous situation of the 1930s in particular, Orwell is making subtle and important points. How many people would that have been? As an indication, some of Orwell’s books only sold a few thousand copies in his lifetime. But to someone a bit further removed from the cat fights of the English Left, it can all too easily seem that Orwell’s Socialism is associated with violent revolution, burning down churches, locking up, torturing and executing your opponents and imposing totalitarian mind control. In other words, his calls for a Democratic Socialism only really mean something to someone who already knows quite a lot about left-wing politics and can distinguish between its multiple strands and traditions.

Political correctness

This is one of the few ideas I think we can actually apply to our own times. For we also live in times when a ‘progressive’ orthodoxy has imposed politically correct axioms right across the mainstream media to do with race, gender, sexuality, with immigration and identity, which you criticise or question at your peril. As he wrote in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

‘One cannot be politically orthodox.’

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. While I was reading the book and thinking about the issues it raises, the resignation was announced of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing an article in the Sun newspaper about British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject matter – I am just pointing out that we live, like Orwell, in times where you have to be extremely careful what you say on certain issues – if anyone in the world was going to be politically correct and careful what they say, you’d have thought it would be Labour’s equalities spokesperson. If even she can’t speak casually and openly on certain subjects, then the rest of us better keep quiet.

The peril doesn’t come from the Right. I can say or write whatever I like about Donald Trump or Theresa May, I can insult Brexiteers or English nationalists till the cows come home, and I will be praised in the mainstream media. It is the Left which has erected certain orthodoxies, certain ‘correct’ attitudes, which anyone writing, or even talking out loud, must be careful to comply with.

To repeat – I make no comment whatsoever about the subject raised in Champion’s Sun article – I am just pointing out that her resignation shows that we live in a time of powerful orthodoxies which you infringe at the risk of your job and your career – and that I find Orwell’s thoughts about the impact of unquestioned orthodoxies on freedom of speech and imaginative literature far more relevant to our present-day situation than his more directly political analyses.


Credit

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison was published by Harvill Secker in 2014. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell in Barcelona

In chapter 10 of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes how street fighting broke out in Barcelona in 1937. I happen to have been in Barcelona recently and so used Orwell’s account to track down and photograph the buildings he describes.

Background

On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government. This sounds like a simple case of right and wrong but early 20th century Spain had had a troubled history. It only became a republic when King Alfonso XIII fled the country in 1931. Spain was deeply polarised between the forces of reaction – powerful landowners, the Catholic church, the police and army – and of the republic – the urban working class, some peasants. There had been an attempt to mount a left-wing revolution in 1934, which was repressed but left all sides convinced the other side was planning huge conspiracies.

In July 1936 the generals had planned and hoped that their coup would take the entire country. But the uprising failed in barracks in the major cities (Madrid and Barcelona) and in the east generally, and in the two provinces of Spain which have always prized their independence, the Basque country in the north-west and Catalonia in the north-east.

Both sides took steps to round up and disarm opponents in their part of the country, often with bloodshed. Thousands died in the early days and it was in these early days that the trade unions acted with decisiveness to raise huge militias. They begged the cautious government for arms and just about managed to put enough troops in the field to stall the nationalists’ advance. By September both sides – generally referred to as nationalists and republicans – were looking abroad for help. The nationalists quickly gained support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans were subject to a (controversial) arms embargo by France and Britain and forced to rely entirely on arms and advisors from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Within a few months sympathisers in the democracies began to volunteer to fight for the republic (and a handful for the nationalists). For many idealistic young men and women in Britain, France, America and elsewhere, the outbreak of the war in Spain represented a tipping point in history, the moment when fascist forces came out into the open and had to be defeated. If Spain fell to fascism, went the argument, with Italy and Germany already fascist and Fascist parties powerful or in power in many east European countries, then France and Britain would be next.

Among the many volunteers from Britain was George Orwell, author up to that point of three novels and his documentary books, Down and out in Paris and London and The Road To Wigan Pier. Orwell approached the British communist party but they were (rightly, as it turned out) suspicious of his independent attitude, so he ended up wangling an introduction to the Independent Labour Party representative in Barcelona, John McNair. Having travelled across France and crossed the border into Spain, Orwell arrived in Barcelona, and was channeled away from the Overseas Volunteers – the International Brigades which were being administered by communists – and into the militia of the anti-communist revolutionary party, the POUM (the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista).

Orwell writes vividly of the egalitarian atmosphere in Barcelona when he arrived in december 1936: everyone dressed in workers’ clothes, prostitution, begging and tipping had been banned, revolutionary banners hung from all the buildings and from passing lorries full of cheering militia.

After some primitive training and armed with antique rifles without much ammunition, Orwell was despatched to the ‘front’. He sat out the winter in the freezing trenches, opposite Fascist ones 1,000 yards away and, with one or two exceptions, was rarely involved in any fighting. He was at the front for 115 days solidly and eventually given leave to return to Barcelona to meet his wife – who had by this stage also come to Barcelona – in late April.

He was shocked to find the atmosphere of the city completely transformed. The bourgeoisie had emerged from hiding, luxury restaurants had opened up, bootblacks and tipping were again in evidence. More oppressively, though, was the atmosphere of tension and suppressed violence. In his absence the relatively small Spanish communist party had lost no time imposing its influence on the central government and in all the republican areas. they were able to do this because Stalin was now the only outside power supplying the government with arms and ammunition. And with advisors. Not only military advisors but political advisors who, not surprisingly, advised the government that they could never win with a hodge-podge of voluntary militias raised from a kaleidoscope of different unions and parties. All of them must come under one central dominant control – Comrade Stalin said so.

From the start the republican side was riven by factions and feuds. the Civil Guard, who continued to police the republican areas, had long been the traditional enemy of the working class. The republican government was an uneasy alliance of anarchists, socialists and communists. In Catalonia especially, the working class was represented by anarchist trade unions who advocated the worker takeover of the means of production and distribution, but via decentralised federations – the opposite of the centralised Stalinist model.

If Stalin, through his commissars and advisors was just imposing one model instead of another it would have been one thing. But there was worse. Stalin, looking at the map of Europe, with a central band of antagonistic Fascist powers, and Spain now at risk of going Fascist, realised that he must make allies with the French and, hopefully, with the more reluctant British. If war was to break out he desperately needed all the allies he could get. But what would scare Briain and France away from him and into the arms of the anti-Bolshevik Fascists faster than anything else? A full-scale workers revolution in Spain. Therefore, Stalin instructed his advisors and commissars, as they infiltrated themselves further into government departments and into every level of the republican administration – to repress the genuinely revolutionary instincts and achievements of the anarchists and the other non-Stalinist communist parties.

It was this rolling back of the revolution, and the slow insidious propaganda which criticised and blamed the anarchists for every military defeat – in other words, the same techniques of insulting, vilifying and outlawing your opponents that Stalin was using at the very same time in Russia – that Orwell got back from the trenches to find being used in Barcelona. Nobody knew who would attack whom first but the atmosphere was heavy with violence.

The May fighting

On 3 May Orwell was crossing the foyer of his hotel when a friend told him ‘it’ had started. the Catalan government had sent Civil Guards to take control of the Telephone Exchange in the Plaza de Cataluna, and the anarchists who controlled it had fired back. I looked long and hard in the modern-day Catalonia Square but couldn’t identify the Telephone Exchange.

That afternoon, between three and four, I was half-way down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side – street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower – a church, I think – that commanded the side-street.

I’m not sure but this church, Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, is half way down the Ramblas, has an octagonal tower and is opposite an alley running off the other side of the Ramplas.

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Then:

At this moment an American doctor who had been with us at the front ran up to me and grabbed me by the arm. He was greatly excited. ‘Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcon.’ (The Hotel Falcon was a sort of boarding-house maintained by the P.O.U.M. and used chiefly by militiamen on leave.) ‘The P.O.U.M. chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.’

The Hotel Falcon is down towards the sea end of the Ramblas. It is now a library, named after the anarchist leader Andreu Nin.

Biblioteca Gòtic - Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Biblioteca Gòtic – Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Here’s the precise Google maps location.

With some kind of historical irony, I found three or four derelicts sleeping in the ground floor window alcoves, while the hordes of rich tourists hurried by on their way top spend money at the monster shopping centre on the seafront.

Orwell went across the Ramblas to the building opposite, a disused cabaret theatre which had been taken over by the POUM. He spent hours with a colleague exploring it and also looking for arms, eventually spending the night there rolled up in a curtain he tore down for the purpose. The building is still there and is now the Teatre Principal. 

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Next morning POUM and their associated trade union, the CNT, start building barricades outside the Hotel Falcon and the theatre. Orwell nips up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where his wife is staying, dropping in on the moasly closed market to buy some cheese. This covered market is very much still there and very popular with tourists.

Orwell then walked a hundred yards or so to the POUM Executive Building. This is now the Hotel Rivoli at number 128 Ramblas. He’s inside when he hears firing nearby and discovers that the Café Moka next door had been seized the day before by 20 or 30 Civil Guards.

Next door to the P.O.U.M. building there was a cafe with a hotel above it, called the Cafe Moka. The day before twenty or thirty armed Civil Guards had entered the cafe and then, when the fighting started, had suddenly seized the building and barricaded themselves in. Presumably they had been ordered to seize the cafe as a preliminary to attacking the P.O.U.M. offices later. Early in the morning they had attempted to come out, shots had been exchanged, and one Shock Trooper was badly wounded and a Civil Guard killed. The Civil Guards had fled back into the cafe…

But when an American tourist walked down the street they had opened fire. Both sides now erect barriers outside their buildings and have an armed stand-off. Eventually Orwell’s commandant in the POUM militia, the Belgian George Kopp, bravely organises a truce. Both Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka are still there side by side. It is a little hard to conceive how either side could have built a barricade outside without being riddled with bullets from their opponents.

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

The Cafe Moka, captured by Civil Guards in May 1937.

Naturally they had looted everything drinkable the cafe possessed, and they made Kopp a present of fifteen bottles of beer. In return Kopp had actually given them one of our rifles to make up for one they had somehow lost on the previous day.

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Immediately opposite there was a cinematograph, called the Poliorama, with a museum above it, and at the top, high above the general level of the roofs, a small observatory with twin domes. The domes commanded the street, and a few men posted up there with rifles could prevent any attack on the P.O.U.M. buildings. The caretakers at the cinema were C.N.T. members and would let us come and go… There were generally about six of us up there. We placed a man on guard in each of the observatory towers, and the rest of us sat on the lead roof below, where there was no cover except a stone palisade.

This building is still there, along with its two domes. Difficult imagining being up there with a couple of comrades and some rifles, ready to snipe at any Civil Guards who fire at you.

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

By the Thursday the Catalan government – the Generalite – was trying top patch things up. Nobody wanted a civil war within a civil war. The CNT and POUM wanted the Civil Guard to retreat from the Plaza de Catalunia and lay down their weapons. Their newspaper advised peace and taking down the barricades. Orwell’s mood going into that Thursday night was one of frustration, disgust and extreme hunger. On the Friday the barricades began to be dismantled,. the Civil Guards in the cafe Moka came out to sit in the sunshine dandling their rifles on their knees.

Peace had sort of broken out. That night the city was flooded by Assault Guards who were meant to be a neutral force between the anarchists and the Civil Guards, and the next day they are patrolling the city in squads, reassuring the population and all the political factions. Orwell is most impressed by their shiny new rifles, far better than anything he or his comrades have at the front. The May fighting had profound consequences. it marked the triumph of the central government – backed up by Stalin’s communists – over the truly revolutionary forces of the POUM and its trade union, the CNT.

The Barcelona fighting had given the Valencia Government the long — wanted excuse to assume fuller control of Catalonia. The workers’ militias were to be broken’ up and redistributed among the Popular Army. The Spanish Republican flag was flying all over Barcelona — the first time I had seen it, I think, except over a Fascist trench. In the working-class quarters the barricades were being pulled down, rather fragmentarily, for it is a lot easier to build a barricade than to put the stones back. Outside the P.S.U.C. buildings the barricades were allowed to remain standing, and indeed many were standing as late as June. The Civil Guards were still occupying strategic points. Huge seizures of arms were being made from C.N.T. strongholds, though I have no doubt a good many escaped seizure. La Batalla was still appearing, but it was censored until the front page was almost completely blank. The P.S.U.C. papers were un-censored and were publishing inflammatory articles demanding the suppression of the P.O.U.M. The P.O.U.M. was declared to be a disguised Fascist organization, and a cartoon representing the P.O.U.M. as a figure slipping off” a mask marked with the hammer and sickle and revealing a hideous, maniacal face marked with the swastika, was being circulated all over the town by P.S.U.C. agents. Evidently the official version of the Barcelona fighting was already fixed upon: it was to be represented as a ‘fifth column’ Fascist rising engineered solely by the P.O.U.M.

From now on the POUM would be blamed for everything, for every military failure and political setback. He heard stories of POUM officials being snatched in midnight raids, of secret prisons being created and quickly filling up with ‘Fascist saboteurs’. Orwell returned reluctantly to the front, but was wounded four weeks later, shot in the throat. He was treated at several hospitals before finally being returned to Barcelona in mid-June and being reunited with his distraught wife.

After only a few days they were both horrified when the logic of the May Fighting came to its logical conclusion and on 16 June 1937 the POUM was banned for being a traitorous organisation. Orwell has to go on the run, sleeping rough at nights and hanging out in obscure parts of town by day, until his wife can make the arrangements to have them both smuggled across the border into France. His brave commander, Kopp, was in prison. Andreu Nin and almost the entire POUM leadership was arrested and tortured. Nin was executed.

As soon as he was back in England Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia, the eye-witness account of his experiences at white-hot speed. It was published in April 1938 and was a commercial flop. More than that, it was solidly attacked in Britain’s communist-sympathetic press for defending ‘Trotskyite saboteurs’ etc etc.

The entire experience opened Orwell’s eyes about a) the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism; it made him realise it was just a national totalitarian party which used the communist parties of other countries simply as extensions of its entirely self-interested foreign policy. And b) it showed him at close quarters how political and military events could be completely distorted and ‘history’ rewritten to suit the interests of a totalitarian government which controlled all the organs of communication.

This, of course, was to be Orwell’s most central theme in the war years and afterwards, finding its apotheosis in the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Away from the Ramblas, which is where Orwell’s eye-witness account of the May Fighting mostly takes place, there is a sweet little square in Barcelona named after him

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell

It is home to vegetarian restaurants, bars and boutiques. the bar which we ate at had an Orwell-themed menu with 1984 pizza and an Animal Farm fry-up. I modestly suggested that they should add Victory Gin to their menu.

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

Orwell wrote hundreds of essays, reviews and articles which, since his death in 1950, have been repackaged in a number of formats. This selection dates from 1957 and contains some of his greatest hits. It’s notable that most of these come from the war years. By this stage, after a decade of writing so-so novels and the three great works of reportage (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia) he had found his voice and writing style – a frank, common sense left-wing persona conveyed in attractively straightforward prose.

Orwell wrote a staggering number of book reviews, theatre reviews, film reviews, as well as a large number of opinion pieces, besides his long works of reportage and the novels. For decades after his premature death in 1950 various selections of these essays have been gathered. When I was a boy in the 1970s Penguin published four volumes of the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, comprising:

  • Volume 1: An Age Like This, 1920-1940
  • Volume 2: My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943
  • Volume 3: As I Please, 1943-1945
  • Volume 4: In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950

They seemed expensive (and big) to me at the time so I never bought them which I now regret. Penguin also offered two shorter paperback collections, Inside The Whale and Other Essays and The Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays.

In the 1990s all these collections were rendered obsolete by the publication of the heroic lifework of Orwell scholar Peter Davison – no fewer than 20 volumes of the Complete Works of George Orwell. The first ten or so contain the novels and other book-length works – the remaining 10 volumes collect not only every known essay, but all the poems, all the letters and all the diary entries for each of the two or three-year periods they cover. If you have these books, you have everything. And each one is around 600 pages long. Orwell wrote a lot.

Inside the Whale is a much shorter, simpler selection of just nine essays which was originally published in 1957 and reissued by Penguin in 1962, a nifty 200 pages long.

It contains excerpts from two longer works – from the documentary reportage The Road To Wigan Pier and the political tract The Lion and The Unicorn – along with seven other stand-alone essays, as follows:

Inside the Whale

This is a long review of the novel Tropic of Cancer, published in 1935 the by American writer Henry Miller. It’s the largely autobiographical ‘story’ of a penniless American author in Paris, living from hand to mouth in a milieu of brothels, cheap bars and other cadgers and chancers. It was banned when Orwell reviewed it because its pages are stuffed with (then banned) swearwords as well as obscenely graphic descriptions of sex. Surprisingly, the highly political Orwell declares the irresponsibly hedonist Tropic of Cancer an important book which everyone should read. In order to explain why, Orwell has to step back and give a brief overview of the development of English literature in the previous 40 years or so.

First the Edwardian era, which he sees as being dominated by ‘beer-and-nature’ writers, the Georgian poets, John Masefield, Edward Thomas and so on. (Orwell gives no sociological explanation for this ‘movement’, though my understanding is that the trend towards English nature writing in the first decade of the 20th century was a backlash against the very urban decadence, the Yellow Book atmosphere and the Oscar Wilde trial of the 1890s.) As his exemplar Orwell gives a long summary of the timeless appeal of the Shropshire Lad poems of A.E. Housman.

Post Great War, Orwell here – as in many places – emphasises the extraordinary bitterness between the generations, the older generation still puffing on about Empire and honour, the younger generation bitterly disillusioned by what they’d seen. The movement’ of the 1920s consisted of startling individuals – Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham, Lewis, Aldous Huxley. If one thing characterised this disparate group it was pessimism combined with highly experimental technique – itself a sort of embodiment of the collapse of traditional forms.

They dominated the 1920s. Then, very abruptly, after the Wall Street Crash, there emerged a completely new generation of young poets and novelists, dominated by the energetic socially conscious poetry of W.H. Auden. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, all close friends who reviewed each other’s works, the Auden gang reverted to traditional forms, easily understandable diction, and the conviction that literature must be engaged and purposeful – they were all left-wing and some toyed with communist beliefs.

This sweeping overview of the literary scene is firm, confident and helps you grasp the basic outline of the decades since 1900 – but it also leaves you, as with so much Orwell, with the feeling that he’s simplifying things and leaving things out. You don’t have to be a feminist to feel he’s left out any women writers, chief of whom should be Virginia Woolf. And he mentions other Edwardian writers – Moore, Conrad, Bennett, Wells, Norman Douglas – simply to say they’d shot their bolt before the war began. Probably. And doesn’t mention Rudyard Kipling whose personality – from everything I read – dominated the Edwardian era. Or John Galsworthy who was writing his long series The Forsyte Saga from 1906 onwards, and was so esteemed as a writer that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Anyway, having given an entertaining caricature of the literature of the 1920s and 30s Orwell gets back to the point. He confidently states that the coming war will tear to pieces western civilisation. This is a feeling which dominates his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air. But it is not just the war that worries him, it is what will happen after the war, which he fears will see a revolution and maybe the advent of some kind of totalitarian society. This fear is based on the existence of totalitarian states in Russia and Germany, the feeling that many aspects of a mechanised society call for strong centralised authority, and the tendencies he sees around him in contemporary England. In this scenario, it is unlikely that the ‘liberal’ literature of his day will survive.

Back to the Miller novel: Orwell praises Tropic of Cancer because it honestly describes the squalid everyday thoughts in most people’s head, the everyday worries and fidgets, without any glamour, without any political purpose. Its protagonist spends his time cadging money, getting drunk, smoking fags, scrounging for food. Thus the novel stands completely outside the trend for highly politicised poems and novels of the 1930s, even in America it stands apart from the politicised novels of John Dos Passos and so on. It comes from a writer who accepts that civilisation is ending and doesn’t care. Acceptance of life as it is for most people – dirty, cheap, sordid, sex, defecating, scrounging money, setting people up – this is the everyday concern of his ‘hero’, and screw the rest.

Orwell then pauses his analysis to invoke the Bible story of Jonah in the whale (it isn’t a whale in the Bible, it is simply referred to as a fish). In Orwell’s reading this legend is so popular because the whale represents the womb. Maybe this is why the story has such a fairy tale feel and has endured so long, stripped of all religious meaning. It is a symbol of the womb, safe and warm and secure.

Bringing all these strands together, Orwell concludes that Miller is inside the whale – he accepts the decline and fall of the West and he doesn’t give a damn, he just describes life the way it is experienced by millions of average non-intellectual people. In its lack of highbrow content, in its lack of political engagement, in its lack of liberal worry and concern, in its avoidance of everything which obsesses the ‘responsible’ literature of the 1930s, Tropic of Cancer may well be, says Orwell, a harbinger of the literature of the future. A novel of proletarian acceptance and passivity.

Thoughts Orwell’s sweeping generalisations about the Modernist generation and then about the Auden generation are confident and compelling and contain loads of insights. But the fundamental premise of this and so much of Orwell’s writing – that western capitalism is crumbling before our eyes, that it is finished, that it must and will be overthrown and replaced with some form of socialism – turned out to be deeply and profoundly untrue. Sure the post-war Attlee government nationalised medicine and other key industries, but after six exhausting years the British people threw them out and elected the usual parade of public schoolboys. The banks weren’t nationalised. The Stock Exchange stands where it’s always been. All the public schools remained, churning out pukka chaps to run government, ministries, the army and the British Empire for another generation.

Orwell’s comments and insights into contemporary writers have a kind of sixth-form brilliance but tend to remind you of what you already knew; or, on closer examination, turn out to gloss over all kinds of exceptions and complexities (all the writers he leaves out in order to make his generational point); or are telling enough, but belong to the world of 80 years ago, a world as remote, to all practical purposes as Dickens’s London.

Down the Mine (1937)

This is an excerpt from chapter two of Orwell’s 1937 work of reportage, The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he summarises the experience of going down a coalmine, the collation of Orwell’s visits to three different northern coalmines in February 1937.

The whole chapter opens with a typically ringing Orwell statement –

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.

None of this is true any more. Our civilisation is built on oil, extracted and refined in faraway countries, notably the Middle East where we are doomed to be embroiled for the foreseeable future.

Hard and grim reading though the chapter is, it is of purely historical interest, like a description of a Victorian cotton factory, or of life in the trenches, or onboard a slave ship.

England Your England (1941)

This is section one of the long political essay The Lion and The Unicorn, which Orwell wrote as the Second World War got underway and which was published in 1941. The aim of the book was to show that a socialist revolution was not only an option but vital to winning the war because Hitler and Stalin’s totalitarianisms had shown how effective strong, centrally planned economies are at waging war – the only hope for Britain to fight back was for us also to create a strong centrally planned economy and the only way that could happen was if there was some kind of socialist revolution.

Here, as in all his predictions, Orwell was dead wrong. Sure, production in a whole range of British industries was redirected by the wartime coalition into a centrally co-ordinated war effort. But it was all done without the government actually taking over any of these concerns and it was all done under a profoundly reactionary Conservative Prime Minister.

These political ideas are argued through in parts two and three of the essay and their demonstrable falseness is part of the reason they are rarely reprinted. The aim of part one was to establish the nature of the English character as a starting block before going on to explain why the English revolution would take place with English characteristics.

These thirty or so pages are, then, a preliminary to the book’s central argument and consist of a loving and nostalgic summary of all aspects of the English character. It is a very forgiving portrait. The main drift is that, although Orwell claims the law is rotten and ‘democracy’ is a sham and capitalism is coming to an end – in fact, when you look at it, the law is not completely – not as corrupt as in a dictatorship; in fact the law still plays a central life of even the lowest crook – a sharp contrast with the totalitarian states where there is, in effect, no law.

Similarly, he repeats the standard left-wing view that the newspapers are the voice-pieces for their capitalist owners, but he is forced to admit that they don’t actually take bribes. He contrasts the relative honesty of serious English newspapers with the French press, which he says was openly bought and sold in the 1930s.

The standout passages are where Orwell lauds numerous aspects of English culture in a fondly critical way – our philistinism, lack of philosophical thought, our poor records in the arts (especially music), the refusal of the English to learn other languages, our fondness for hobbies especially gardening, and so on. Though hedged with barbs and criticisms, this long essay is in effect a wide-ranging and forcefully expressed love letter to England and that is why it has proved so popular.

Late in the essay he develops a theory about why England’s recent leaders have been so rubbish – the English upper classes have simply refused to see that times have changed: if they did they would realise that they have to change too; they would realise the social and economic conditions which supported a landed aristocracy in the 1850s or 60s have simply ceased to exist.

Instead the English ruling class retreated into stupidity, the stupidity of the upper class idiots who ran the First World War, the captains of industry who didn’t know how to modernise in the 1920s, the buffoons who let the largest empire the world has ever seen drift rudderless between the wars, and the half-treacherous politicians who prostrated themselves before Hitler. Chaps like Lord Halifax (Eton and Oxford) or Neville Chamberlain (Rugby) didn’t know what to do with Hitler because he wasn’t a chap from a nice public school like them. He represented the revolutionary aspects of the modern world which were precisely what the English upper classes had taught themselves not to acknowledge or understand.

This is plausible and darkly funny; like so much of Orwell’s essays it contains dazzling generalisations, biting criticism and an underlying current of ironic amusement. But, of course, every single one of its modern readers reads it with a condescending smile. Nobody alive today identifies with this poncey upper class. Like so much satire, nobody applies it to themselves.

Thus, the essay’s barbs about the English character can be shrugged aside by most readers: as the political analysis a) doesn’t apply to me b) was all 80 years ago — all that remains is the love letter – and hence its enduring popularity among nostalgic readers of all stripes.

Shooting an Elephant (1936)

A short account of an incident during Orwell’s time as an officer in the Indian Police stationed in Burma. An elephant goes rogue, rampaging through the market and killing a native. Orwell is compelled to do something and sends for a rifle to protect himself. But his presence, and even more the arrival of the gun, help draw a huge crowd and then create an enormous sense of expectation.

And all of a sudden Orwell feels a fool and a fake. Thousands of natives are watching him expecting him to do something decisive. And Orwell feels as never before that the imperialist, the sahib, is compelled into this absurd role.

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at. (p.96)

So, despite not wanting to do it with every nerve in his body, Orwell ends up shooting the elephant so as not to be ridiculed, to keep the British end up, to play the good sahib. What makes it infinitely worse is that the elephant proves horribly resilient and even after Orwell has emptied the rifle into it, plus a load of revolver bullets, still takes half an hour to painfully die.

Leaving Orwell revolted with himself, his cowardice and the absurd system which placed him in such a ridiculous situation.

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947)

Towards the end of his life, in 1903 the famous Russian novelist and spiritual writer Leo Tolstoy wrote an essay summarising a lifelong dislike for Shakespeare. (Like so many writers and critics he doesn’t let it lie with a personal dislike, but goes on to assert why everyone must dislike Shakespeare, because he is naturally bad. In fact he calls Shakespeare evil.)

Orwell is struck by the way Tolstoy singles out King Lear as the focus of his attack, giving a misleading and crude summary of the plot in order to support his claims that Lear – and Shakespeare – are

stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.

Psychological Orwell draws attention to the parallels between Lear and Tolstoy himself who, famously, gave away his land, money, the copyrights in his writings and tried to get closer to God by living the simple life of a peasant. In the event, his renunciation didn’t bring him freedom as he continued to be harried and nagged by those around him to carry out his duties (and keep his money). Shakespeare’s play is remarkably similar in outline, describing King Lear’s attempt to give away his royal power which leads to humiliation and degradation – rubbed home by various other characters in the play, not least the Fool. Lear’s story, in other words, tends to undermine the central moral act of Tolstoy’s life: it attacks Tolstoy at his most sensitive spot.

(This is an unusually psychological approach for Orwell, whose criticism is usually characterised by a political, semi-Marxist approach i.e. the importance of economics and class as determining factors in an author’s work).

The Christian versus humanist worldview The essay goes on to draw a general contrast between Tolstoy’s born-again Christian viewpoint and Shakespeare’s broad humanism. After his conversion Tolstoy thought that he (and all mankind) ought to narrow down their lives to the single aim of striving to live the good, holy life of simplicity and devotion to God.

His [Tolstoy’s] main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One’s interests, one’s points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of language. (p.109)

His later writings in this vein amount to a kind of ‘spiritual bullying’.

Shakespeare, by contrast, is fascinated by the teeming profusion of life. Shakespeare may or may not have been a Christian – it’s impossible to tell from either the plays or the Sonnets – but his writing is characterised by an astonishing curiosity about all aspects of human life and experience expressed in a fantastic profusion of language.

If one has once read Shakespeare with attention, it is not easy to go a day without quoting him, because there are not many subjects of major importance that he does not discuss or at least mention somewhere or other, in his unsystematic but illuminating way. Even the irrelevancies that litter every one of his plays – the puns and riddles, the lists of names, the scraps of ‘reportage’ like the conversation of the carriers in Henry IV the bawdy jokes, the rescued fragments of forgotten ballads – are merely the products of excessive vitality.

The clash between Shakespeare’s worldly profusion, its ‘irreligious, earthbound nature’ and Tolstoy’s vehement rejection of the world – this world against the next – is the eternal clash between the religious worldview and the humanist worldview.

Orwell finishes with some sentiments which anticipate Nineteen Eighty-Four – that it wasn’t enough for Tolstoy to dislike Shakespeare; he had to concoct the most powerful case possible against him, he had to get inside the minds of Shakespeare devotees and do as much damage to him as possible.

He will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including—as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet—arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest. (p.119)

Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels (1946)

This is a fascinating essay flowing with insights into Swift’s politics and personality as revealed by a close reading of Gulliver’s Travels. There is no doubt Swift was a reactionary and a misanthrope, but Orwell has found himself coming back to Gullivers Travels again and again, and partly the essay is an exploration of why he is so beguiled by an author who, on paper, he ought to disagree with.

For a start Orwell identifies Swift as a religious reactionary, and defines the type as:

people who defend an unjust order of Society by claiming that this world cannot be substantially improved and only the ‘next world’ matters.

This arises after a lengthy consideration of Swift’s dislike of the contemporary world of his day (the early 1700s), his contempt for contemporary politicians and his especial hatred of ‘science’ which he regards as completely useless.

Orwell entertainingly points out the similarity between Swift’s anti-science and the attitude of religious writers of the 1940s. A tactic of religious writers through the ages is to say that experts in other (scientific) fields shouldn’t meddle in theology e.g. Richard Dawkins may know all about evolution but his views on religion are worthless; he shouldn’t meddle in areas where he isn’t an expert. Orwell brings out the implication of this line of argument which is that the ‘theology’ which religious writers practice and preach is as solidly factual and undisputed as, say, chemistry or physics – when it very obviously isn’t.

This, Orwell comments, is:

the note of the popular Catholic apologists who profess to be astonished when a scientist utters an opinion on such questions as the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. The scientist, we are told, is an expert only in one restricted field: why should his opinions be of value in any other? The implication is that theology is just as much an exact science as, for instance, chemistry, and that the priest is also an expert whose conclusions on certain subjects must be accepted.

After many scattered insights into Swift’s personality and writings, this essay – like so many of Orwell’s – veers round to finally focus on Orwell’s Number One Obsession – the totalitarian state. Orwell makes the surprising suggestion that Gulliver’s Travels contains uncanny predictions of the essential qualities of totalitarianism:

Swift’s greatest contribution to political thought in the narrower sense of the words, is his attack, especially in Part III, on what would now be called totalitarianism. He has an extraordinarily clear prevision of the spy-haunted ‘police State’, with its endless heresy-hunts and treason trials, all really designed to neutralize popular discontent by changing it into war hysteria.

In Orwell’s view, Swift anticipated the notion that, in a pacifist or anarchist society, with few if any laws, there is a tyranny of public opinion. Everyone believes X and huge psychological and/or emotional pressure is brought on you to believe X, too. Anyone not believing X hasn’t broken any laws, because there are no laws. He or she is just excommunicated from society. Thus the Houyhnhnms, the horse-like ideal creatures of part IV of Gulliver’s Travels:

had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force.

Finally, Orwell returns to where he started: Why, if Swift’s vision is so nihilistic and reactionary, does he still love him so much? Orwell concludes that even if you profoundly disagree with a writer’s worldview, as long as they are not actually mad, and are capable of continuous i.e coherent thought – then the key criterion is conviction. Conviction and sincerity in a writer can often make the unappealing or antipathetic, strangely powerful and appealing.

His attitude is in effect the Christian attitude, minus the bribe of a ‘next world’ – which, however, probably has less hold upon the minds of believers than the conviction that this world is a vale of tears and the grave is a place of rest. It is, I am certain, a wrong attitude, and one which could have harmful effects upon behaviour; but something in us responds to it, as it responds to the gloomy words of the burial service and the sweetish smell of corpses in a country church…

The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction. Swift did not possess ordinary wisdom, but he did possess a terrible intensity of vision, capable of picking out a single hidden truth and then magnifying it and distorting it.

Having just read Peter Davison’s selection of Orwell’s journalism, Seeing Things As They Are, I know that this is a criterion Orwell returns to again and again – personal conviction is the fundamental bedrock of a ‘good’ writer: even if you completely disagree with their worldview or politics, the sincerity of their writings can still win your admiration.

Politics and the English Language (1946)

Orwell starts from the premise that western civilisation is going down the tube and part of that decadence is the decline of the English language. Well, that was eighty years ago and we’re still here and managing to write books and talk to each other. A certain type of person is always lamenting the death of English, conservatives with a small c.

Orwell gives five examples of terrible writing from his day, and then gives a handy list of the bad techniques they use:

  1. Dying metaphors. New metaphors make us see the world anew, but dead metaphors give the impression of imagination or perceptiveness while in fact remaining inert.
  2. Operators or verbal false limbs: replacing simple verbs with verb phrases such as ‘render inoperative’, ‘militate against’, ‘prove unacceptable’, ‘make contact with’, ‘be subjected to’ and so on. In addition, the number of verbs is being reduced – by using the passive over the active voice, using noun constructions instead of gerunds (‘by examination of’ instead of ‘by examining’ – sounds more scientific) and so on. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as ‘with respect to’, ‘having regard to’, ‘the fact that’, ‘in view of’ etc. The ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by resounding commonplaces like ‘greatly to be desired’, ‘cannot be left out of account’. In our own time I reach for my gun every time someone says ‘going forward’.
  3. Pretentious diction:
    1. Verbs like ‘exploit’, ‘utilize’, ‘eliminate’ are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.
    2. Adjectives like ‘epoch-making’, ‘historic’, ‘triumphant’ are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics.
    3. Foreign words and expressions such as ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, are used to give an air of culture and elegance.
  4. Meaningless words: Orwell singles out art criticism for its vague emptiness, but also key political terms which have become almost meaningless, like ‘fascist’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’.

These trends can be summarised.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. (p.150)

People use longer words and ready-made phrases because they sound grand. Also you don’t have to think about them so much. Modern discourse is full of identikit elements. Modern

prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. (p.145)

The more examples he gives us the more it becomes clear Orwell’s critique is targeted mainly at the grandiose verbosity of the Soviet Union and its communist defenders in the West – with some side dishes knocking the mealy-mouthed euphemisms used to conceal the brutality of the British Empire or – a new appearance in his list of enemies – the American use of atomic bombs on Japan.

Then he gives us his set of six rules which will help us purify our writing style and our thinking:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Comments As usual with Orwell you get the feeling that he is an amateur trespassing into a vast and specialised field: linguistics, psychology, brain science, communication theory and much more have grown up since his day. It may be true that bad style corrupts language and that this damages thought, but it is a typically sweeping generalisation that actually raises far more issues than it settles.

Although the article starts out appearing to be about language in general, it soon becomes clear that Orwell is thinking of political journalism, reporting and speech-making and, even more specifically, is criticising the obfuscations of the hard-left defenders of the Soviet Union in particular.

His claim is that most contemporary political discourse is designed to hide things.

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

I’m not saying this isn’t true, just wondering when it has ever not been true? Political speeches and writings of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, were they all better expressed and therefore more honest? As usual, Orwell’s points are interesting, thought-provoking and forcefully expressed – but leave you suspecting they are a gross simplification of extremely complex ideas and issues.

The Prevention of Literature (1946)

Like so many of Orwell’s later essays, this reads like a kind of offcut from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell attends a meeting of P.E.N. ostensibly devoted to ‘freedom of the press’ but is appalled at the mealy-mouthed lack of conviction among the speakers. Indeed he is disgusted to find so many British ‘intellectuals’ defending the USSR and Stalinist communism.

This begins his argument with the proposition that imaginative literature needs to rebel, to be heterodox, to say no to authority.

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (p.168)

But instead of speaking truth to power, a worrying number of the intellectuals he sees around him censor themselves, refusing to tell the truth about the Spanish Civil War (Stalin’s communist party sabotaged the republican side), Russia’s treatment of Poland (Stalin deliberately tried to exterminate its intelligentsia) the Ukraine famine (millions died as a result of Stalin’s obsession with ‘collectivising’ agriculture) and so on.

This leads him to a consideration of how a totalitarian state requires not just total submission in the present, but requires that the past lines up to support the present ‘line’. And this leads to a paragraph which could have come straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth. (p.164)

Exactly the situation described in the novel. This leads him on to even wilder speculation about what might be the fate of ‘literature’ in a state which was truly totalitarian over many generations. It would eventually be created by committee, or even by machines, to fulfil the iron requirements of ideology.

It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced, if literature were still felt to be necessary. Imagination — even consciousness, so far as possible — would be eliminated from the process of writing. Books would be planned in their broad lines by bureaucrats, and would pass through so many hands that when finished they would be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line. It goes without saying that anything so produced would be rubbish; but anything that was not rubbish would endanger the structure of the state. As for the surviving literature of the past, it would have to be suppressed or at least elaborately rewritten. (p.172)

Already, he says with a ghoulish shiver, modern films, radio programmes and the newfangled television are being produced by such committees – and gives the terrifying example of the Disney films.

A sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. (p.171)

Yes. Bambi (1942) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – terrifying harbingers of a totalitarian future 🙂

In Orwell’s later essays there are countless stretches which remind you of Nineteen Eighty-Four and if you read Nineteen Eighty-Four there are countless passages which remind you of passages in the essays: between the two they build up into a stiflingly self-reinforcing universe, a bubble of Orwell’s paranoid obsessions. The essay ends with a characteristically spine-chilling note of doom:

At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact – and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial – is, in effect, demanding his own destruction. (p.174)

He makes it sound as if the entire class of contemporary writers is rushing pell-mell into self-created gulags – and yet who were the authors of the 1930s?

Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Robert Graves, T.H. White, Virginia Woolf, Stella Gibbons, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Willie Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell and many others. None of them seem quite so terrified of the present or future as Orwell. All of them got on with writing novels for the most part untouched by the claustrophobic throbbing of Orwell’s feverish fantasies.

Boys’ Weeklies (1940)

Orwell in English nostalgia mode gives a surprisingly long and thorough review of the boys’ comics of his day which, seeing as many of them had been going for decades, were also the comics of his own boyhood. Some of the ones he mentions – Hotspur and Wizard – were (I think) still going when I was a boy in the 1960s. There are roughly two types, those for 12 and 13 year-olds, and those for slightly older boys.

He lingers longest over Gem and Magnet, which both contain stories set in public school and featuring stereotype characters (school hero, school bully, school swot, Indian rajah’s son). He repeats three of four times the idea that these stories contain no reference to the real contemporary world – the slump, unemployment, strikes, trade unions, the Russian Revolution, Hitler or Fascism.

He then points out that all these comics are published by big publishing combines which also include, for example, The Times and The Daily Telegraph – right-wing publishers, in other words.

And he concludes his syllogism by concluding that these comics probably play a larger part in forming the mentality and attitudes of boys than people like to admit. And their influence is overwhelmingly on the side of the status quo – supporting the British Empire, dismissing foreigners as ludicrous, ignoring all the social issues of the day which threaten to undermine the current (capitalist) system.

a) I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing this was quite a pioneering essay, to give such length and analysis to twopenny comics. I shouldn’t be surprised if this kind of thing is used to position Orwell as godfather to modern media studies, semiology and so on.
b) Like a lot of media studies it seems grindingly obvious and trite, alongside other shock-horror revelations such as that adverts are designed to manipulate their audiences, Hollywood happy endings ignore the complex realities of life, the news in papers or on TV is actually manufactured – chosen and written and presented from artificial, non-neutral points of view. Golly.

The essay seems to me a long exercise in English nostalgia which I think is Orwell’s predominant mood or feeling. He is not very optimistic about the future and so doesn’t give you the kind of socialist uplift his ostensibly left-wing views might suggest. Instead, like his novels, many of his essays give the impression of being horrified by the modern world and wishing, at numerous levels, to be able to go back to simpler, more bucolic Edwardian times.

Founding text of media studies it may or may not be – but it is certainly of a piece with the man who wrote the long love letter to the English character excerpted above, England Your England.

Conclusion

Many of the essays are now so dated that they are period pieces, but I think the forthright, confident and very persuasive style of Orwell’s essays deludes many of his fans into thinking they have more contemporary relevance than they actually do.

Far from being political analyses which we can apply to our own situation, now, in 2017, most of these essays evince a strong nostalgia for a lost Edwardian England, of boys’ comics and maiden aunts cycling to church, of common decency and the rule of law.

In turn they themselves are objects of our own nostalgia for the 1930s – nostalgia for a period when political issues seemed to be much clearer and unmistakable, when the plight of coal miners was an obvious scandal, when the threat from Hitler was real and apparent, when intellectual life seemed much simpler. And also for the rather stylised picture he paints of the 1930s, for for the quaint world of pigeon fancying, stamp collecting and all the other aspects of ‘the English character’ which Orwell so lovingly describes in England your England – for the gentleness and above all the decency Orwell which repeatedly singles out as the main quality of English life.

And then I think there is a kind of nostalgia for the figure of Orwell himself, for the persona he crafted, for the plain-speaking chap who could tackle a wide variety of subjects in clear, informative prose without any special philosophical or economic understanding, who wrote about literature without invoking any literary or cultural theory – an honest plain straightforward decent man speaking to plain decent readers. How we wish we lived in that world.

But I’m afraid I think it is a world that never was. It is a world conjured up by Orwell’s mastery of rhetoric, a world powered by the rather compelling generalisations he makes and the confident assertions, the broad brush approach to history or society which persuades you you’re in the presence of a man who really understands what’s going on and is really telling it like it is.

The trouble is that, beneath the straight-talking manly prose and the often sweeping generalisations – when the dust dies down – the take-home messages of many of these essays are not that shattering: ideas like, political language ought to be clearer so politicians so politicians can’t get away with lying, or that Shakespeare was a humanist which is why the religious fanatic Tolstoy hated him; that the British Empire was a hollow charade which enforced ghastly conformity from its sahibs, or that totalitarianism will always crush the imaginative writer.

Orwell is never less than interesting and is always highly readable – but a couple of hours later I often have trouble remembering what any particular one of the essays is actually about.


Credit

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell was published as Selected Essays in 1957 and republished with its current title in 1962. All references are to the 1975 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
2014 – Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell

For Then, For Now, For Ever: 100 Years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission @ Brookwood Military Cemetery

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) commemorates the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. Their cemeteries, burial plots and memorials are a lasting tribute to those who died in some 154 countries across the world. The CWGC register records details of the Commonwealth war dead so that graves or names on memorials can be located. In the UK no fewer than 300,000 war dead are commemorated, some as names listed on large memorials, but more than 170,000 have known and marked graves in 12,500 locations around the UK.

A small but fascinating and moving exhibition marking the centenary of the CWGC is currently being held at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, the largest CWGC site in the UK with more than 5,000 burials and 3,500 commemorations.

The military cemetery is located within the larger civilian Brookwood Cemetery between Woking and Farnborough. You can drive there but it’s also directly accessible from Brookwood train station on the Waterloo to Basingstoke line. You simply go down some steps from the platform and through a gate into the huge public cemetery.

To get to the military section, bear immediately right and walk along a single track tarmac road with views down onto the general (public) cemetery, until you reach a gate into the fenced-off military section

Brookwood Military Cemetery

Brookwood Military Cemetery

The exhibition is being staged in the Canadian Records Building at the western part of the cemetery, nearest the entrance from the main road. It is small, contained in just one room, and consists of twelve factual panels looking at different aspects of the history, plus a video, architectural designs, a display case of books and documents, and a map of the world highlighting just how global the Commission’s work is.

Installation view of the For Then, For Now, For Ever exhibition

Installation view of the For Then, For Now, For Ever exhibition

Sir Fabian Ware volunteered to fight in the Great War but being in his 40s, was considered too old to fight so he served in the Ambulance Corps on the Western Front. He was dismayed to see so many corpses and body parts being buried randomly without any organisation. It seemed to him that each body deserved respect, and that family members back home would desperately want to know the fate and location of their loved ones. He made suggestions to his superiors.

By 1915 his mobile unit was officially recognised and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission. After several further evolutions the Imperial War Graves Commission was given a Royal Charter on 21 May 1917.

Establishing principles of the IWGC

Establishing principles of the IWGC

The IWGC contacted Sir Frederic Kenyon, Director of the British Museum, for his advice, and it was Kenyon’s advice and suggestions which shaped the appearance and design of the graves, memorials and cemeteries. All this was contained in his far-reaching report War Graves: How the cemeteries abroad will be designed.

Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his son in 1916, was asked to be literary advisor and served in that capacity right up till his death in 1936. It was Kipling who suggested many of the phrases used by the IWGC such as ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, ‘Known unto God’ and ‘Their Glory shall not be blotted out’.

Rudyard Kipling's contribution to the IWGC

Rudyard Kipling’s contribution to the IWGC

One of the foremost designers of the early part of the 20th century, Leslie MacDonald Gill, was commissioned by Kenyon to design the lettering and regimental badges on the headstones. His concern for detail included stipulating the angle at which the lettering should be engraved, to make the names easier to read.

Leslie MacDonald Gill and the IWGC

Leslie MacDonald Gill and the IWGC

Sir Edwin Lutyens oversaw the design of more than 250 IWGC cemeteries, but is best known for designing the Cenotaph in central London and the Thiepval Memorial to the missing of the Somme. Sir Reginald Blomfield designed the Cross of Sacrifice which stands in numerous IWGC cemeteries round the world.

The central monuments

The central monuments

More than 500,000 service men and women who died during the First World War have no known grave. The exhibition shows how the idea of memorials for the missing was born and developed. It features the work of Sir Herbert Baker, who designed a number of memorials to the missing in France.

Memorials to the missing

Memorials to the missing

Sir Arthur Hill was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and was asked to be the commission’s horticultural advisor. He recommended the types of flowers, shrubs and trees which would best suit the IWGC’s numerous locations.

Sir Arthur Hill and horticulture

Sir Arthur Hill and horticulture

Once the principles of design and layout were established, they could be extended beyond core European battlefields in France and Belgium to more far-flung locations, such as Greece, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. A leading role was played by Sir John James Burnet who was tasked with designing cemeteries and memorials appropriate to the local conditions.

Beyond the Western Front

Beyond the Western Front

The IWGC had just about completed its enormous task in 1938 when, with horrible irony, another world war broke out the following year. Due to intensive bombing many more civilians died than in previous conflicts and the IWGC expanded its remit to cover these casualties. The Commission’s staff had to be evacuated from the continental cemeteries many of which were now, once again, in war zones.

IWGC in the Second World War

IWGC in the Second World War

British and Commonwealth casualties in the second war were about half of those in the first, largely because of the nature of the war (i.e there wasn’t the grinding butchery of four years in the trenches) and because the advent of early antibiotics meant fewer soldiers died of infection from wounds. But the IWGC’s work started anew after 1945, and now had to be extended to new theatres of war, in North Africa and the Far East.

A global task

A global task

As Britain divested itself of its empire the Imperial War Graves Commission changed its name to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in March 1960. Its work continues to this day, not only maintaining existing cemeteries, and running an enormous database of wartime casualties (which can be searched online) but supervising the burial of the dead in conflicts which continue to the present day.

This map shows just a handful of the hundreds of cemeteries worldwide which are managed by the CWGC.

Map indicating the global scope of the CWGC's work

Map indicating the global scope of the CWGC’s work

The Brookwood Military Cemetery – and the wider rambling old Victorian public cemetery of which it is only a part – are both well worth a visit. And if you’ve ever thought of going, make a point of going now while this small but fascinating exhibition is open.

Related links

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