To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw (2015)

This is volume seven in the eight-volume Penguin History of Europe and it is very good. It has to cover a lot of ground and Kershaw does it clearly and authoritatively. He does this more by focusing on broad themes and issues, than getting snarled up in details. It is a high-level overview.

Contents

The period

In Kershaw’s opinion the 20th century is characterised by wars, immense wars, and falls naturally into two halves – the period of the two world wars 1914 to 1945, and then the Cold War, 1945 to 1990.

The Cold War will be dealt with in the ninth and final volume of the series. This volume covers the earlier period but Kershaw makes the point that, as the violence and chaos of the Second War continued after its official end, and that it took a few years for its repercussions – and the shape of the post-war world – to fully emerge, so his account ends not on VE or VJ Day 1945, but goes on till 1949, the year the Berlin Airlift ended (12 May) and the Federal Republic of Germany was created (20 September).

The themes

In Kershaw’s view the 20th century to 1949 was characterised by four large themes or issues:

1. An explosion of ethno-racist nationalism

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires both ‘liberated’ a lot of peoples who now set up independent nations (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Turkey) – but also confirmed the trend whereby these new nations defined themselves ethnically.

In the big rambling empires all sorts of religious and ethnic groups may have resented each other, but managed to live alongside each other, in part because they were all subjects of the emperor or sultan. Ethnic nationalism destroyed this tolerance. At a stroke, if you didn’t speak the national language of the national people who the new nation was set up for, you were an outsider and, by implication and sometimes even by law, a second-class citizen. The Jews were outcast everywhere.

2. Bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism

Before he brought America into the war, Woodrow Wilson had declared certain principles, namely that America would be fighting for 1. a peace without conquest (i.e. in the final peace deals, conquerors wouldn’t get to keep the land they’d acquired) and that 2. oppressed peoples would be liberated and given their independence / own nations.

In practice this second one proved tricky because centuries of living under rambling empires had resulted in a tremendous mixing-up of populations. To give an example, a large area in the east of Anatolia was known as Armenia and was the traditional homeland of the Armenian people – but there were large Armenian populations scattered over the rest of the Ottoman Empire, not least in the area known as Cilicia, at the other end of Anatolia from Armenia proper: so what happens to them?

The victors in the war laboured long and hard over complicated treaties (Versailles, Trianon, Saint Germain), drawing lines on maps and creating new nations states. But it proved impossible not to include in almost all of them large ethnic minorities a) who resented not living in their nation b) who were resented by the majority population for not speaking the national language, having the correct type of name or religion.

And impossible not to do this without creating a burning sense of grievance on the part of the nations who lost territory: Germany lost 13% of its pre-war territory and 10% of its population (p.119); Russia lost control of the Baltic states and Finland; Bulgaria also lost some territory, but Hungary lost a whopping 75% of its former pre-WW1 territories so that some three and a half Hungarians found themselves living outside Hungary, many of them in the new enlarged Romania which became nearly twice the size of its 1914 embodiment.

Kershaw gives the chapter where he describes all this the title ‘The Carve-Up’.

3. A prolonged crisis of capitalism, which many thought was terminal, and needed to be replaced by new social structures

The First World War left economic wreckage at every level, from devastated agricultural land through ruined industrial sectors. This was a lot more true in the East where entire regions such as Ukraine, Belarus and Galicia were devastated, than in the relatively static West, where only a relatively small zone about 50 kilometers wide had been devastated by the trench warfare.

At a higher level, all the combatants had had to borrow vast sums to fund their war efforts, and this left many on the brink of bankruptcy. The Western nations had borrowed heavily from the USA. To repay its debt France insisted on huge reparations from Germany. When Germany defaulted on the payments in 1923, France occupied the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, the German government told the workers to go on strike in protest, and the fragile German economy collapsed leading to the famous hyperinflation where you needed a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a cigarette.

This situation was sorted out at an international conference which enacted the Dawes Plan, a simple triangle whereby America lent money to Germany to rebuild her economy, the German government used the tax revenue generated from its growing economy to pay reparations to France, and France used the German reparations to pay back its immense war loans from America and pledged to buy American products.

This elegant plan underpinned the brittle prosperity of the later 1924-29, the Jazz Era, the Roaring Twenties, the Weimar Years. But, as we all know, it collapsed with the 1929 Wall Street Crash which not only led to prolonged Depression in the States, but collapsed the Dawes Plan and plunged Europe into depression, triggering the mounting unemployment and renewed inflation which set the scene for the rise of the Nazis.

Throughout the period, many thinkers and commentators thought the capitalist system was doomed. It seemed to be failing before their eyes, in America, Britain, France and Germany. Many thought Western civilisation could only survive by mutating into new forms, by evolving new social structures.

4. Acute class conflict, given new impetus by the advent of Bolshevik Russia

There had been class-based uprisings and revolutions throughout the 19th century (maybe the brutal Paris Commune is the most extreme and clearly class-based example) and a wealth of thinkers, not only Marx, had analysed the grotesque inequality between the new factory and business owners and the deeply impoverished industrial proletariat as a clash of classes.

But the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia transformed the situation. The Bolshevik regime became a symbol and lightning rod for class antagonisms all round the world. It appeared to offer a real working example of a genuinely alternative social system, one in which the government sequestered all the means of production and distribution and ran them for the good of the entire people, not just a wealthy few.

But it had two baleful consequences:

1. The Russian Revolution split the Left From the establishment of the Communist International (or Comintern) in 1919 until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of the Left in every country in the world would be divided between communist parties taking direct orders from Moscow, and all the other forces of the Left who, quite often, the communists undermined & sabotaged (see the Spanish Civil War). This was a fatal division of the forces opposing the Right and Fascism, which Kershaw describes occurring in country after country across the period.

2. The Russian Revolution was a galvanising force in the rise of the Right Right-wing parties everywhere reached out to the newly-enfranchised masses (all European nations expanded their voting based after the war, for the first time creating really mass democracies), especially the large numbers of middle and lower-middle-class voters, and terrified them with visions of blood-thirsty revolutionaries taking over their town or country, lining all ‘class enemies’ (i.e. them) up against the wall, confiscating their businesses and hard-won savings.

One way of looking at it was that, without the very real existence of the Bolshevik regime, and the threat from growing communist parties in every country in Europe, there would have been no rise of Fascism.

And the closer you were to Bolshevik Russia, the more pressing the conflict seemed – from Poland which was actually invaded by the Red Army in 1920, to countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary where initial dalliances with left-wing governments quickly gave way to right-wing authoritarian governments (the Iron Guard in Romania, the royal authoritarian dictatorship of Tsar Boris III in Bulgaria, the right-wing administration of admiral Miklós Horthy in Hungary).

All exemplified, over a longer timeframe, by the central and most important European state, Germany, whose Weimar regime tried to follow Western norms of governance, but was undermined by the extreme social divisions sparked by recurrent economic crises, by the immense and widespread resentment created by the punitive Versailles Treaty, and by a culture of subversion and street violence which the Right, eventually, was to win.

Conclusion All four elements (nationalism, economic crises, left-wing politics, squabbling over territory) had of course pre-existed all across Europe. But they were driven to new heights of intensity by the First World War and the widespread chaos which followed. And then combined like toxic chemicals, catalysed by the series of political and economic crises, to create unprecedented levels of bitterness, hatred, anger and social division all across Europe between the wars.


The origins of the First World War

There are as many opinions about the origins of the First World War as there are grains of sand on a beach. Kershaw emphasises the folly of the German government sending Austro-Hungary, as it pondered how to punish Serbia for the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, a ‘blank check’, promising to support them come-what-may. This encouraged the Dual Monarchy to outface the Russians, which of course prompted the Russkies to mobilise etc etc.

But reading his account what came over to me as the really decisive source of the crisis was the Austro-Hungarian slowness to act. Other heads of state had been assassinated in the decade leading up to 1914 without sparking a general crisis. The other powers expected Austria to attack Serbia and deliver a short sharp reprimand, maybe occupy Belgrade, demand some reparations before withdrawing.

But, as Kershaw says, the Austro-Hungarian Empire only had two speeds, very slow or stop, and it took them nearly four weeks to write and send their ultimatum to the Serbian government.

This appalling delay gave all the other European governments time to consider how they could use the crisis for their own ends, not least Germany, whose military leaders told the Kaiser this was a golden opportunity to thrash the Russians before the Russians completed their well-known plan to modernise and expand their army, which was due to be completed by 1917. The German High Command persuaded the Kaiser that it was now or never.

If Austro-Hungary had gone in hard and fast with a surprise attack into Serbia within days of the assassination, a conference would have been called among the powers – much as happened after the first and second Moroccan crises (1905 and 1911) or the two Balkan wars (1912 and 1913) – to sort the problem out, probably force Serbia to pay reparations, and defuse tensions among the powers.

So you could argue that it was the byzantine and elephantine bureaucracy of the unwieldy Austro-Hungarian state which caused the cataclysmic conflict which defined the entire 20th century.

This view gives edge to your reading of a novel like Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities with its sustained satire on the pompous ineffectiveness of the Austrian administration. Maybe not so funny after all…


Civilised Western and backward Eastern Europe

There’s a whole genre of books devoted to explaining ‘the Rise of the West’ i.e. how Western empires ended up by the early twentieth century ruling a lot of the rest of the world. Harder to find are books which investigate the simpler question: Why was Western Europe relatively ‘civilised’ whereas regimes got steadily more repressive, undemocratic and authoritarian the further East across Europe you travelled. Kershaw’s book suggests some answers.

1. Western Europe was more ethnically homogeneous than central or Eastern Europe. England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden – these were populated by homogeneous populations of people identifying with the nation, with only tiny, insignificant minorities (actually Belgium is the exception which prove this rule, with low-lying conflict between the Flemings and the Walloons). Therefore one of the key prompts of post-war social tension – ethnically jumbled populations with conflicting claims – simply didn’t exist.

A notable exception was Spain where two large ethnically distinct groups, the Catalans and the Basques, combined with a backward, poverty-stricken population to make ruling the country problematic, as its slide towards civil war was to highlight.

2. Nation states in the West were long established. The French could trace their nation back to Charlemagne and the British to Alfred the Great, certainly to Magna Carta in 1216. Both nations had parliaments by the 1200s. That gave them 700 years experience of evolving laws and customs and strategies to manage social conflict. Compare and contrast with Germany, which was only unified in 1871 and whose experiments with self-governance over the next 70 years were not, shall we say, particularly successful. It was only after the British and Americans taught them how to run a modern democracy in the post-war occupation that they finally got it. Or compare with any of the ‘successor’ states to the collapsed empires – Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, which had barely any experience managing themselves. Spain, though it had existed as a political entity since the Unification of the 1490s, had only just ceased to be a monarchy. Only in 1931 did they expel their king and declare themselves a republic.

So all these nations or administrations had very shallow roots and little experience of self-government.

To put the same thing another way, Kershaw explains that in Western European countries (and the USA) the state had, over time shaped the nation, the institutions of the state had created a national consciousness which identified with them, the institutions. The institutions of state had become part of the populations sense of nationhood e.g. in Britain, the Queen, the Houses of Parliament, Black Rod, the Leader of the Opposition and so on.

It was the opposite in the new nations central and eastern Europe. Here ethnically purist nationalisms predated any idea of what a nation was, and the new states were created in the name of ethnically limited nations: Poland for the Poles, Hungary for the Hungarians and so on. The precise political form the new states took was secondary; the aim was to promote the nation.

Thus the institutions of the new democratic states were mostly new and, as they proved themselves incapable of managing the political and economic crises of the 1930s, broad sections of the population had no qualms about overthrowing these institutions and replacing them with different ones. They didn’t have the national identification with Queen and Parliament or President and Congress that the British and Americans have. So they got rid of them and tried something new, almost always rule by the army or authoritarian figures.

Thus in the USA or Britain, most people thought of politics as a simple choice between Labour or Tory, or Republican or Democrat. Most people accepted ‘democracy’ and few people thought about overthrowing it. But the democratic state was such a new invention in the ten new countries of post-war Europe that plenty of politicians, intellectuals and activists could easily imagine overthrowing and replacing it with a different model, more appropriate to the times, and almost always more authoritarian.

3. The further East you went, the less industrialised i.e. the more ‘backward’ countries became. It appears to have been a simple gradient, a line you could draw on a graph. In Britain at the end of the First World War only 10% of the working population worked on the land whereas 72% of the Romanians worked on the land. Rural workers tended to be illiterate and easy to sway towards simplistic, nationalistic regimes in a way the highly educated population of, say, Britain, would have found laughable. Thus Oswald Mosley’s high-profile British Union of Fascists caused well-publicised public disorders, but never had more than 50,000 members, far fewer than the National Trust or the Women’s Institute.

Of course the most easterly European nation was Russia, which – following the West-East rule:

  • had the highest proportion – 80% – of illiterate peasants
  • no tradition of elective democracy – the Tsar only set up a sort of parliament, the Duma, in 1905, and he and the ruling classes made sure it had no power
  • few if any of the institutions of civic society
  • and a ‘culture of violence, brutality and scant regard for human life’ (p.113) as my reviews of some of its classic fiction tend to confirm (Dr Zhivago, Tales From the Don, Red Cavalry, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich)

The weakness of inter-war democracy

Kershaw has a fascinating passage examining the post-war political systems of every country in Europe (pp.123-133) which shows exactly why ‘democracy’ had such thin roots. Later on, a similar survey explains why these weak democracies almost all collapsed into authoritarian regimes by the time of, or during the second war (pp.183-192). European democratic systems during this period:

1. Used electoral voting systems which encouraged weak government. Many used variations of proportional representation, which may, on the one hand, have led to general assemblies which were accurate reflections of national views, but also led to weak governments which followed each other with bewildering speed:

  • Spain had 34 governments between 1902 and 1923
  • Portugal 45 administrations between 1910 and 1926
  • Yugoslavia had 45 political parties
  • Italy had 6 changes of government between 1919 and 1922
  • France had six different governments in just over a year, April 1925 and July 1926

2. Disillusioned much of the population with their mixture of incompetence, endless squabbling, corruption, all too often giving the sense that politicians put party interest above national interest. This allowed extremists to tar all democratic politicians with neglecting the Nation, even accusations of treason.

3. This created what Kershaw calls a ‘political space’ in the newly-created countries – or countries with new political systems – into which broad sections of the populations were all-too-ready to let a Strong Man step and run the country properly:

  • Admiral Miklos Horthy in Hungary in 1920
  • Mussolini in Italy in 1922
  • General Primo de Rivera in Spain 1923
  • in Albania Ahmed Zogu seized power in 1924 and declared himself King Zog
  • General Pilsudski took control in Poland 1926
  • General Gomes de Costa took power in Portugal in 1926

On the eve of the Second World War only about eleven countries in Europe were functioning democracies and they were all located in the north and the west – Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and tiny Iceland; whereas about 60% of Europe lived in 16 countries under repressive, authoritarian rule with curtailed civil rights and minorities facing discrimination and persecution: in the south Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece; in the East Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and slap-bang in the middle, the largest country in Germany, the nation that set the tone, Germany.


What is fascism and how does it take hold?

Kershaw is best known as a historian of Hitler and the Nazis and you can feel the depth of his knowledge when he comes to describe the situation in Germany after the war, during the boom years of the mid-1920s, during the Depression (1929-33), and as he explains the reason for the Nazis’ appeal and rise in each of these periods.

But all too often histories of the Nazis focus so exclusively on the uniqueness of the German context that the reader is hard-pressed to draw broader conclusions. An excellent thing about this book is that it is a conscious attempt to cover the history of all of Europe, so that in each of the micro-periods it’s divided into, Kershaw goes out of his way to explain the situation in most if not all of Europe’s 30 or so countries; how, for example, the onset of the Depression affected not only Britain, France and Germany (which you always get in the standard histories) but countries right across Europe, from Spain to Greece, Norway to Portugal.

This proves extremely useful when he gets to the rise of the Nazis and their successful seizure of power (Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and within 6 months had crushed all other rival sources of power, all other political parties, the parliament, trades unions, universities, professions, every aspect of a modern state had either been Nazified or abolished).

Useful because after explaining all this, he goes on to draw general conclusions, to define what Fascism is, to ask Why Fascism succeeded in Italy and Germany and Why Fascism failed everywhere else. This has all kinds of benefits, one is it allows him to draw a distinction between regimes which were right-wing and authoritarian but not actually Fascist.

1. What is Fascism?

Kershaw says that trying to define Fascism is like trying to nail jelly to a wall because its core attribute is hyper-nationalism i.e. glorification of the nation with its special language and history and traditions – and the precise details of each nation’s history and culture will vary according to circumstances.

Thus an attempt to hold a pan-Fascist Congress in Geneva in 1934 failed because a) Germany didn’t bother to turn up b) the other delegates couldn’t agree joint plans of action.

These caveats notwithstanding, Kershaw says Fascism includes:

  • hyper-nationalist emphasis on the unity of an integral nation which gains its identity from the cleansing of all who don’t belong – foreigners, ethnic minorities, undesirables
  • racial exclusiveness (though not necessarily biological racism of the Nazi type) with an insistence on the special, unique and superior quality of the nation
  • radical, violent commitment to the complete destruction of political enemies – communists, liberals, democrats, sometimes conservatives
  • emphasis on militarism and manliness, usually involving paramilitary organisations
  • belief in authoritarian leadership

Some also had irredentist goals i.e. reclaiming lost territory. Some were anti-capitalist, reorganising economies along corporatist lines, abolishing trade unions and directing the economy through corporations of industries.

All these elements can be present in authoritarian, right-wing governments which wanted to overthrow or dismantle the existing state and replace it with nationalist, authoritarian rule. What distinguishes Fascism is its insistence on total commitment to bend the collective will to the creation of an entirely new nation, expressed in ideas like the New Man, New Society.

Most right-wing authoritarian regimes (like all the South American dictatorships of the 1970s) essentially want to conserve the existing social order, and eliminate the left-communist, union elements which threaten it. Fascism goes much further. Fascism is a revolutionary movement because it seeks to sweep away the existing order and replace it with a new, totally unified society which will produce New Human Beings, a higher form of people who express the quintessence of the Nation, and of the epic national qualities

2. Why does Fascism succeed?

1. Elites lose faith in, and control of, democracy The most important factor in the rise of Fascism – of the extreme, radical Right – is whether the forces of conservatism – business, military, financial and social elites – believe they can get their way through the existing political and social order, or not. If these powers in society retain the belief they can work through the existing system they will support it. Only when they have completely lost faith in the existing system, or believe they have lost the ability to control it, will the elites help to, or acquiesce in, overthrowing it.

In this interpretation, the key to avoiding Fascism is ensuring that all or most elements of these powerful elites believe the existing (parliamentary, democratic) system is the best mechanism for getting their way, or some of it. Only when the existing system has been completely discredited, and the elites feel they are losing control of it and look around for alternatives, does the space open up for radical political change.

Rule 1: Keep the ruling elites invested in the parliamentary system

2. Fascists play up the threat of communism (and atheism) The second factor is the threat of communism as it affects two sectors of society, the elites and the middle classes.

The realistic prospect of a communist regime coming to power and implementing real communist policies (nationalising all industries, confiscating private property) obviously threatens the interests of the business, economic, class elites. If these interests feel that the existing parliamentary system really is going to allow hard-core Socialist or communist governments to administer Socialist policies, then they will intervene to prevent it.

But communism doesn’t just threaten the elite. It also directly threatens the jobs and livelihoods and cultural capital of a large part of the population, the so-called middle classes, which covers a wide range from the professions (doctors, lawyers) through small businessmen, shopkeepers, small craftsmen and artisans and so on.

Historically, the majority of Fascist supporters have not been from the aristocracy or elites (who often look down on fascist vulgarity) but from the threatened and pressurised middle classes.

The elites will have a large number of the population on their side if these people, too, feel threatened by radical socialist policies, and not only by their economic policies but by their attacks on traditional culture.

Spain 1936 is an example where the new aggressively socialist government threatened not only the property and livelihoods of the big landowners and big business, and a wide tranche of the middle classes, petit-bourgeoisie and so on. They also directly threatened the Catholic church and all its values, patriarchy, the traditional family, the sanctity of marriage and the family, and so on, not really having calculated how many traditionalists and believers that would antagonise. They created, in other words, an impressively powerful coalition of enemies.

Kershaw has a section specifically addressing the role of the Protestant churches and the Catholic church during the crisis years of the 1930s and the war. What comes over loud and clear is that the Pope and the Catholic Church, although horrified by the Nazis, thought the communists would be even worse.

Same in Spain. It’s well known that Hitler and Mussolini gave material aid to General Franco, flying his troops in from Africa and bombing Republican strongholds. Less well-known that Britain and France, after some hesitation, decided to adopt a policy of strict neutrality

Rule 2: Avoid the threat of genuinely socialist, let alone communist, policies

3. Widespread grievances, specially about lost wars or lost land Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum, they need supporters. Voters, populations, peoples don’t migrate to extreme parties without reason. Almost always it is because they feel threatened by loss or are aggrieved because they already have lost important aspects of their lives (jobs, money, status).

They believe they have something to lose from the way the current system is tending – status, property, livelihoods, jobs, money, cultural traditions and identity. A very large number of people in Weimar Germany felt they stood to lose, or already had lost, jobs or status. Classic Nazi members were white collar workers, small businessmen, former army officers or NCOs, shopkeepers, small craftsmen, farmers, a huge raft of people who had suffered monetary loss under the economic crisis, or loss of status (ex-army officers, unemployed white collar workers).

The entire German nation was united by a sense of grievance at the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the loss of large parts of territory and the punitive reparations.

The Nazis played on the widespread grievances of disparate sectors of the population and claimed to speak for them against a corrupt system which they promised they would sweep away, and restore everyone’s losses (of jobs and status), and restore the losses of the entire nation.

Rule 3: Don’t give people and peoples long-running grievances

4. National pride and national enemies The easiest way to address people’s grievances is to bundle them up into all-encompassing calls for a revival of the nation. Pretty much all Germans felt humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, so it wasn’t very rocket science for the Nazis to make one of the main planks a call for National Revival.

And the easiest way to rally national pride, national revival, national rebirth, is to identify some kind of internal enemy who stands in the way. For the Nazis it was their mad irrational hatred of Jews (who, it is always shocking to recall, made up just 0.76% of the German population). Around the same time Stalin was uniting the mass population behind him by attacking ‘kulak’s, ‘saboteur’s etc. All authoritarian regimes are quick to identify enemies and rally the majority of the population against them.

It’s tricky because calls for national revival are an extremely common tactic of all politicians, and many people are patriotic in a relatively harmless way. It obviously becomes toxic when it becomes mixed with calls to defeat ‘enemies’, either internal or external. ‘Make America Great Again’ is fine in itself, until you start blaming the Mexicans or the Chinese for everything. Or the Jews. Or the Liberals or the Socialists etc.

Rule 4: Be wary of calls to national pride, nationalism and national revival which rely on demonising an ‘enemy’ 

5. Economic crisis Implicit in the above is the context of the economic or social situation becoming so extreme and dire that a) the large percentage of the population cease to have faith in the system b) parties of the extreme Left or extreme Right can come into existence, get a purchase on the population, and get into the political system.

Rule 5: Avoid extreme economic or social failure

6. Unstable political systems Political systems like proportional representation, which cater to every political element in a society, allow the proliferation of small, often extreme parties. Once established, extreme parties have the potential to grow quickly and challenge the status quo. This is what the Nazis did in Germany.

This is less likely in ‘mature’ democracies with winner-takes-all systems like Britain and the USA. Our systems are dominated by two main parties, which are themselves flexible and changing coalitions of interests, which ensure that most views have a political ‘home’ and give a broad spectrum of beliefs at least the possibility of seeing their views and policies implemented.

Even in a stable democracy like Britain’s, it is still possible for new parties to erupt and threaten the status quo if the social movement/mood they reflect is powerful enough. This is what UKIP did to the British political system in the lead-up to the Brexit Referendum. What Boris Johnson then did was in line with the long tradition of mature Western democracies, he incorporated most of UKIP’s policies (‘Get Brexit Done’) into one of the two mainstream parties (the Conservatives) thus drawing its teeth, neutralising it, and maintaining the stability of the two-party system. If it resulted in the Conservatives moving to the right that in fact reflects the wishes of a large part of the UK population who voted for Brexit and voted for Boris.

Mature democracies incorporate and neutralise radical elements. Immature democracies allow radical elements to establish themselves and attract support.

Rule 6: Incorporate potentially disruptive movements into the existing system – don’t keep them outside to become a focal point for destabilisation

Kershaw summarises:

Fascism’s triumph depended upon the complete discrediting of state authority, weak political elites who could no longer ensure that a system would operate in their interests, the fragmentation of party politics, and the freedom to build a movement that promised a radical alternative. (p.232)

3. The difference between fascism and authoritarianism

Authoritarianism – authoritarian dictatorships – generally want to keep things as they are or turn the clock back. They all share a loathing and fear of socialism or communism not only because it’s a direct threat to their wealth and power but because it threatens change, threatens to sweep away old values and traditions. Authoritarians want to save the nation by preserving its (conservative) traditions from change.

Fascism, on the contrary, is a revolutionary and dynamic ideology which seeks to sweep away time-honoured and conservative institutions. It seeks a comprehensive rebirth of the nation, freed from the shackles of the past, liberated to fulfil its historic destiny (power, land, international respect), but also to create New People in a New Society.

Thus Kershaw is at pains to point out that, although most European nations became dictatorships on the brink of or during the Second World War – most of these were not fascist. They were military dictatorships first and foremost, which may have used this or that aspect of ‘fascist’ ideology or trappings as suited them, but without the fundamental fascist attribute of wanting to transform society.

  • When General Ioannis Metaxis established his dictatorship in Greece in 1936, his avowed intention was to save the nation from communism, and he tried to set up ‘fascist’ organisations but failed to secure anything like the total social control of a Hitler or Mussolini.
  • When General Edward Smigly-Ridz took control of Poland in 1937 as ‘Leader of the Nation’, the country became more nationalistic and more anti-semitic but ‘there was nothing dynamic about this form of authoritarianism. No major attempt was made to mobilise the population. The regime was content to control the society. It had no ambitions to change it’ (p.262).
  • Even General Franco, after his military coup of July 1936, took a year to sort out the political aspects of what was essentially a military project. He co-opted the ideology of the banned Falange Party and coerced all the other right-wing organisations into joining it (p.240), but the party was only ever a political aspect of what remained a military rule. This was the polar opposite Germany, where a fanatically organised, civilian political party controlled the military as just one of the many levers of its total control over society.

Another fairly obvious difference is that some of these authoritarian regimes locked up fascists as well as communists, socialist, liberals, journalists etc. For example the Polish and Portuguese dictatorships (pp.262, 264) or Admiral Horthy’s authoritarian regime in Hungary, which banned the genuinely fascist Hungarian National Socialist Party and imprisoned its leader, Ferenc Szálasi (p.263).

In other words, for many authoritarian dictatorships, real hard-core fascism was just one more subversive or disruptive element which needed to be controlled.

One way of thinking about this is the contrast between merely authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes want your soul as well as your body, your mind as well as your vote. They insist on total control of every aspect of their citizens lives in order to create a new type of human being.

Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. (Mussolini)

Another way of thinking about the difference between authoritarian dictatorships and genuinely fascist regimes is that none of the dictatorships threatened the peace of Europe – the Western democracies didn’t lose any sleep about the foreign policy of Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Portugal. Even Spain, whose drawn-out civil war was violent and traumatic, never threatened to spill beyond its borders, never threatened the peace of Europe.

Unlike the irredentist and imperialist ambitions of the true fascist regimes, Italy and, most of all, Germany.


The rise of the Right and collapse of the Left in the 1930s

Putting the usual culprits Italy and Germany in the context of the wider, in fact of the complete European scene, brings out a fact I had never fully grasped before.

I suppose I knew that the 1930s were the era of The Dictator – although Kershaw’s review of every dictatorship in Europe really rams this fact home. The deeper point is that the catastrophic economic collapse of the early 1930s, which devastated nations, threw millions out of work, and led many to think capitalism was failing – did not produce a shift to the Left, in favour of thinkers and politicians who’d spent a lifetime criticising capitalism and supporting workers movements – it resulted, all across Europe, in a seismic shift to the Right.

The 1930s was the decade of the failure of the Left.

Why? Because despite its appeal to the kind of intellectuals whose works survive and are studied to this day, for the majority of the population the Left, in either its socialist or communist form, threatened the interests of:

  • most of the ruling class
  • most of the middle class
  • most if not all of the peasants – some may have heard rumours about Stalin’s forced collectivisation in Soviet Russia, all knew that the Left wanted to destroy the Church and traditional religion
  • even a portion of the skilled working class who stood to lose their perks and privileges
  • not to mention the large number of criminals and dossers who are generally left out of sociological calculations, the kind of people who fill the pages of novels like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

In other words, the hard, radical Left always represents a minority of a society, and is always opposed by a majority in that society.

Which makes it all the more striking that such a disproportionate majority of the intellectuals of many of these societies moved to the Left. Kershaw has a chapter giving a tourist’s-eye view of the ‘intellectual life’ of Europe in the 30s and 40s (which jumps around superficially, as historians’ quick compliance with the need to mention something about ‘culture’ so often do) – but the general drift is that from Gramsci through Orwell, Sartre to the Frankfurt School, the majority of Europe’s significant intellectuals took a left-wing, often out-and-out communist, view of the continent’s problems.

In other words, a high proportion of the intellectual class of Europe was profoundly out of step with the majority of their populations.

That’s one rather crude interpretation, anyway. The deeper reasons for the shift to the Right bear investigating and pondering. A deep analysis would give insights into why, in our time, years of austerity, uncertainty and economic stagnation since the 2008 Crash have resulted not in a mass outpouring of socialist idealism but, once again, led to the rise of right-wing leaders around the world. At the same time the intellectual and academic classes remain securely embedded in their progressive and left-wing ghettos (universities), out of touch with the populations they claim to interpret, and blankly incredulous of the leaders who keep getting elected (Trump, Johnson).

To return to the period under consideration, Germany’s dynamic Nazi ideology is in fact the exception that proves the rule to most of Europe during the period. So much ink has been spilt about Hitler and the Nazis but they were the product of a very distinctive set of circumstances – to take two of them, the fact that they were in Europe’s largest and most powerful nation, and that the entire nation felt huge grievance over the Versailles Treaty.

Focusing so much on bloody Hitler and his Nazi Party, whose historical situation was unique and so whose precise brand of turbo-charged Fascism is never going to recur, has distracted historians from the much more practical task of analysing the reasons for the rise of right-wing authoritarian regimes in general – which do recur with worrying regularity, which were widespread during the 1930s and 40s, which dominated Latin America and southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey had military dictatorships in the 1970s) in my boyhood, and which people worry are now reappearing in the guise of various ‘populist’ leaders.

Historians’ focus on one unique event (the Nazis) is, in my opinion, a distraction from analysing and thinking about how to prevent the far more common (almost mundane) phenomenon of military coups and authoritarian dictatorships.

The accidental rise of Adolf Hitler

As anybody who’s read about the period knows, Hitler didn’t storm to power, he was appointed by political elites who thought they could manipulate and control him to get their way. They did so because in late 1932 the Nazis had secured the largest share of the election vote and so had to be included in whatever government was set up – but, when they finally decided to appoint the vulgar little corporal Chancellor, the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealers made sure to pack Hitler’s ‘cabinet’ with members of other parties. They thought that would moderate his policies. None of them had any idea how utterly ruthless Hitler would turn out to be in eliminating all these restraints on his power.

So possibly the key fact about Hitler’s rise to power is that it was the result of a mistake in political strategy by Germany’s political elite which had, by late 1932, lost all confidence in the ability of the Weimar parliamentary democracy to deal with the country’s severe economic crisis.


Conclusions

Avoiding Fascism What these ideas suggest is that avoiding Fascism is nothing to do with the Left-wing obsession with promoting workers rights, womens rights, minority rights and so on. It involves ensuring that the powerful economic, social and military elites of a country continue to have faith in some form of parliamentary democracy as the best mechanism of protecting their interests.

Any political moves which threaten or jeopardise their interests, in effect, open the door to right-wing coups and worse.

Of course you probably require a number of other factors and preconditions, at the very least a) a political culture which accepts or has a tradition of coups, such as Spain’s with its long tradition of pronunciamentos b) a really severe economic or social crisis which the parliamentary system manifestly fails to manage.

Avoiding Europe If you were American or Chinese or anyone looking at Europe from the outside it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that a) Europe is incapable of governing itself b) Europe is the most savage, bestial continent on earth.

For all their instability, nothing on the scale of either the First or Second World Wars took place in Latin America, Africa or the Indian sub-continent.

One way of looking at the Cold War is that, at the same time as the Soviet Union acquired a deep buffer zone to protect its western border (i.e the Eastern Bloc countries) it was also taking control of the very region which contained the most ethnically mixed populations, had shown the most political instability, had been the location of terrible ethnic cleansing and enormous deaths.

In a sense the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe liberated Western Europe from the burden dragging at its heel and, along with massive American financial and military aid, freed it (Western Europe) for the 30 years of economic growth and prosperity which followed.

It was Cecil Rhodes who made a speech in which he told his audience to remember that they were English and so had won first prize in the lottery of life. Obviously, at the time he was referring to our membership of the biggest empire the world had ever seen – but reading accounts of the twentieth century like this give the idea a whole new meaning.

Put simply, being born in England in the twentieth century meant you weren’t born on the continent of Europe which, as Kershaw vividly emphasises, between 1939 and 1945 descended into hell, real hell, the utter collapse of civilisation, mass slaughter, death camps, mass imprisonment and torture, gas chambers, the endless rape and murder of civilians, displacement and starvation.

In the entire catalogue of destruction, devastation and misery that made up the Second World War, the murder of Europe’s Jews was the lowest point of mankind’s descent into the abyss of inhumanity. The fires of the death-camp crematoria were almost literally the physical manifestation of hell on earth. (p.369)

Both my parents lived through the war as children, experiencing the Blitz and then the V-bombs, which wasn’t pleasant. But nonetheless they both had the immeasurable good fortune not to have been born on the Continent of Atrocity, and in the terrible middle years of the 20th century, that really was like winning a prize in the lottery of life.

Understanding Europe Which leads to a final thought, which I’ll keep brief: maybe it is impossible for an English person to understand Europe. We were never invaded, devastated, forced to collaborate with the conqueror, to round up and deport English Jews, to execute our own socialists and liberals, and then reduced to starvation and chaos amid the smoking ruins of our cities.

The extremity of the experiences of every other nation in continental Europe during the war years (and described by Kershaw in gruelling detail) are beyond our experience or imagining. And so we never experienced anything like the same cultural or political extremity which wartime conditions produced. In the first post-war election in France, the Communist Party won 26% of the vote, in Britain 0.4%, reflecting the two nations very very different recent experiences (p.488).

The great thoughts of Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Sartre and so on have dazzled generations of British students but bear no relationship at all to the history, culture and politics of the UK and its population. Which is why all those humanities students, drilled in their Benjamin and Lukacs, who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, helped him lead Labour to its most crushing electoral defeat in 50 years.

Brexit It also explains something about Brexit. The ideal of a European Union has a real meaning for hundreds of millions of Europeans, raised for generations to believe it is better to be politically and economically united than to fight each other to the death as their grand-parents and great-grand-parents did.

But Britain really was an exception to the history of this terrible period, and that ‘exceptionialism’, for better or worse, was, during the period Kershaw describes, and obviously still is, a strong thread in British culture and population.

(I’m not shoehorning Brexit and ‘Europe’ into this review: the last 20 pages of Kershaw’s book explicitly discuss these questions. He describes the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe, the continent’s division into two blocs being crystallised by the Marshall Plan, announced in June 1947. He quotes several Americans involved in co-ordinating Western Europe’s response, not least George Marshall himself complaining that the British wanted to keep aloof from Europe, that the British wanted to benefit from a scheme designed to create an economically unified Europe ‘while at the same time maintaining the position of being not quite a European country’ – quoted page 516.)

I’m not approving or disapproving Brexit, just pointing out that a book like this, which doesn’t hold back when it comes to describing the terror, murder, torture, holocausts, purges, massacres, reprisals, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, executions and rapes which took place all across continental Europe during these years, can’t help but make you reflect how lucky we were to escape almost all of it, and how the cultural and political consequences of that very real ‘exceptional’ destiny have shaped our politics right down to the present.

Random facts

The books is full of hundreds of facts, figures and anecdotes. A few grabbed my attention:

In Britain just short of 70,000 civilians were killed by German bombing. In one night the firebombing of Hamburg killed some 34,000 civilians. The Hiroshima atom bomb is estimated to have killed about 66,000 people on the day, from the blast and fires, although many more died in the weeks and months that followed.

At their core, both world wars were wars between Germany and Russia. I knew the German High Command in 1914 knew they had a window of opportunity to attack Russia before its army came up to full strength, therefore they had an incentive to attack Russia while they still could. I didn’t realise the Germany High Command felt exactly the same in the late 1930s. Thus in both world wars, a – if not the – fundamental factor was the German gamble to take on Russia, and do it in a hurry.

The Irish taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, was one of a very select few politicians, who sent the Germans a formal note of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler, 30 April 1945 (p.387).

Hitler loved Disney movies. He was delighted when Goebbels gave him 18 Mickey Mouse cartoons for Christmas 1937 (p.465)

The Venice Film Festival was founded in 1932 in Mussolini’s Italy. Winners of Best Italian Film and Best Foreign Film were awarded ‘Mussolini Cups’ (p.466). I think they should revive that tradition.


Credit

To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1939 by Ian Kershaw was published by Allen Lane in 2015. All references are to the Penguin paperback edition.

Related reviews

First World War

Russian Revolution

Between the wars

The Weimar Republic

German literature

Czech literature

French literature

Albert Camus

Jean-Paul Sartre

English literature

Graham Greene

George Orwell

The Middle East

The Spanish Civil War

The Second World War

The Holocaust

After the Second World War

Preface to the French edition of Crash by J.G. Ballard (1974)

The short introduction to the French edition of Crash is so brilliantly insightful that it is worth quoting in its entirety. [I’ve put in the headings for my own reference, to break it up into sections, and to remind me at a glance the development of the argument. And I’ve added footnotes to my comments.]


The fear of nuclear holocaust weirdly combined with the ubiquity of advertising culture have emptied human emotions of any meaning

The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermonuclear weapons systems [1] and soft drink commercials coexist [2] in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin motifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilization and its Discontents [3]. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings – these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the 20th century: the death of affect. [4]

This demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our most real and tender pleasures – in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions; in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathology as a game; and in our apparently limitless powers for conceptualization – what our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths. [5]

Ballard’s defence of science fiction

To document the uneasy pleasures of living within this glaucous paradise have more and more become the role of science fiction. I firmly believe that science fiction, far from being and unimportant minor offshoot, in fact represents the main literary tradition of the 20th century, and certainly its oldest – a tradition of imaginative response to science and technology that runs in an intact line through H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, the writers of modern America science fiction, to such present-day innovators as William Burroughs. [6]

The main fact of the 20th century is the concept of the unlimited possibility. This predicate of science and technology enshrines the notion of a moratorium on the past – the irrelevancy and even death of the past – and the limitless alternatives available to the present. What links the first flight of the Wright brothers to the invention of the Pill is the social and sexual philosophy of the ejector seat. Given this immense continent of possibility, few literatures seem to be better equipped to deal with their subject matter than science fiction. No other form of fiction has the vocabulary and images to deal with the present, let alone the future. The dominant characteristic of the modern mainstream novelist its sense of individual isolation; its mood of introspection and alienation, a state of mind assumed to be the hallmark of the 20th century consciousness. Far from it. On the contrary, it seems to me that this is a psychology that belongs entirely to the 19th century, part of a reaction against the massive restraints of bourgeois society, the monolithic character of Victorianism and the tyranny of the paterfamilias, secure in his financial and sexual authority. Apart from its marked retrospective bias and its obsession with the subjective nature of experience, its real subject matter is the rationalization of guilt and estrangement. Its elements are introspection, pessimism and sophistication. Yet if anything befits the 20th century it is optimism, the iconography of mass merchandising, naivety and a guilt free enjoyment of all the mind’s possibilities. [7]

The kind of imagination that now manifests itself in science fiction is not something new. Homer, Shakespeare and Milton all invented new worlds to comment on this one. The split of science fiction into a separate and somewhat disreputable genre is a recent development. It is connected to the near disappearance of dramatic and philosophical poetry and the slow shrinking of the traditional novel as it concerns more and more exclusively with the nuances of human relationships. Among those areas neglected by the traditional novel are, above all, the dynamics of human societies [the traditional novel tends to depict society as static], and man’s place in the universe. However crudely or naively, science fiction at least attempts to place a philosophical and metaphysical frame around the most important events within our lives and consciousness. [8]

Ballard names, defines and explains ‘inner space’

If I make this general defense of science fiction it is, obviously, because my own career as a writer has been involved with it for almost 20 years. From the very start, when I first turned to science fiction, I was convinced that the future was a better key to the present than the past [9]. At the time, however, I was dissatisfied with science fiction’s obsession with its two principal themes – outer space and the far future. As much for emblematic purposes as any theoretical or programmatic ones, I christened the new terrain I wished to explore inner space, that psychological domain [manifest, for example, in surrealist painting] where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse.

Primarily I wanted to write a fiction about the present day. To do this in the context of the late 1950s, in a world where the call sign of Sputnik I could be heard on one’s radio like the advance beacon of a new universe, required completely different techniques from those available to the 19th century novelist. In fact, I believe that if it were possible to scrap the whole of existing literature, and be forced to begin again without a any knowledge of the past, all writers would find themselves inevitably producing something very close to science fiction [10]. Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.

Yet, by an ironic paradox, modern science fiction became the first casualty of the changing world it anticipated and helped to create. The future envisaged by the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s is already our past. Its dominant images, not merely of the first Moon flights and interplanetary voyages, but of our changing social and political relationships in a world governed by technology, now resemble huge pieces of discarded stage scenery [11]. For me, this could be seen most touchingly in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which signified the end of the heroic period of modern science fiction – its lovingly imagined panoramas and costumes, its huge set pieces, reminded me of Gone With the Wind, a scientific pageant that became a kind of historical romance in reverse, a sealed world into which the hard light of contemporary reality was never allowed to penetrate.

The death of ‘reality’

Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past itself, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age [almost by definition a period where we were all forced to think prospectively], so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all voracious present. We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for lifestyles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly [12].

In addition, I think that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade [1960s]. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality. [13]

In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, too, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction – conversely, the one node of reality left to us is inside our own heads. Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality [3].

The task of the contemporary writer – to be a scientist testing fictional hypotheses

Given these transformations, what is the main task facing the writer? Can he, any longer, make use of the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology, its consular characters grandly inhabiting domains within an ample time and space? Is his subject matter the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships? Has the writer still the moral authority to invent a self sufficient and self-enclosed world, to preside over his characters like an examiner, knowing all the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathologies? [14]

I feel myself that the writer’s role, his authority and license to act, has changed radically. I feel that, in a sense, the writer knows nothing any longer. He has no moral stance. He offers the reader the contents of his own head, he offers a set of options and imaginative alternatives. His role is that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory, faced with a completely unknown terrain or subject. All he can do is to devise hypothesis and test them against the facts. [15]

Crash, the novel, is just such a fictional and psychological experiment

Crash! is such a book, an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis.

If I am right, and what I have done over the past years is to rediscover the present for myself, Crash! takes up its position as a cataclysmic novel of the present day in line with my previous novels of world cataclysm set in the near or immediate future – The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World. Crash!, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm institutionalized in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology? Will modern technology provide us with a hitherto undreamed-of means for tapping our own psychopathologies? Is this harnessing of our innate perversity conceivably of benefit to us? Is there some deviant logic unfolding more powerful that that of reason? [16]

The nature of pornography i.e. ‘the most political form of fiction’

Throughout Crash! I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would like still to think that Crash! is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way [17]. Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash! is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of technological landscapes.


My thoughts

1. The possibility of nuclear war and utter extermination which hung over Ballard and his generation from 1945 to 1990 has now more or less vanished, but dominated the imaginations of the sensitive for decades. The Americans lovingly filmed their nuclear tests throughout the 1950s and there’s something mesmerising, haunting and beautiful about the footage – the entranced mind only slowly registering the appalling destructive power embodied in those shapely mushroom clouds. Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove captures the mad attractiveness of nuclear armageddon with its closing montage of nuclear test footage. And the intense psychic power of the abandoned nuclear test sites haunt Ballard stories, notably classic story The Terminal Beach, and haunt the predecessor to this book, The Atrocity Exhibition.

2. The juxtaposition of the very real possibility of the end of the world and the human race with a world of glossy, day-glo soft drinks ads and the ‘honey-I’m-home’ frivolities of FMCG advertising is a) Surreal without even trying to be, and b) patently absurd. It creates an absurdist mental landscape in which absurd thoughts flourish and absurdist works of art naturally arise. Ballard is situated bang in the middle of the absurd junctures of modern life.

3. It’s always worth remembering how literally and simplistically Ballard read Freud, he makes no reference to the super-subtle French interpretations of psychoanalysis e.g. by Jacques Lacan – although even a simplistic reading of Freud is bewildering enough, suggesting that all our ‘adult’ rationality and manners is built up on the most infantile, primitive foundation.

4. The death of affect i.e. of real emotion, is the basis given by the character Dr Nathan in The Atrocity Exhibition for the extreme pornography created by the book’s central character: he is trying to break through the husk of a sexuality which has become nullified by commercial exploitation, in search of extremes of sexual practice which once again mean something.

5. The death of vanilla sex leads to the diversion of the same primitive Freudian urge to new sources of excitement: violence and death.

6. It is ironic that Ballard is defending the tradition of science fiction at more or less the moment he abandons it to write novels about the present – an extreme fetishised vision of the present – but dispensing with every identifying characteristic of science fiction to become, simply, fiction, albeit of an extreme and pornographic flavour.

7. The notion that pessimism in fiction is an archetypal Victorian sentiment, and that the dominant mode of 20th century fiction ought to be optimism at the unlimited technical opportunities lying around us is bracingly counter-intuitive and attractive.

8. I take the point that much science fiction, even the shortest of short stories, tends to imply a worldview, a particular vision of the future, ideas about society, which plain fiction rarely does. The problem with this idea is that these ‘philosophical and metaphysical frames’ is that they are so often cheap, sensational, alarmist, comic-book cartoon ideas about society or human nature which no grown-up can take seriously.

9. ‘The future is a better key to the present than the past’ is a profound idea, if somewhat difficult to put into practice. But it’s certainly true that so many politicians, commentators and writers are stuck in the same old treadmill version of well-worn clichéd versions of the past (commemorating the Great War, commemorating the Holocaust and so on) which are a drag on human progress, which are always pulling us back back back, and prevent us from taking a long, hard look at the future.

10. Enchanting idea, thought experiment.

11. True dat. The most obvious thing about science fiction, hard science fiction dependent on technology, is how quickly it dates.

12. Surprisingly true of the Western world in 2020, with its obsession with gender, transgender and gender fluid identities.

13. Brilliantly witty and paradoxical conclusion, worthy of Wilde.

14. An impressive summary of the characteristics of grand, expansive, realist 19th century fiction?

15. A dazzlingly persuasive redefinition of the role of the writer, underpinned by Ballard’s familiarity with the scientific worldview derived from the science journals he worked on.

16. Like any good teacher, Ballard is prolific in plausible-sounding questions to stimulate thought/debate.

17. An unsettling idea. Discuss. Enjoyable to ponder for a while… Can this be true or is it just a glib formulation?


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is recorded and stored.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


Related links

Related reviews, mainly about Mexico

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


Related links

Related reviews

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

The Just by Albert Camus (1949)

It is 1949. War-torn Europe lies in ruins. Across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe communist regimes are intimidating and executing their way to power. The Cold War between America and Russia is well-entrenched, epitomised by the Berlin Airlift, which began in June 1948.

Which side should you choose to be on? American capitalism exploiting its workers, repressing its Black population at home and spreading its neo-imperialism abroad? Or the worldwide communist movement which, despite much evidence to the contrary, at least holds out the possibility of a fairer world, where workers are liberated from an exploitative system and the vast populations of the imperial colonies are freed?

But joining the communist movement means accepting the need to get your hands dirty, to join in with its culture of conspiracy, revolution and political murder. Is this acceptable?

In the late 1940s Camus was working through these issues in the long philosophical essay which would be published as L’Homme révolté in 1951. This book addresses head-on what Camus regarded as the big issue of the day, namely — Is it morally justifiable to commit political murder for what you regard as a just cause? Does the hope of achieving freedom for an entire society in some hypothetical future justify killing a handful of actual people in the here-and-now? To use the phrase so many intellectuals used throughout the communist period – Do the ends (the workers’ state, complete human freedom, utopia) justify the means (conspiracy, terror, murder)?

Alongside the politico-philosophical approach of L’Homme révolté, Camus set out to dramatise these questions in this five-act play. Its title can be translated as The Just, The Just Assassins or, maybe, The Righteous.

The play follows the activities and impassioned arguments of a small group of revolutionary socialists in Russia, in 1905, who are planning to assassinate the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. All but one of the characters are real historical personages and the events really took place as described. Camus based the play on Memoirs of a Terrorist by one of the group, Boris Savinkov. (In fact, Camus devotes several pages of L’Homme révolté to Savinkov’s book, giving thumbnail portraits of the group and quoting their reported conversations – a passage which sheds light on the play, and certainly on Camus’s fascination with this brand of ‘fastidious assassins’, as he calls them.)

Plot & characters

At the first attempt to throw a bomb in the Grand Duke’s carriage the would-be assassin Kaliayev at the last minute backs down, because he sees that there are children in the carriage (this is historical fact). On returning to the group and making the excuse that he wants to kill the ‘guilty’, but not the ‘innocent’, Kaliayev is rebuked by the unflinching revolutionary Stepan:

Not until the day comes when we stop being sentimental about children, will the revolution triumph and we be masters of the world. (p.136)

The only woman in the group is Dora who is as unbendingly revolutionary as the rest of them. In the middle of the play her role changes, though, as we see her developing ‘feelings’ for Kaliayev, until, in a central scene, she surprised me by suddenly dropping the revolutionary jargon and turning into a fully-fledged ‘love interest’, telling Kaliayev that she wants to be loved as a woman, asking whether he loves her, and asking why all of the group can’t they choose human happiness over murder? Possibly we are meant to be moved by this, although I saw it as just part of Camus’s programme of wringing every possible permutation of argument, moral, political and psychological, from his situation.

But Kaliayev ignores her please and summons up the determination, two days later, to be back in the street when the Arch Duke is on another carriage drive, and to throw a bomb which blows the old man to smithereens. (All this happens off stage; we only hear the sound effects and see the excited faces of the characters looking out a window onto the scene of the murder in the street below.)

In the final acts the play becomes increasingly schematic. Kaliayev was captured by the police after he threw the bomb and is now in prison. He has a brief, ironic dialogue with a fellow prisoner, who, it turns out, is actually the prison hangman and will be killing him.

And then in a long, excruciatingly pretentious scene, Kaliayev is confronted by the Grand Duchess, the wife of the man he blew to smithereens. She is, with heavy predictability, a devout Christian and she wants, of course, to forgive him, and for him to join her in prayer to the Lord of All.

This meeting of murderer and victim’s wife allows Camus to write a long Dostoyevskian dialogue contrasting divine love and earthly love, divine justice and human justice, sin and forgiveness, and so on.

KALIAYEV: When they’ve pronounced the sentence, and they’re all ready for the execution… then… at the foot of the scaffold… I shall turn away from you and this vile world… And at last my heart will be filled with love!… Can you understand?
GRAND DUCHESS: There is no love except with God.
KALIAYEV: Yes, there is… Love for people… Love for mankind! (p.161)

With every fresh text of Camus’s that I read I become more convinced that Christian theology was central to his worldview, in particular the Christian dichotomy of crime and punishment, sin and salvation, damnation and salvation, repentance and forgiveness. Although the play contains much rhetoric about revolutionary ‘freedom’, it is the fundamentally Christian dynamic of sin and forgiveness which underpins the text.

After Kaliayev has spurned the Grand Duchess’s offer of praying for forgiveness and she has left, the sleek Chief of Police Skouratov tries to blackmail Kaliayev. Skouratov says he will put it about that Kaliayev begged to see the Grand Duchess, begged for her forgiveness and renounced his revolutionary views – i.e. he will discredit him, unless Kaliayev admits the whereabouts of his fellow conspirators. End of act four.

In the last act we are back with the conspirators in their shabby apartment, setting of the first three acts. As in a Greek tragedy, a messenger/eye-witness arrives to describe Kaliayev’s last moments as he stepped up to the scaffold to be hanged. This is  how we learn that he rejected Skouratov’s offer to betray his comrades, he didn’t flicker in the face of death, and so on. A stern Roman virtue.

Then follows the climax of the play as Dora, Kaliayev’s lover, half-weeping, half-shrieking, announces that she wants to be reunited in sacrifice with her man and insists – against the group’s sexist code that no woman can actually take part in an act of terrorism – that she will be the one to throw the next bomb. Shamed by her ‘revolutionary’ intensity and ideological fervour, her colleagues acquiesce.

And so the torch is handed on. There will be more assassinations, more murders. The cycle will never end.

Schematic

What is most striking about the play is the starkly simplistic attitudes of the characters. They are like diagrams or caricatures. One is a poet who hates lies but is forced to lie in order to be a conspirator, and justifies it because once he has thrown his bomb ‘all lies will end’. One thinks they are ‘killing to build a world where there will be no more killing’. One thinks you can’t just talk about the revolution, you must be part of it. One thinks no individual can be free until all people in the world are free.

The turns of event mainly exist not to provide drama in the broad sense, but to introduce new topics of debate. Thus Kaliayev’s refusal to throw a bomb into a carriage containing the Arch Duke’s children introduces the issue: ‘Should you – are you permitted – to murder a few young innocents in order to bring about a Just Society in which all innocents will be protected?’

The trouble with such a schematic approach is that it sacrifices psychological depth or emotional plausibility. Thus Kaliayev’s ‘temptation’ by the head of the police to betray his comrades is a) very brief, amounting to a page or less of dialogue b) doesn’t lead anywhere at all – I was expecting it to have some kind of dramatic consequence in the final act but it is forgotten, eclipsed by the eye witness account of Kaliayev’s execution.

Compare and contrast its throwaway brevity with the searing psychological intensity of the interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four or the prolonged breaking down of Rubashov in Darkness at Noon. Camus isn’t in the same league.

The heavy-handedness of the ‘debate’ with the Grand Duchess about God in Act Four alienated me from the play by its predictability and its superficiality; and when Dora, in Act Five, becomes the focus of the action with her distraught alternation between tearful love for her man and steely determination to strike the next blow for ‘freedom’, I had switched off.

If you had never thought about these issues before, the play might just about be a good 6th form or maybe undergraduate resource with which to prompt discussions about the morality of revolutionary violence – in the same way that Frankenstein might, at a pinch, be used to trigger discussion about the ethics of genetic engineering or Heart of Darkness about imperialism. But it’s neither a serious in-depth analysis, nor an emotionally believable one.

Terrorists may be at work all over Europe as I write, but I don’t think the guys we have to worry about think or talk like this nowadays.

The uselessness of morality

My son the Philosophy A-Level student tells me that, in terms of moral philosophy, I am a ‘consequentialist’. I had to look it up to find out what he meant. It means I don’t believe in grand moral or ethical principles (a position I sometimes provocatively express as, ‘I don’t believe in morality’). I don’t invoke general moral axioms or principles to help me decide whether to act this or that way. I judge by outcomes. I am interested in what works.

For me, there is no particular ‘moral’ principle involved in the question ‘Is political murder ever justified?’ The only criterion is, ‘Does it work?’ And all the historical evidence we have is that almost all political assassinations a) don’t change anything or b) make repression worse.

It doesn’t work, so don’t do it.

Holding this position explains why I found almost everything the characters say in this play superfluous and irrelevant. Their interminable debates over their conflicting moral codes, worrying about their sensitive scruples, their agonised discussion of ethical principles and so on seem to me either adolescent navel-gazing or windy metaphysics. They kill the Duke. They are arrested. There is no revolution. Tyranny is not overthrown. Freedom does not come for every person in Russia. They resolve to carry out another terrorist atrocity. And so on. And they will continue to carry out individualistic assassinations until their entire ‘revolutionary’ ideology is swept away by the grand state terrorism of the Bolsheviks.

In other words – Fail. It is a failed way of thinking.

Only in a declared state of war can killing a clearly-identified enemy be justified, because it stands some chance of success i.e. of winning the war. In all other circumstances, killing is just killing. The Baader-Meinhof group shooting German bankers and industrialists. The IRA blowing up pubs in England or murdering Protestant workers. ETA assassinating Spanish officials. ISIS machine gunning people at a rock concert. Did they achieve their stated aims of overthrowing the system, country or values they detest? No. They failed. In the end they were just killers.

And more often than not they found themselves trapped in the role of terrorists. Committed to a ’cause’ they couldn’t quit because they had already burned their bridges, psychologically and legally. Hard to return from the excitement of clandestine meetings, smuggling arms, and planning atrocities to working 9 to 5 in an office.

Moreover there is an unavoidable inflationary logic to terrorism. As small terrorist acts fail to achieve their ends, many terrorist groups find themselves forced to stage bigger and more destructive ‘spectaculars’ in order a) to get some kind of reaction and b) to justify their ’cause’, their existence, to themselves and their supporters and c) to justify their life decisions to themselves.

And all, in the end, for nothing.

The best explanation I’ve read of the grim logic of modern terrorism is the relevant sections of Gerard DeGroot’s popular history, The Seventies Unplugged.

Historical innocence

Back to the play – by setting it in 1905 Camus’s makes sure Les Justes is largely innocent of the history of bloodshed which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. The characters exist in a kind of pre-lapsarian phase of political terrorism. Although Russia had had a healthy track record of terrorism for at least a generation previously – the Grand Duke’s father, Tsar Alexander II, survived no fewer than five assassination attempts before himself being blown up in 1881 by terrorists (like father, like son) – the grotesque, continent-wide super-violence of the Great War and its aftermath had not yet occurred. The thirty years of bloodshed, terror and state terrorism sprawling from 1917 to 1947 was undreamed of.

(It is, for example, interesting to learn that the real-life Grand Duchess was murdered in 1918 by revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War – but by that time we were used to mass murders and killing on an industrial scale: she was just one among millions who met a violent end. The play is set in an essentially bourgeois world where individual lives – where the complex moral dilemmas of individuals – still matter.)

Thus, by choosing 1905 Camus has stripped away the contemporary and complex historical context of his own time (1949) and returned to a much simpler, more innocent age, in order to bring out the ‘issues’ with greater clarity.

Maybe this is why Les Justes sometimes feels more like an excerpt from BBC Bitesize or an over-the-top school play than a drama for modern grown-ups. It is full of cardboard characters adopting histrionic and above all, very simple-minded poses. Take a characteristic outburst from the most unflinchingly revolutionary character, Stepan:

For us who don’t believe in God, there is nothing between total justice and utter despair. (p.148)

This is not only childishly, petulantly melodramatic, it is also plain wrong. There is no such thing as total justice or utter despair, these are tiresomely writerly abstractions. In fact there is a whole world of life and love for everyone to enjoy, whether they believe in God or not. Watch The Great British Bake-Off: are these people fussing about their soggy bottoms trapped between total justice and utter despair?

There is absolutely no need to live in this hysterical, Dostoyevskian state of mind unless you want to.

It’s their unrelentingly histrionic simple-mindedness and their wilful neglect of the real, actual world of happy people, which makes the characters in this taut little melodrama difficult to care for and a lot of Camus’s political writings so difficult to read.

Ivan Kalyayev, assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia

Ivan Kalyayev, real life assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, and lead figure in Les Justes

But judging a play from just reading it is a dicey thing to do. Plays are not meant to be read cold on the page, but animated by flesh and blood actors, in real productions in front of live audiences in particular times and places.

All of these factors came together favourably in the first production of Les Justes, which opened in Paris in December 1949, was well received by the critics, and ran for over 400 performances. In that time and place this drama of ideas obviously spoke to a large audience who presumably a) enjoyed the moral debates b) found it dramatically satisfying.


Credit

Les Justes by Albert Camus was published in France in 1950. This translation by Henry Jones was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1965. The Just was brought together with the other plays, Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Possessed, in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: