The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


Roman reviews

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh (1932)

Black Mischief was Evelyn Waugh’s third novel, published in 1932. It very obviously recycles material from his six-month-long trip to Ethiopia and then along the East Coast of Africa which he had chronicled in the previous year’s travelogue, Remote People (1931).

The novel describes the efforts of Seth, the young English-educated Emperor of ‘Azania’, a fictional island off the East coast of Africa, based loosely on Zanzibar, to modernise his Empire, aided by the 28-year-old scapegrace and ne’er-do-well, Basil Seal.

Jaded author of jaded characters

Having just finished reading Vile Bodies and still reeling from its shockingly nihilistic ending, I think I can understand why Waugh leapt at the opportunity of fleeing rancid England. He had gone, as a temporary foreign correspondent for a London newspaper, to go and cover the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in November 1930. The disgust and misanthropy which becomes slowly more obvious in Vile Bodies goes a long way to explaining why he felt the need to get clean away from the shallow party culture he describes in that book.

This hunch was confirmed a third of the way into the novel by the book’s leading character, Basil Seal, who is depicted as sick and tired of the posh, jaded, endlessly partying circles he moves in. Here he is talking to a crusty old colonel at his club:

‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘Eh?’
‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘No, I do not. Lived here all my life. Never get tired of it. Fellow who’s tired of London is tired of life.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ said Basil. ‘I’m going away for some time,’ he told the hall-porter as he left the club.

And a bit later, talking to Lady Metroland:

‘I want to go abroad. I’ve been in England too long.’

And, a little later, to his mother:

‘You see I’m fed up with London and English politics. I want to get away.’

So it’s repeated three times. Sick to death of London life and desperate to escape. No ambiguity about Basil’s motives, then.

Waugh’s recurring characters

Basil starts out in a London full of the same cast of characters we encountered in Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, and who were expanded in the sequel, Vile Bodies – people like Lady Metroland (who played such a central role in Decline and Fall), her son Peter Pastmaster, Lord Monomark the owner of the Daily Excess, whose gossip columnists played a central role in Vile Bodies, Sonia Trumpington who keeps a genuinely bohemian menage with husband Alisdair and who Basil visits before his departure. In an atmosphere of loucheness significantly further down the line than anything in Bodies we find the couple in bed and their bedroom littered with drunk or passed-out young men whose names they don’t even know. It’s that kind of behaviour, which Basil himself is expert at, which he has grown sick of.

Thousands of Europeans for well over a century had fled to the colonies to leave behind unsatisfactory lives and reinvent themselves. Obviously Waugh didn’t become a settler or anything like, but the complete change of scene offered by this sudden opportunity to become an (albeit temporarily) freelance journalist, allowed him to apply his forensic gaze and lucid style in a new way. It gave him radically new subject matter and a drastic new variety of characters to depict. To mercilessly describe what he saw in the wildly different setting of a rundown, backward and sometimes barbarous African nation. And then, being a professional, to recycle the everything he’d seen into the humorous and satirical exaggerations of this novel.

Black Mischief’s prose more solid and descriptive

What is immediately and strikingly different is the abandonment of some of the modish techniques in Vile Bodies. That novel gives the impression of being mostly made up of dialogue, the brittle, mannered dialogue of febrile London society, sometimes page after page of only dialogue and, in particular, the telephone conversations of the shallow young couple, Adam and Nina which Waugh was, rightly, proud of.

On the first few pages you realise Black Mischief is a different thing entirely. Describing London, even with satirical intent, had been done to death. It had been done by Dickens and Conan Doyle and E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley and a thousand lesser known writers. Waugh does it very well when he wants to, he can knock off beautifully lyrical paragraphs when they need to be deployed. But not often, and short.

Whereas a fictional African country gave Waugh the opportunity to write huge chunks of descriptive prose, much of it recycled or reworked from the travel book, which is genuinely fresh and unusual and flavoursome.

For two centuries the Arabs remained masters of the coast. Behind them in the hills the native Sakuyu, black, naked, anthropophagous, had lived their own tribal life among their herds — emaciated, puny cattle with rickety shanks and elaborately branded hide. Farther away still lay the territory of the Wanda — Galla immigrants from the mainland who, long before the coming of the Arabs, had settled in the north of the island and cultivated it in irregular communal holdings. The Arabs held aloof from the affairs of both these people; war drums could often be heard inland and sometimes the whole hillside would be aflame with burning villages. On the coast a prosperous town arose: great houses of Arab merchants with intricate latticed windows and brass-studded doors, courtyards planted with dense mango trees, streets heavy with the reek of cloves and pineapple, so narrow that two mules could not pass without altercation between their drivers; a bazaar where the money changers, squatting over their scales, weighed out the coinage of a world-wide trade, Austrian thalers, rough stamped Mahratta gold, Spanish and Portuguese guineas. From Matodi the dhows sailed to the mainland, to Tanga, Dar-es-Salaam, Malindi and Kismayu, to meet the caravans coming down from the great lakes with ivory and slaves. Splendidly dressed Arab gentlemen paraded the water-front hand in hand and gossiped in the coffee houses. In early spring when the monsoon was blowing from the north-east, fleets came down from the Persian Gulf bringing to market a people of fairer skin who spoke a pure Arabic barely intelligible to the islanders, for with the passage of years their language had become full of alien words — Bantu from the mainland, Sakuyu and Galla from the interior — and the slave markets had infused a richer and darker strain into their Semitic blood; instincts of swamp and forest mingled with the austere tradition of the desert.

The prose itself is like a tropical fruit, sumptuous and full of flavour.

Civil war in Azania

In actual fact the opening chapter is a little confusing. It hardly reads like Waugh at all. He clearly decided to make the most complete break possible with the world of Decline and Bodies.

Instead the opening chapter of Black Mischief plunges the reader straight into the confusion and anarchy which prevails in, Matodi, the port town of its fictional island nation Azania, amid the civil war prompted by the death of the old empress. Young prince of the realm Seth should have inherited the throne but instead has faced a rebellion led by prince Seyid.

The enemy army has appeared camping on a hill outside the town. During a long night of fear and paranoia everyone, including the emperor, expects them to enter Matodi the next day and trigger a bloodbath.

There are some very unpleasant episodes in which a noted Armenian merchant is threatened with hanging by troops who want to discover where he’s hidden one of the last boats on the island so they can escape. The emperor’s canny Indian scribe, Ali, is first interrogated and then strangled to death, making an awful shrieking sound in the courtyard outside Seth’s chambers. The entire chapter, its setting, the mood and its details are utterly unlike Waugh. They feel much more modern. They reminded me of the John Updike novel, The Coup or the hard, violent atmosphere of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

But the next morning it turns out that the army camping in the hills outside town was not the enemy army, but forces loyal to the emperor led by the Irish mercenary, General Connolly. Early the next morning he rides into town on a donkey followed by his victorious army to tell the emperor he has won, the emperor’s crown is secure, Seyid is defeated.

Is Seyid alive, can he be brought before Seth? Er, no. Connolly regrets to inform the emperor that Seyid surrendered to a party of the hard core native tribe, the Wanda, and that they, er, killed and ate him. So far so gruesome. It is very Waugh that it is only at this rather startling moment, that we receive the further startling news that Seyid was Seth’s father (!)

‘They should not have eaten him — after all, he was my father . . . It is so . . . so barbarous.’
‘I knew you’d feel that way about it, Seth, and I’m sorry. I gave the headmen twelve hours in the tank for it.’

The reference is to the one and only tank which Seth had purchased in Europe, wishing to make his army more up to date. Seth wants everything in his country to be modern and European. However, Connolly informs him that the tank turned out to be completely useless in jungle warfare until he found an alternative use for it. Since it heated up so quickly in the tropical sunlight, it turned out to be a good punishment cell. Hence locking the offending headman up in it for 12 hours for eating Seth’s father, a fierce punishment.

(Connolly, we learn, was previously an Irish game-warden. He has taken a local wife, who he lovingly refers to as ‘Black Bitch’, which scandalises everyone in the novel, and will scandalise any young modern reader, but the point is they are genuinely in love, he defends her, is faithful to her and she sticks by him right to the end of the story.)

The British diplomats in Azania

Having thoroughly undermined our expectations and landed us in a strange and terrible foreign setting, the narrative then switches to an extensive description of the British diplomatic community in Azania, who have been hunkering down during this regrettable war.

They are a collection of ripe caricatures, posh, nonchalant, stiff-upper-lip types, showily obsessed with trivia and utterly indifferent to the progress of the war or the two opposing sides, the names of whose leaders they affect to forget, in that blithe, dismissive, posh English way (same as Lottie Crump introducing frightfully important people as ‘Lord thingummy-jig’).

‘His Britannic Majesty’s minister, Sir Samson Courteney’ is more concerned about the frequency with which the cook serves up tinned asparagus every day than the perishing war, and likes to relax by having a long bath in the morning and a spot of knitting in the evening.

Lady Courtenay is full of empty tittle tattle about the doings of the small British community, especially their children, which schools they’re going to, how they’re managing with their various ponies. Her main concern is securing cuttings from London to continue embellishing the splendid little English garden she’s been cultivating at the Legation.

The Courtenays have a frivolous daughter, Prudence, who is in love with more or less the only eligible young man available, William Bland, the honorary attaché and assistant to Sir Samson. Sometimes the rather earnest bishop pops round for luncheon but the legation buildings are an inconvenient seven miles out of town along a bad road so he always ends up staying the night, which turns into a trial for all concerned. With the handful of other posh Brits who work at the Legation, they play endless games of bridge or poker dice or bagatelle, or Happy Families or consequences.

Prudence is writing a deep and meaningful book titled The Panorama of Life and Waugh shares with us some of her witless, factually incorrect vapourings. It is a cast of jolly English innocents abroad.

It is a running joke that the little French diplomatic community, led by Monsieur Ballon, are fierce rivals with the British and live in paranoid fear that the Brits are getting one over on them, are scheming and plotting and up to something, a seething paranoia which is satirically contrasted with the actual activities of the Brits, which are sleeping late, having long baths, supping cocktails before a long lunch, fussing about their roses or gymkhana ponies, having a nap in the afternoon, before dressing for an elaborate dinner and then spending all evening playing bridge – completely oblivious of French paranoia.

The rivalry is exemplified in the way William translates a top secret cable from London and breathlessly  presents it to Sir Samuel (‘Kt to QR3 CH’) only to be told it contains the latest chess move young Percy is playing with a chap at the Foreign Office. Whereas the French – who are, inevitably, spying on the British and hacking into their cables –suspect this very same chess move of being an extra-secret code conveying some kind of diabolical Anglo-Saxon plot.

Enter Basil Seal

It is only at this point, maybe a third of the way into the text of the novel, that we are first introduced to  its protagonist, Basil Seal, who we first encounter in characteristically jaded, post-party mode:

For the last four days Basil had been on a racket. He had woken up an hour ago on the sofa of a totally strange flat. There was a gramophone playing. A lady in a dressing jacket sat in an armchair by the gas-fire, eating sardines from the tin with a shoe-horn. An unknown man in shirt-sleeves was shaving, the glass propped on the chimneypiece.
The man had said: ‘Now you’re awake you’d better go.’
The woman: ‘Quite thought you were dead.’
Basil: ‘I can’t think why I’m here.’
‘I can’t think why you don’t go.’
‘Isn’t London hell?’

‘On a racket’. 1930s slang. Basil traipses round various friends, pops into Lady Metroland’s party, then goes to see his mother, basically to cadge money off anyone who’ll lend him five hundred quid to go to Africa. Why? Because, as he puts it, history only happens in a few places at any one time, and it’s happening right now in Azania. And he needs a break from London. Badly.

In the event the older, married women he’s having an affair with, Angela Lyne, coughs up the money which allows Basil to pack and leave London, flying from Croydon airport to Le Bourget, catch the train south to Marseilles, and so by steamer across the Med, down the Red Sea to Djibouti (exactly the itinerary Waugh himself took on his three journeys out to Ethiopia – except for the flying, Waugh caught a train across France) to arrive at the fictional island of ‘Azania’.

As well as throwing away all the advantages he has been given in life (for example, he was handed a safe Conservative seat which would have allowed him to become a Tory MP with almost no effort, but managed to throw away the opportunity) Basil is a thief. At the interview with his mother in her boudoir he nicks her expensive emerald broach and flogs it for a fraction of its price at Port Said. He shares a cabin on the ship to Djibouti, and his cabin mate only realises a few days after Basil’s departure that he’s nicked his shaving soap, bedroom slippers and ‘fine topee’. Like all Waugh’s characters, Basil is a cartoon but a complex cartoon.

Basil in Azania

Basil’s first impressions of Azania are described in luxurious detail. See the long paragraph I quoted at the start. He travels from the coastal port of Motadi to the nation’s capital, Debra Dowa, in the centre of the island. Basil’s impressions and journey overlap with scenes showing Seth impatiently telling his advisers what he needs is a modern man, a European, to help him bring Progress and the New Age to Azania.

We never see the scene where the two men meet or converse or Seth realising Basil is the man for the job. Instead the narrative jumps to a new chapter in which we find Basil already in charge of the ‘Ministry of Modernisation’. His official title if High Commissioner and Comptroller General. While still in the coastal town of Modati (where the narrative opened) Basil had come across the services of the excellent Armenian, Mr Krikor Youkoumian, owner of the Amurath Café and Universal Stores in Motadi. It is a pleasant joke that Basil makes Mr Youkoumian his number two, and very able he proves to be.

(It is worth remembering that in Remote People Waugh says that of the hundreds of people he met, it was two Armenians who stood out as the most steadfast and dependable, and he gives a little dithyramb praising their nation.)

Anyway, Basil has been commissioned by the Emperor Seth to modernise his country. What does this mean in practice? Oh, lots of things. First they must undertake a complete ‘reform of manners’. The capital, Debra Dowa, must be torn down and rebuilt in the modern style. Instead of wiggly lanes lined by low shanties, there must be a grand square, named Seth Square, with broad avenues radiating outwards (one to be called Boulevard Basil Seal, another the Avenue Connolly). Seth asks if they can build an underground tube network. Er, no.

He becomes obsessed with the topic of birth control. (It’s fascinating that the idea that women in developing countries must be given free birth control and education so they can stop being baby machines and become modern women in control of their bodies, educated into working in offices at modern jobs – that all this was familiar enough to be included in a comic novel 90 years ago. Thus Seth demands that the Anglican cathedral must be torn down and the square it’s set on be renamed Place Marie Stopes.)

Seth generates an ever-growing list of demands for reforms he has read about in all the European books and magazines which pile up on his tables, all for the cause of Progress and the New Age. This comic thread climaxes in a note he sends Basil:

For your information and necessary action, I have decided to abolish the following: Death penalty. Marriage. The Sakuyu language and all native dialects. Infant mortality. Totemism. Inhuman butchery. Mortgages. Emigration. Please see to this. Also organize system of reservoirs for city’s water supply and draft syllabus for competitive examination for public services. Suggest compulsory Esperanto.

His next fad is money and he decides to produce a home-made currency (with his own portrait on them) which he enthusiastically prints by the thousand in contravention to all economic orthodoxy. Basil is, by now, too tired and harassed by the emperor’s endless fads, to even try to talk him out of it. The worthlessness of the new currency provides a recurring thread of comedy from then on.

Growing opposition

All these changes generate opposition across a wide range of society. First to go into opposition is General Connolly. He strongly resents Seth interfering with the army which preserved him in power. There’s an extended comic theme whereby Seth decides the army must have boots, modern boots, European boots, like a European army. General Connolly is furious, explaining that the natives’ feet are tough enough to tramp through jungle whereas Western-style boots will give them blisters, infections and trench foot. Nonetheless, there is an extended comic thread as Mr Youkoumia hunts around for an importer of European boots, finds one, has them delivered in a big pile at Connolly’s barracks.

Connolly storms into Basil’s office and we wonder if he’s going to announce a mutiny but instead tells Basil that… his men ate all the boots (and then claimed they tasted more nutritious than their standard rations).

Then the birth control campaign arouses the ire of the churches. They are led by the leading Christian in the country, the Nestorian Patriarch who rallies the Chief Rabbi, the Mormon Elder and the chief representatives of all the creeds of the Empire against contraception and in favour of the decencies of married life etc. (Nestorianism is a Christian ‘heresy’ i.e. a branch of Christianity which early on diverged from what later became recognised as orthodox belief, was stifled in Catholic Western Europe but continued to flourish in the Middle East, hence then Patriarch’s authority here in remote Azania.)

Finally the French. M. Ballon and the French contingent hate and fear whatever the English are doing so they are infuriated by the influence the scapegrace Englishman has over the emperor. Only French scapegraces should have influence over African emperors.

Basil and Prudence

Basil has affair with Prudence Courtenay. She is a fresh young English rose, he is a dashing, handsome scapegrace, who never shaves or looks presentable but is tall and strong and manly and powerful. Of course, in the real world women are never attracted to tall, dark, handsome and rather dangerous men.

The RSPCA

Into the mix are thrown two prim, proper and high-minded ladies who arrive from England, Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Sarah Tin, on a mission to support animal welfare.

Their arrival is signalled at the start of a new chapter which opens with a refreshing change of modality or medium, namely from authorial narrative, to the texts of Dame Mildred’s letters back to her hubby in England complaining about pretty much every aspect of Azanian life.

This starts with the slapdash and almost insolent behaviour of the young attaché (William Bland) who is sent to collect them from the train station but makes it pretty plain his first priority is the monthly mail bag (complete with brand new records and magazines) rather than the two misses.

There isn’t space in his little car for the mail bag, the ladies and Miss Tin’s large trunk, which he leaves at the station assuring them he’ll send for it later and it becomes a running joke that this trunk never is retrieved and Miss Tin spends the rest of her stay bitterly complaining about it and having to borrow clothes.

The contraception campaign

The emperor’s contraception and family planning campaign becomes more feverish. He cares not that it will overthrow all native culture, both black African and Arab, by insisting on enforced birth control and smaller families. There’s a comic passage about a modern poster he gets made up and put everywhere showing two families.

It portrayed two contrasted scenes. On one side a native hut of hideous squalor, overrun with children of every age, suffering from every physical incapacity — crippled, deformed, blind, spotted and insane; the father prematurely aged with paternity squatted by an empty cook-pot; through the door could be seen his wife, withered and bowed with child-bearing, desperately hoeing at their inadequate crop. On the other side a bright parlour furnished with chairs and table; the mother, young and beautiful, sat at her ease eating a huge slice of raw meat; her husband smoked a long Arab hubble-bubble (still a caste mark of leisure throughout the land), while a single healthy child sat between them reading a newspaper. Inset between the two pictures was a detailed drawing of some up-to-date contraceptive apparatus and the words in Sakuyu: which home do you choose?

The comedy comes in the way the entire native population fails to get the message and picks the wrong home:

See: on right hand: there is rich man: smoke pipe like big chief: but his wife she no good; sit eating meat: and rich man no good: he only one son.
See: on left hand: poor man: not much to eat: but his wife she very good, work hard in field: man he good too: eleven children: one very mad, very holy. And in the middle: Emperor’s juju. Make you like that good man with eleven children.

It all leads up to the great Pageant of Contraception complete with floats depicting the Modern Woman, empowered by birth control to lead modern economically productive lives.

Achon the pretender

Meanwhile the emperor’s enemies have joined forces. The central trio of Connolly, Patriarch and Ballon  realise they’ll need someone to replace Seth when they overthrow him. They have heard rumours that a long-lost cousin of Seth’s, Achon, a son of the Great Emperor Amurath, was seized by Amurath’s daughter (the Empress whose recent death signalled Seth’s ascension) and sent away to be incarcerated for life in the remote monastery of St Mark the Evangelist.

He must be pushing 90 now, but the trio command the Earl of Ngumo, a comically traditionalist black chieftain, to journey through the jungle to the remote monastery and retrieve him. (The monastery itself, down to its layout and description of its ceremonies, is clearly based on the monastery of Debra Lebanos which Waugh visited on his 1930 trip and described in great (comic) detail in Remote People.)

There then follow long and canny negotiations between the Earl and the ancient Abbot about whether Achon was ever taken there, if so whether he’s still alive, if he’s still alive, how much it will cost to take Ngumo to him. This takes days, the stylised and formal discussions ringing very true and testifying to Waugh’s first hand experience of this kind of culture.

When finally revealed, it turns out Achon is pushing ninety and has been kept for decades in a cave chained to the wall. He can’t walk and can’t talk and has no idea what’s happening to him. So this is the walking skeleton the Earl of Ngumo brings back to the capital, where he is kept a secret by the trio of conspirators.

The pageant of contraception

And so the day dawns for the dramatic climax of the book, the great Birth Control Gala commences, a great festival day for the population of Debra Dowa. In a nice narrative decision Waugh doesn’t describe the thing as an omniscient narrator, but makes us see the entire thing from the point of view of Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Tin, whose hotel room overlooks the town’s main street but is quickly so overrun by uninvited guests that they decamp up to the corrugated metal roof of the hotel, with its short concrete parapet, to enjoy the scene.

Unfortunately, what they witness is the chaotic coup staged by Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon. The procession of floats of the Modern Woman and Girl Guides carrying inspiring banners (“WOMEN OF TOMORROW DEMAND AN EMPTY CRADLE”, “THROUGH STERILITY TO CULTURE”) is suddenly interrupted by gunfire, the screaming of crowds, and then machine gunfire as troops move in.

After a long, confused and terrified afternoon trapped on the hotel roof in the blazing sun, as night finally falls the two women hear pukka English voices coming from down in the street. It is none other than young William from the Legation who has come to check they are OK. He is about to drive off when they chuck a whiskey bottle then a pillow down at his car which delays him long enough for them to run down the stairs and into the street and insist that he take them to the British Legation, despite his protestations and the knowledge that he’ll get it in the ear from his boss, Sir Sampson, who hates the even peacefulness of Legation life being disturbed in any way. Even by a coup.

The coronation of Achon

Again the omniscient narrator is ditched in favour of retailing the confused events of the next few days as they trickle through to the British Legation, isolated and fearful, 6 or 7 miles from the capital. Word comes through that Seth survived the coup but has fled.

Then we cut to the great ceremony, a week or so later, of the state coronation of Achon, who Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon’s various propaganda channels have been telling the populace is the true heir to the throne. Unfortunately, when the Patriarch places the elaborate crown of Azania on Achon’s head it snaps his feeble neck and he dies on the spot. Chaos ensues.

At the British Legation

Fear in the Legation. Basil turns up in native disguise with camels and African servants. He helped Seth escape from the capital in the chaos after the coup, accompanied by bodyguards etc and has arranged a rendezvous in a week’s times.

Then he’s come to the Legation to see if they need his help. He takes over security and sets a watch of armed guards in case the locals or Connolly’s troops try to attack, but there is no attack. Instead, after a few days, a plane flies overhead and drops a stone with a message tied round it telling them to pack their stuff, more planes will be along soon. A few hours later some planes land in open fields by the Legation and tell the gathered Brits they are being evacuated. All the characters gather up whatever can be stashed in a small suitcase, and scamper into the planes which taxi and take off.

Prudence just has time for a last scene with Basil, begging him to catch a plane with them. But he is determined to make a rendezvous in the jungle with Seth. Prudence is wearing a rather fetching red beret. Sadly she scampers back to the planes which were waiting for her before they all take off together.

The view from up in the air is frightfully ripping till her plane suddenly seems to be flying lower than the others, the pilot yells something back to his passengers, then he has to make an emergency landing in a clearing. ‘Should have it fixed in a jiffy,’ he quips. I expected maybe Basil, trekking through the jungle with his camels, might find and rescue her. Little did I know…

Basil’s trek

There’s then quite a long description of Basil’s trek through the jungle to the rendezvous point with Seth. One by one the natives abandon him. On the second day his servants intercept a messenger who’s carrying a piece of paper stuck in the traditional cleft stick. The message is from Viscount Boaz to the Earl of Ngumo and says a) he is loyal to the new emperor Achon b) he has with him the former emperor Seth c) should he take steps to relieve the new emperor of this embarrassment? I.e. murder Seth?

Immediately grasping that Seth’s life is at stake, Basil orders the reluctant messenger to turn round and run back to Boaz and tell him Achon is dead, the coup has failed, so Seth has been restored as the rightful emperor, and not to kill him.

A day later Basil arrives at the rendezvous but, to cut a long story short, discovers Seth is dead. If only the messenger had returned a day sooner he would be alive. Boaz, who had captured Seth and is responsible for his murder, makes up various excuses and tells a stream of fictions about how Seth met his end, accident, illness, suicide and so on. Whatever the cause, he is dead. They take Basil to see Seth’s body, which native women are sewing up in a shroud with herbs and spices.

Basil decides on the spot to do the decent thing and take the body back to Seth’s ancestral birthplace, in the heart of the Wanda people. There follows more trekking through the jungle with camels bearing the dead emperor’s body.

Eventually Basil arrives and is sadly welcomed and there is a long, detailed and genuinely moving description of the funeral rites the Wanda people give their dead leader. Basil makes a long and noble exequy, such as would befit the funeral rites of a dead hero in the Iliad or Beowulf. There is not a shred of condescension as Waugh describes with forensic accuracy the ritual feast in which Basil joins, as the assembled tribal notables eat from a large pot of stew, scooping up the chunks of meat with flatbread, along with the ritual drinking and other traditional funeral rites. Waugh endows it all with great beauty as it builds to its climax of an impressive funeral pyre.

Soon the pyre was enveloped in towering flames. The people took up the song and swayed on their haunches, chanting. The bundle on the crest bubbled and spluttered like fresh pine until the skin cerements burst open and revealed briefly in the heart of the furnace the incandescent corpse of the Emperor. Then there was a subsidence among the timbers and it disappeared from view.

I actually found this scene genuinely moving because it is described so precisely and without a shred of patronage or condescension, Waugh and his character taking it completely at face value as rites becoming a dead emperor.

All the more shocking, horrifying and bitterly nihilistic is the sequel. Walking away from the ongoing celebrations around the burning pyre Basil comes across a drunk old man in the shadows, nodding and drooling. Suddenly a flare of light from the pyre reveals the old man is wearing a red beret. Basil realises it’s Prudence’s. Is she here? Basil shakes the old man and asks where the owner of the hat is. The old man pats his tummy and says ‘Here. We’ve all just eaten her.’

Waugh achieves his best psychological or emotional effects by distancing them, like the casual deaths in Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies. He doesn’t give Basil’s response or reaction or feelings. The chapter, and the entire Africa section ends on this genuinely shocking revelation.

Back in London

Next thing we know we are back in silly frivolous superficial London and Basil is ringing up his dissolute chums, owners of the bedroom where we first met him coming round from a drunken stupor, Sonia and Alisdair.

They inform him that while he’s been away there’s been some kind of ‘crash’ and everyone’s now beastly poor. It’s just too too dull. He pops round, they drink and play silly parlour games and every time he threatens to tell them anything about his African adventure they all tell him to shush. Nothing serious here, thank you very much. Later in the evening he goes round to see his mistress, the married woman Angela Lyne. The sense is of him picking up the shallow, cynical merry-go-round of London life exactly where he left off. Nothing has changed in the tone of eternal frivolity, the worship of superficiality,  the casual, depthless amorality. Except for Basil. He has changed, changed utterly.

Bleak endings

You often read people referring to the bleak ending of A Handful of Dust as an epitome of futility. I’d forgotten that the endings of Vile Bodies and Black Mischief are every bit as devastatingly nihilistic. Some people might find the killing and eating of Prudence funny, maybe I did when I was a callow youth, but now I am appalled by it and, like the death of vivacious Agatha Runcible, it casts a gloomy pall over everything which preceded it.

Epilogue

The League of Nations steps in and makes Azania a ‘protectorate’ to be jointly administered by France and Britain. We are swiftly introduced to the new generation of civil servants who are going to run the place, are building roads and hospitals and pretty little bungalows on the hill and gossip gaily about all the characters who have featured in the novel and have now departed. Sir Samson, his wife, the other Legation officials are old news now. Waugh shows with devastating accuracy how the gossip and common opinion about them has been twisted and distorted out of all recognition. It’s what happens to everyone all the time. Everything any of us does is quickly twisted and distorted out of all recognition by people who have never met us and don’t care.

The narrative focuses in on two young Brits who’ve joined the recently appointed Protectorate staff as they discuss the fate of old Colonel Connolly. They pride themselves on having gotten him expelled from the country and speculate that he might end up in Abyssinia, funny how he’s so attached to that native woman of his (Connolly’s ‘Black Bitch’ loyal to the last).

And then they agree how they all rely on the services of the estimable Armenian, Mr Youkoumian. Rulers may come and rulers may go but quick-thinking, flexible and adaptable merchants go on for ever.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1993) – 2

As I’ve discovered in Croatia and Serbia, the four-wheel drive is the vehicle of preference for the war zones of the post-Cold War world. It has become the chariot of choice for the warlords who rule the checkpoints and the command posts of the factions, gangs, guerrilla armies, tribes that are fighting over the bones of the nation in the 1990s. (p.139)

In 1993 Michael Ignatieff was commissioned by the BBC to make a TV series in which he investigated what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. With this aim he and his TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, to recently reunified Germany, to Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland. Each location produced an episode of the TV series and a chapter of this book.

Ignatieff introduces autobiographical elements into his text. We learn that he has personal links with Ukraine (where his Russian great-grandfather bought a farm), Quebec (his grandparents emigrated to Canada where he spent his boyhood), Yugoslavia (where his father was posted as a diplomat and Ignatieff appears to have spent 2 years as a teenager), Germany (where he has also lived) and Northern Ireland, because he had lived and worked in London through the later 1980s and 1990s, and Ulster was (and is) the UK’s biggest nationalist problem.

But the autobiographical elements are always dignified and restrained (for example, the moving and evocative descriptions of his great-grandfather’s long-ruined house in the Ukraine). More importantly, they always serve a purpose. They are chosen to bring out the broader political, sociological or historical points which he wants to make.

1. Croatia and Serbia

The key point about the wars in the former Yugoslavia is that, despite lingering memories of the brutal civil war between Croats and Serbs 1941 to 1945 within the larger Second World War, the wars which broke out across the former Yugoslavia were not inevitable. They were the result of the calculated efforts of communist leaders to cling onto power as the Soviet Union collapsed, especially Slobodan Milošević of Serbia; and of the over-hasty and thoughtless steps to independence of Croatia under its leader Franjo Tuđman which alienated the large (600,000) Serb minority within Croatia’s borders.

Another way of looking at it is that neither Serbia nor Croatia, nor Slovenia nor Bosnia, had time to develop anything like western levels of civic society before the slide to war began, at which point the crudest ethnic nationalism became the quickest way to maintain power, for someone like Milošević, and opened the way for opportunistic warlords such as Arkan (real name Željko Ražnatović, ‘the most powerful organized crime figure in the Balkans’ to take over entire regions).

Ignatieff reiterates the themes summarised in the introduction:

  • a slide towards anarchy inculcates fear; ethnic nationalism addresses that fear by providing safety and security among ‘your’ people
  • into the vacuum left by the collapse of civil society step warlords, whose rule revives the political arrangements of the late Middle Ages

He points out, in more than one chapter, the intense psychological and erotic pleasure of being a young men in a gang of young men wielding guns or machetes and lording it over everyone you meet, forcing everyone out of their houses, looting and raping at will, bullying people at checkpoints, making them lie on the ground while you swank around above them. Photos of Arkan and his tigers indicate what a band of brothers they were and how this kind of behaviour fulfils a deep male need. (Until you’re killed in a firefight or assassinated, that is; but who wants to live forever?)

Large parts of former Yugoslavia are now ruled by figures that have not been seen in Europe since late medieval times: the warlord. They appear wherever states disintegrate: in the Lebanon, Somalia, northern India, Armenia, Georgia, Ossetia, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia. With their carphones, faxes and exquisite personal weaponry, they look post-modern, but the reality is pure early-medieval. (p.28)

(Which is why Beowulf is, in many ways, a much more reliable guide to life in many parts of the contemporary world than any number of modern novels.)

The warlord is not only the figure who naturally emerges when civic society collapses; the ethnic cleansing which was given its name in Yugoslavia is his natural strategy.

The logic of ethnic cleansing is not just motivated by nationalist hatred. Cleansing is the warlord’s coldly rational solution to the war of all against all. Rid yourself of your neighbours, the warlord says, and you no longer have to fear them. Live among your own, and you can live in peace. With me and the boys to protect you. (p.30)

Ignatieff gives a great deal of historical background, especially the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945. In this context he explains Tito’s great failing. Tito went out of his way to defuse ethnic tension in the region by carefully redistributing power between the national groups and seeding Serb communities in Croatia and Croatian communities in Serbia and so on. But he made two signal mistakes:

  1. He tried to bury and suppress the genocidal past, as symbolised by the way he had the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovach (where as many as 250,000 people, mostly Serbs, were taken to be murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable) bulldozed to the ground instead of acknowledging the atrocity and undertaking a truth and reconciliation process.
  2. Although Tito’s Yugoslavia gained the reputation of being more independent from Soviet control and therefore more liberal, Tito completely failed to develop any form of civic democracy. When the collapse came none of the constituent nations had any track record of real democratic debate, of addressing disputes through discussion. Instead the respective leaders (in Serbia and Croatia in particular) seized power for themselves with arrogant indifference to the large minorities within their borders (most notably the 600,000 Serbs who lived inside Croatia) which triggered a wave of paranoia, and then it only took a few sparks to ignite localised fighting, and then the leaders declared ‘It’s war!’

To summarise the road to war:

  • until recently the difference between Serbs and Croats were glossed over or ignored by people who lived together, intermarried, worked and played football together
  • they made up a community of interest where people concern themselves with jobs and pay and housing and schools
  • the collapse of Yugoslavia into its constituent states was a long time coming (Tito, who held the place together, died in 1980);
  • in the decade after Tito’s death the peoples off Yugoslavia underwent a sustained period of austerity imposed on them by the IMF and Western bankers as the price of repaying the massive debts Tito had run up in the 1970s
  • at the same time it became evermore obvious that the communist rulers were corrupt and creamed foreign money off to live a luxurious life; the combination of poverty and corrupt leadership led to widespread resentment
  • the trigger was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the realisation by the communist rulers that their rule was destined to end soon
  • therefore they turned to ‘national identity’ to create a new ideology to underpin their rule
  • civic nationalism treats every citizen as equal, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender and so on, and citizens are united by a shared commitment to the rule of law and established institutions
  • however, the traditions and institutions of democracy and the civic virtues of tolerance and inclusivity take time to create and inculcate via education
  • for demagogues in a hurry it is much much easier to whip your population up using ethnic nationalism i.e. to tell people a) they are part of a distinct ethnic group b) that this group has historically been victimised and exploited but now c) it’s time to rise up, to stop being helpless victims, to stand up to the exploiter, to seize what is rightfully ours etc
  • ethnic nationalism provides all kinds of advantages to both the ruler and the ruled: for the ruler it is a quick way to whip up fervent support for a National Idea and cover up your own corruption; for the ruled the excitable fervour of nationalist belief makes you feel authentic, like you finally belong; it creates a community of equals, your tribe, gives opportunities to rise in the ranks and lord it over friends and neighbours who thought you were a loser: all the while this ideology explains that everything bad that’s ever happened in your life and to your country by blaming it on them, the others, the outsiders, who must be purged, expelled or plain liquidated from the territory you now consider your Holy Soil

Update

Ignatieff visited in 1993 and travelled through zones where different militias held neighbouring villages and had dynamited all the homes belonging to their ethnic adversaries. Reading his account you get the sense that some kind of uneasy peace had settled. But this was way wrong. The wars in Yugoslavia were to continue right up till 2001, centred on the cruelty and then Serb massacres of the Bosnian war, and then, when the Serbs refused to cease killing Kosovans, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Belgrade.

  1. The Ten-Day War (1991)
  2. Croatian War of Independence (1991 to 1995)
  3. Bosnian War (1992 to 1995)
  4. Kosovo War (1998 to 1999)
  5. Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999 to 2001)
  6. Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia (2001)

2. Germany

Ignatieff’s prose is a little more purple and metaphorical in the chapter on Germany. This is because the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the epicentre of the crisis which swept the Soviet regime and its east European colonies. So he uses descriptive prose to try and capture what East Germany felt like during the long years of drab, repressed communist rule, and then what it felt like in the ecstatic months of protest leading up to the demolition of the wall.

Now, four years later, all the euphoria has gone. The East Germans he speaks to are a shabby, disillusioned bunch, very conscious of the way the West Germans quickly took to looking down on them, accusing them of being workshy malingerers.

What happened was a massive experiment in political theory. Divide a nation in half. Keep them utterly separate, physically and psychologically isolated, for 45 years. Then suddenly remove all barriers and let them reunite. Then ask: to what extent does the people (an unchanging social and cultural group) make the state? Or how much does the state shape and mould the people? I.e. in those 45 years, how much had the wildly divergent West and East German governments managed to mould their populations?

Short answer: states mould the people. During the Cold War West Germans were quietly proud that East Germany was the most economically successful of Russia’s colonies. But when the wall came down and Western industrialists visit the East’s fabled factories they discovered they were a shambles, incompetent managers overseeing workshy workers. They would have to start again from scratch, inculcating Germany virtues: timekeeping, conscientiousness, hard work.

In reality, it was less a reunification than the West colonising the East. Ignatieff meets Helmut Börner, the tired manager of a museum in Leipzig, so conceived and run to flatter the East German authorities and their Russian sponsors and they both reflect on how quickly the new Germany will erase memories of the shameful East. Ignatieff visits a sweaty underground club full of pounding music which has the exotic twist that it used to be the torture rooms of the East German security police. He looks around. It’s only a few years after reunification but the kids don’t care. They’re dancing and getting off with each other. Life is for living.

Ignatieff interviews a neo-Nazi called Leo who cheerfully denies the Holocaust and yearns to reconquer Silesia, now part of Poland, where his family came from. Ignatieff thinks the resurgence of neo-Nazism is dangerous but not really worrying, when it amounts to gangs of skinheads fighting immigrants.

More worrying is the growth of right-wing anti-immigrant parties, exemplified by the retired prison officer and local politician, Herr K, standing for election for the Republikaner Party. He wants rights for immigrants restricted more than they already were in 1990s Germany (where a Turk could be born, educated, work, pay taxes, and yet never achieve formal German citizenship).

Because there’s no actual war in reunified Germany, this long chapter is the most varied and subtle. It is a beautifully observed essay on the contradictions and quirks of the German nation and its ideas of itself, something we Brits rarely hear about.

Update

That was a long time ago. Inequality between East and West Germany has proved an intractable problem, admittedly partly because the East is more rural than the dynamic, industrialised West. And the refugee crisis he discusses turned out to be just the harbinger of a central issue of the 21st century, which is what to do about the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants wanting to escape Africa and the Middle East and start new lives in affluent Europe. Which came to a head in the refugee crisis of 2015.

And the right-wing Republikan Party candidate Ignatieff interviews has been superseded by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, founded in 2013 and which now holds 83 seats in the Bundestag. Germany’s struggle with its past, with its national identity, and its multicultural present, is a microcosm of the problems which face all Western nations.

3. Ukraine

Ignatieff’s great-grandfather was Russian and bought an estate in the Ukraine in the 1860s when he was ambassador to Constantinople (over 1,000 miles away). Ignatieff flies in to Kiev and takes a bus then taxi out to the old estate, stays the night, interviews the priest in the village church and the manager of the collective farm.

What keeps coming over is his sense of the Soviet Empire, as he calls it, the largest empire of the twentieth century, as a magnificent and catastrophic failure. In the Ukraine Soviet failure and tyranny had disastrous effects.

Something like 3 million Ukrainians died of hunger between 1931 and 1932. A further million were killed during the collectivisation of agriculture and the purges of intellectuals and party officials later in the decade. An additional 2 to 3 million Ukrainians were deported to Siberia. The peasant culture of small farmers and labourers that my grandfather grew up among was exterminated. This was when the great fear came. And it never left… (p.91)

Like the communist officials in charge in Yugoslavia, the leaders of communist Ukraine realised they could transition to independence and still remain in power, so they deftly adopted nationalist clothes, language and slogans, despite the fact that only a few years previously they had been locking up nationalists as subversives. Ignatieff meets the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, a smooth operator

He speaks to a Ukrainian journalist working for the Financial Times and a former nationalist, locked up in prison. Their fear is what happened to Russia will happen to Ukraine i.e. a relentless slide into economic collapse and anarchy.

He attends a service of the Ukrainian Uniate Church in St George’s Cathedral, Lvov, and has an insight. The nationalists dream that their entire country will be like this congregation:

Standing among men and women who do not hide the intensity of their feelings, it becomes clear what nationalism really is: the dream that a whole nation could be like a congregation; singing the same hymns, listening to the same gospel, sharing the same emotions, linked not only to each other, but to the dead buried beneath their feet. (p.95)

In other words nationalism can be a beautiful dream, a vision of unity and belonging, typically, as here, through religion, language and song.

Also, this passage mentions the importance of the dead and where the dead are buried. The land where the dead are buried. For the first time Ignatieff feels a stirring of that feeling for the land where his great grandfather and mother are buried, which he is the first member of his family to revisit since the revolution of 1917.

When he meets the Tartars returning to Crimea from their long exile in central Asia, they are even more obsessed about the land, about the soil, about the sacred earth of their ancestors (pages 99 to 103). Ignatieff begins to understand how our individual lives are trite and superficial, but acquire depth and meaning in light of these ancestral attachments.

Land is sacred because it where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves… (p.93)

Update

In 2013, when the government of President Viktor Yanukovych decided to suspend the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and seek closer economic ties with Russia, it triggered several months of demonstrations and protests known as the Euromaidan.

The following year this escalated into the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych and the establishment of a new, more Europe-facing government. However, the overthrow of Russia-friendly Yanukovych led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 and the War in Donbas in April 2014.

4. Quebec

Ignatieff is Canadian, he grew up in Ottowa where his Russian grandparents had emigrated. As a boy he knew about the Frenchies up the road but he never actually met any. Now, as an adult, he realises he has never actually visited the French part of his own nation, Quebec. He thought he knew Canada, but realises now it was only a Canada of his imagining. Which leads him to realise that all nations are, in a sense, imaginary.

You can never know the strangers who make up a nation with you. So you imagine what it is that you have in common and in this shared imagining, strangers become citizens, that is, people who share both the same rights and the same image of the place they live in. A nation, therefore, is an imagined community.

But now he realises that during his young manhood he completely failed to imagine what it felt like for the other community in Canada. He recaps his definitions of nationalism, in order to go on and define federalism, for this chapter will turn out to be an investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of federalism. First nationalism:

Nationalism is a doctrine which hold (1) that the world’s people are divided into nations (2) that these nations should have the right to self-determination, and (3) that full self-determination requires statehood. (p.110)

Federalism is the antithesis of this idea of nationalism, for it holds that different peoples do not need a state to enjoy self-determination. Under federalism two different groups agree to share power while retaining self government over matters relating to their identity. Federalism:

seeks to reconcile two competing principles: the ethnic principle according to which people wish to be ruled by their own; with the civic principle, according to which strangers wish to come together to form a community of equals, based not on ethnicity but on citizenship. (p.110)

But federalism is not doing so well. He lists the world’s most notable federal states – Canada, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India, the former USSR – and then points out that all of them are in deep trouble. The Czechs and Slovaks couldn’t live together; Yugoslavia collapsed in a welter of wars; India struggles with regional separatism. The very concept of federalism is in trouble around the world and so his long chapter on Canada treats it as a kind of test bed or laboratory to assess federalism’s long-term prospects for survival.

He gives a lot of detail about Canadian history, and the dawn of modern Quebecois nationalism in 1960, none of which I knew about. But out of this arises yet another definition or aspect of nationalism:

Nationalism has often been a revolt against modernity, a defence of the backwardness of economically beleaguered regions and classes from the flames of individualism, capitalism, Judaism and so on. (p.116)

Yes, this makes sense of the aggressive over-compensation of so many nationalists, who all speak a variation on the comic stereotype of the English provincial: ‘You come down here with your fancy London ways, with your multicultural this and your cosmopolitan that. Well, people round these parts live a more simple life, see, a more honest and authentic life than you la-di-dah city types.’ They flaunt their backwardness.

But this leads Ignatieff into a paradoxical development which he spends some time analysing. In the Canada of his boyhood the Quebec French really were discriminated against, weren’t served in shops unless they spoke English, were perceived as small-town bumpkins with a lower standard of education, dominated by an authoritarian Catholicism and with extravagantly large families (ten children!).

So, Ignatieff says, surely as these very real obstacles have been overcome, as Quebecois have become more urban, progressive, women’s liberation has led to much smaller families, they’re all less in thrall to the church, surely they would abandon their nationalism and become modern urban cosmopolitans like him? But no. Contrary to everything Ignatieff would have expected, Quebec nationalism has grown. The paradox is exemplified by a French Canadian Ignatieff interviews who is president of a very successful bank.

I had assumed that global players cease to care about nationalism. I was wrong. (p.115)

Historical grievances are never forgotten. The British won the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and Quebec nationalists are still unhappy about it. He talks to modern journalists and a group of students. All of them are proudly nationalistic and want their own Quebec. There’s a division between those who want an actual independent state with its own flag and seat at the UN, and those who just want almost complete autonomy. But they all see Quebec as not a part of Canada or a province of Canada but a separate nation and a separate people.

But the problem with nationalism is it’s infectious. If Quebecuois want a state of their own so they can be a majority in their own state and not a despised minority in English-speaking Canada, what about two other constituencies?

1. Ignatieff goes to spend time with a native American, a Cree Indian. There are about 11,000 of them and they reject all the languages and traditions and legal concepts of the white people from down south, whatever language they speak. The Cree think of themselves as a people and they want their own protection.

2. Then Ignatieff goes to spend time with some of the English-speaking farmers who live in Quebec, have done for hundred and fifty years. No-one tells their story, the history books ignore them, Quebec nationalists have written them out of their narrative.

Nationalism spreads like the plague, making every group which can define itself in terms of language, tradition, religion and so on angry because it doesn’t have a nation of its own. You could call it the Yugoslav Logic. Smaller and smaller nations become shriller and shriller in their calls for ethnic purity.

And, of course, increasingly anxious about all the outsiders, non-members of the language group, or religion or whatever, who remain inside its borders. Read about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian  and Ottoman empires to see what happens next. Insofar as the Sudeten Germans found themselves in the alien state of Czechoslovakia, the Second World War was caused by the collapse of the Austrian empire into impractical ethnic nation states.

Ignatieff doesn’t state this explicitly but I see this nationalism as a malevolent virus which, wherever it goes, creates antagonism at best, sporadic violence, if you’re not too unlucky or, given enough economic collapse or social stress, war.

Ignatieff visits Dennis Rousseau, a working class guy who works in a local paper mill and plays ice hockey in Trois Rivieres which is, apparently, the working class neighbourhood of Quebec. In a long conversation Rousseau won’t budge from his position that he wants Quebec to be independent because Ontario (capital of English-speaking Canada) isn’t doing enough for the struggling papermill industry, for his town and his peers. No amount of evidence to the contrary can shift his simple conviction and Ignatieff wonders whether nationalist sentiment like Rousseau’s is, among other things, a way of avoiding the truth about the changing economic situation.

All round the developed world businesses are being exported and once prosperous communities are getting poor. This is a function of the super-charged neo-liberal global capitalism which has triumphed since the collapse of communism, all those manufacturing jobs going to China and India.

Apart from all its other appeals (the very deep psychological appeal of belonging, of having a home, having people around you who understand your language, your religion, your music, your jokes) this kind of nationalism provides simple answers to intractably complicated economic realities. Twenty years after this book was published Donald Trump would reach out to the tens of millions who live in those kind of communities where life used to be great and now it isn’t with his brand of whooping Yankee nationalism.

Update

Kurdistan

There are perhaps 40 million Kurds. The territory Kurdish mostly inhabited by Kurds and which Kurdish nationalists would like to be an independent Kurdish state straddles four of the fiercest nations on earth: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Following the defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq rose up against his rule in the Kurdish intifada of March 1991. Hussein unleashed the full might of his army against them, driving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children up into the northern mountains until the Western allies intervened and set up a no-fly zone, preventing Saddam massacring any more of them.

It is this enclave which Ignatieff visits in 1993. With his typically intellectual perspective, he points out that it is something new: the first ever attempt by the UN to protect a people from the genocidal attacks of their national ruler. The enclave was far from being a state, but the Kurds had done as much as they could to make it like one, raising their own flag, holding elections. As in Ukraine among the Crimean Tartars, he realises how much the land, the actual soil, means in the mythology of nationalism:

At its most elemental, nationalism is perhaps the desire to have political dominion over a piece of land that one loves. Before anything, there must be a fierce attachment to the land itself and a sense that there is nothing else like this, nothing so beautiful, anywhere else in the world. (p.149)

Ignatieff travels and meets: representatives of the democratic party, the KDP, which has been run by the Barzani family for generations; then up into the mountains to see the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, one of the last doctrinaire Marxist guerrilla groups in the world.

He is taken on a tour of Halabja, the town Saddam ordered his jets to fly over and bomb with a cocktail of chemical gasses, resulting in at least 5,000 dead. It is, of course, a horrific sight but, as always, with Ignatieff, he not only notes and records touching, moving, terrifying details: he also extracts interesting and useful points about nationalism and death. First is the way nationalist ideology gives a meaning to life and death, especially the latter:

Nationalism seeks to hallow death, to redeem individual loss and link it to destiny and fate. A lonely frightened boy with a gun who dies at a crossroads in a fire-fight ceases to be just a lonely frightened boy. In the redeeming language of nationalism, he joins the imagined community of all the martyrs. (p.148)

Thus the roads of Kurdistan are marked by portraits of killed peshmerga fighters staring down from the plinths which once carried portraits of Saddam. He goes on to make a point about genocide. He doesn’t phrase it like this, but you can think of genocide as the dark side of nationalism, the demonic brother. If a nation is defined entirely by ‘the people’, defined as one ethnic group, who occupy it, then anyone outside that ethnic group should not be there, has no right to the land, is a pollutant, a potential threat.

Before the experience of genocide, a people may not believe they belong to a nation. Before genocide, they may believe it is a matter of personal choice whether they belong or believe. After genocide it becomes their fate. Genocide and nationalism have an entwined history. It was genocide that convinced the Jews and even convinced the gentile world that they were a people who would never be safe until they had a nation state of their own. (p.151)

The Turks have been waging war against their Kurds since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923. Its leader Kemal Ataturk envisioned Turkey as a modern, secular nation with a civic nationalism. Logically, therefore, there was no room for tribes and ethnic nationalism which destabilised his vision of a secular state. Hence the aggressive attempts to ban the Kurdish language in schools, erase their traditions and songs, even the word Kurd is banned; officials refer to the ‘mountain Turks’. To quote Wikipedia:

Both the PKK and the Turkish state have been accused of engaging in terror tactics and targeting civilians. The PKK has historically bombed city centres, while Turkey has depopulated and burned down thousands of Kurdish villages and massacred Kurds in an attempt to root out PKK militants.

For the only place in the book Ignatieff loses his cool when he is assigned a 24-year-old Turkish special forces agent who carefully chaperones him around the ‘pacified’ region of south-east Turkey, where the local Kurds obviously go in fear of their lives, and the agent carefully monitors everyone Ignatieff speaks to, while another spook photographs them all. The agent’s name happens to be Feret and this leads Ignatieff into the borderline insulting use of the word ‘ferret’ to refer to all such spooks and spies and security force agents and repressers and torturers (pages 158 to 161).

You can’t compromise when the very unity of the state is at stake. There is no price that is not worth paying. Pull the balaclava over your face; put some bullets in the chamber; go out and break some Kurdish doors down in the night. Pull them out of bed. Put a bullet through their brains. Dirty wars are a paradise for ferrets. (p.161)

Update

A lot has happened to the Kurds in the 28 years since Ignatieff visited them. The primary fact was the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to the break-up of Iraq during which Iraqi Kurds were able to cement control over the territory in the north of the country which they claim. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, was even elected president of post-Saddam Iraq (2005 to 2014). Kurdish fighters were also involved in the Syrian civil war (2011 to the present) and involved in the complex fighting around the rise of Islamic State. And low-level conflict between the Turkish-facing PKK and Turkish security forces continues to this day.

Northern Ireland

Like most English people I couldn’t give a monkey’s about Northern Ireland. I was a boy when the Troubles kicked off around 1970 and Irish people shooting each other and blowing each other up was the wallpaper of my teenage years and young manhood, along with glam rock and the oil crisis.

Decades ago I was hit by flying glass from a car showroom when the IRA blew up an army barracks on the City Road in London. Like the Islamist terrorists who drove a van into tourists on London Bridge then went on the rampage through Borough Market ( 3 June 2017) it was just one of those mad features of modern life which you cross your fingers and hope to avoid.

For the first time I get a bit bored of Ignatieff when he says he went to Ulster to discover more about ‘Britishness’. I’ve read hundreds of commentators who’ve done the same thing over the last 50 years and their clever analyses are all as boring and irrelevant as each other. Most English people wish Northern Ireland would just join the Republic and be done with it. The situation in Ulster doesn’t tell you anything about ‘Britain’, it just tells you about the situation in Ulster.

Ignatieff still makes many good points, though. He adds yet another category of nationalist conflict to his list: which is one caused – as in Ukraine, as in Croatia (as in Rwanda) – where there is a history of oppression of one community by another. The proximate cause of the Rwandan genocide was the conscious, deliberate, well worked-out plan for extermination devised by the ideologues of Hutu Power. But the deeper cause was the long period of time when the majority Hutus had been treated like peasants by the aristocratic Tutsis. Visitors to the country couldn’t tell the two groups apart, they lived in the same communities, spoke the same language, used the same currency. But deep in many Hutu breasts burned anger at generations of injustice and oppression. Breeding ground for virulent vengeful ethnic nationalism.

Same in Ulster where Roman Catholics were treated as second class citizens since partition in 1922, and were actively barred from various civil positions and comparable to the WASP prejudice against the Catholic French in Quebec, or to the much more vicious colour bar in the Deep South of America.

It is the memory of domination in time past, or fear of domination in time future, not difference itself, which has turned conflict into an unbreakable downward spiral of political violence. (p.164)

But much of Ignatieff’s discussion deals in clichés and stereotypes about Britain and its imperial decline which have been discussed to death during the extended nightmare of the Brexit debates.

He spends most of the chapter in the company of working class youths in a Protestant slum street in the build-up to the big bonfire night which inaugurates the July marching season. He notes how fanatical they are about the symbols of Britishness, pictures of the Queen, the Union Jack plastered over everything.

Which is when he springs another of his Big Ideas: Ulster Protestantism is like the cargo cults anthropologists have identified in the South Seas. The great white god arrives by ship, fights a battle, saves the local tribe and their religion from neighbours and rivals, then departs never to return. But generations of tribespeople wear out their lives waiting, waiting for that return, and turning the bric-a-brac the white man left at random into relics and cult objects to be worshipped at home-made shrines on special holy days (pages 182 to 184).

Same, Ignatieff claims, with Ulster Protestantism. It has become a weirdly deformed caricature of the culture of the homeland. While mainland England has become evermore secularised and multicultural, Ulster Protestantism has become evermore obsessed and hag-ridden by its forbidding religion, evermore furiously insistent on its ethnic purity, evermore angry at what it perceives as its ‘betrayal’ by the great white god across the water.

Apart from the historical accident of a handful of symbols (Queen, flag, crucifix) it has grown utterly separate from English culture and is an almost unrecognisable caricature of it.

Loyalism is an ethnic nationalism which, paradoxically, uses the civic symbols of Britishness – Crown and Union Jack – to mark out an ethnic identity. In the process the civic content is emptied out: Loyalist Paramilitarism, for example, makes only too clear what a portion of the Loyalist community thinks of the rule of law, the very core of British civic identity. In the end, the Crown and the Union Jack are reduced to meaning what they signify when tattooed on the skin of poor, white teenagers. They are only badges of ethnic rage. (p.185)

Update

The situation Ignatieff was reporting on in 1993 was superseded by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 and the 23 years of peace which have followed. Nowadays, there is much feverish speculation that the peace may be jeopardised by the complicated economic and political fallout of Brexit. Maybe a new generation of men in balaclavas will return and think they can achieve something by blowing up cars and shooting farmers.

The bigger picture, though, is that Ulster is now part of a United Kingdom substantially changed since Ignatieff’s time, because of the devolution of Scotland and Wales. Somehow, Scotland and Wales are still part of something called the United Kingdom but articles every day in the press wonder how long this can last.

Personally, I feel like I’ve been hearing about Scottish nationalism and Plaid Cymru all my adult life. Although they now have their own expensive parliament buildings and control over their healthcare and education systems, the basic situation doesn’t seem to have changed much – both Scots and Welsh nationalists continue to make a good living criticising the English politicians who pay for their nations to remain solvent.

I have no skin in the game. If they want to be independent nations, let them. Fly free, my pretties. According to a 2020 YouGov poll, my indifference is fairly representative of my people, the fat lazy English:

Less than half of English people (46%) say they want Scotland to remain part of the UK. Few want to see the nation pull away, however, at just 13%. Most of the rest (34%) have no opinion, saying that they consider it a matter for the people of Scotland to decide.

It seems unlikely that Scotland or Wales will ever become independent nations or that Northern Ireland will join the Republic, and for the same simple reason. Money. All three receive substantial subsidies from London and would become poorer overnight if they left. Try and sell that to your electorate.

Brief summary

Reviewing the six nationalist issues reviewed in the book prompts a simple conclusion which is that: none of these conflicts have gone away. Nationalism is like a terrible disease: once it has gripped a people, a tribe, a region, and once it has been used to set populations at loggerheads with other neighbouring groups or with the very state they find themselves in, it is almost impossible to extirpate. Nationalism is a virus which has no cure. Like COVID-19 we just have to learn to live with it and try to mitigate its effects before they become too destructive, before there’s an outbreak of another, more virulent variety.

The Cold War as the last age of empire

The Cold War was a lot of things to a lot of people but I am still reeling from one of the biggest of Ignatieff’s Big Ideas, which is that the Cold War amounted to the last phase of imperialism.

There was the early phase of Portuguese and Spanish imperialism; there was the rivalry between the French and British around the world in the 18th century; the Europeans grabbed whatever bits of the world they could bite off during the 19th century; and then the French, British, Dutch, Belgians and a few others hung onto their colonies through the catastrophic twentieth century and into the 1960s.

Then they left in a great wind of change. But they did so at exactly the same time as the spreading Cold War meant that huge areas of the world came under the direct or indirect control of the Americans or the Soviets. Although it wasn’t their primary goal, the CIA supporting their authoritarian regimes and the Soviet advisers to countless communist groups, between them they sort of – up to a point – amounted to a kind of final reincarnation of imperial police. Up to a point, they policed and restrained their client states and their opponents around the world. They reined them in.

And then, in 1990, with little or no warning, the imperial police left. They walked away. And instead of blossoming into the wonderful, democratic, peaceful world which the naive and stupid expected – chaos broke out in a hundred places round the world. The gloves were off and ethnic nationalism and ethnic conflicts which had been bottled up for decades, exploded all over.

Because this ideology, this psychology of blood and belonging and ‘kill the outsider’ – it’s easier for hundreds of millions of people; it provides a psychological, cultural and linguistic home, a refuge in otherwise poverty-stricken, war-torn, economically doomed countries.

It offers reassurance and comfort to stricken populations, it flatters people that whatever is wrong with the country is not their fault – and it offers an easy route to power and strategies to stay in power for demagogic leaders, by whipping up ethnic or nationalist sentiment and justified violence against the Outsider. Demonising outsiders helps to explain away the injustices and economic failure which somehow, inexplicably, despite their heroic leadership, continues.

Blame it on the others, the outsiders, the neighbouring tribe, the people with funny shaped noses, different coloured skin, spooky religions, use any excuse. The poison of ethnic nationalism is always the easy option and even in the most advanced, Western, civic societies – it is always there, threatening to break out again.

Concluding thoughts on the obtuseness of liberalism

Ignatieff ends with a brief conclusion. It is that his liberal beliefs have profoundly misled him. Educated at a top private school, clever enough to hold positions at a series of the world’s best universities (Harvard, Cambridge) and to mingle with the most gifted of the cosmopolitan elite, he thought the whole world experienced life and thought like him. Idiotic. The journeys he made for this book have made him realise that the vast majority of the human population think nothing like him.

This was crystallised by one particular type of experience which kept cropping up wherever he went. On all his journeys he saw again and again that most of the warlords and fighters are young men aged 18 to 25 (p.187). Until he met them at roadblocks and checkpoints he had not understood what masculinity is. An etiolated, lily-pink liberal with the impeccable manners handed down by his family of Russian diplomats, Ignatieff had no idea what men, poor men, uneducated men, out there in the world, are really like.

Until I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone fears and hates violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns. (p.187)

Only someone so phenomenally clever and immaculately well educated could be so remote from the world as it actually is, from human nature in all its appalling greed and violence. Meeting gun-toting warlords made him realise more than ever that the aim of civic society is to quell, control and channel this kind of male aggression which he had never experienced before.

I began the journey as a liberal, and I end it as one, but I cannot help thinking that liberal civilisation – the rule of laws not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. (p.189)

And the best all-round way to prevent the outburst of ethnic nationalism and the almost inevitable violence which accompanies it, is the creation and maintenance of a strong stable state with institutions which distribute and diversify power, which act as checks and balances on themselves, which are permanently capable of correction and reform, including the most important kind of reform which is the ability to get rid of your political leaders on a regular basis.

The only reliable antidote to ethnic nationalism turns out to be civic nationalism, because the only guarantee that ethnic groups will live side by side in peace is shared loyalty to a state, strong enough, fair enough, equitable enough, to command their obedience. (p.185)

The fundamental responsibility of a government is not to promote ‘equality’ and the raft of other fine, liberal values. They’re nice-to-haves. It is more profound than that. First and foremost it is the eternal struggle to build and maintain civic nationalism – because the alternative is horror.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


New world disorder reviews

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1994) – 1

This is an outstanding book, bubbling over with ideas and insights on a subject which is as relevant today as when it was written back in the early 90s. It’s actually the book of a BBC TV series. In 1993 Ignatieff and his five-man TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, recently reunified Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to see at first hand what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union.

The text he’s produced is the extreme opposite of the two books of journalism about the Rwandan genocide which I’ve just reviewed, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998) and Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995).

What irritated me about those books was that the authors had travelled widely and had unparalleled access to loads of eye witnesses and key officials and yet were incapable of coming up with a single useful idea about what they had seen. The best Gourevitch could manage was repeated references to the Bible story of Cain and Abel and the best Keane could come up with at the very end of his book was the pathetic injunction ‘that we do not forget’ (p.191).

This is because they are journalists, paid to get to the trouble zone, report what they see, what people say, and leave it that. The lack of intellectual content worth the name explains why I find books by even very good journalists like John Simpson or Robert Fisk disappointingly empty of ideas.

By contrast, Ignatieff is a trained historian and political scientist, who has held a dazzling array of positions at academic institutions around the world, including a PhD from Harvard and senior research fellowship at Cambridge, before his writing and teaching became more involved with political theory, international law and human rights.

The result is that this book, although essentially a collection of travelogues and interviews just like Gourevitch and Keane’s, overflows with brilliant, invaluable insights into the origins and nature of the chaotic new nationalism and ethnic conflicts which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the imperial duopoly which had run the world from 1945 to 1990 (otherwise known as the Cold War).

Right at the start of the book, Ignatieff takes all he’s learned on his journeys and boils it down into a set of principles and insights which are laid out in his ten-page introduction. I think these ten pages are among the most intelligent things I’ve ever read on any subject. Here’s a summary.

Blood and Belonging

As it passes beyond a UN-held checkpoint in Pakrac between Serb- and Croat-held territory in the former Yugoslavia, the crew’s van is stopped by drunk Serbian paramilitaries who insist they are spies because they saw them talking to Croatians, and are about to hijack the van and drive it off who knows where, maybe to shoot them all, when one of the UN soldiers intervenes, persuades the drunk Serbs out of the van, and lets them drive on their way.

This was the moment in my journeys in search of the new nationalism when I began to understand what the new world order actually looks like: paramilitaries, drunk on plum brandy and ethnic paranoia, trading shots with each other across a wasteland; a checkpoint between them, placed there by something loftily called ‘the international community’, but actually manned by just two anxious adolescents… (p.2)

When the Berlin Wall came down Ignatieff, like other cosmopolitan liberals of his type, thought it heralded a new era of freedom and justice. This is because (as I keep banging on) Ignatieff and his class do not realise what a tiny tiny fraction of the world’s population they represent – highly privileged, affluent, super-well-educated, international liberals gaily flying around a world mostly inhabited by resentful peasantries crushed by poverty and trapped in failing states.

He says the Cold War was really an extension of the era of European imperialism but in which the world was ruled not by half a dozen European nations but by America or Russia. Cold War terror i.e. the fear of nuclear armageddon, produced peace and stability, of a sort. The fall of the Berlin wall signalled the end of this final phase of Western imperialism. But it wasn’t followed by a blossoming of civic nationalism of the sort Ignatieff and his fellow liberals hoped for (‘with blithe lightness of mind’), for the very simple reason that most people are not sensitive liberal playwrights like Vaclav Havel.

What has succeeded the last age of empire is a new age of violence. The key narrative of the new world order is the disintegration of nation states into ethnic civil war; the key architects of that order are warlords; and the key language of our age is ethnic nationalism. (p.2)

Three levels of nationalism

As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s people are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within existing nation states or as nation states of their own.

As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation which provides them with their primary form of belonging.

As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. (p.3)

In the contexts Ignatieff is looking at, nationalism is about violence.

Nationalism is centrally concerned to define the conditions under which force or violence is justified in a people’s defence, when their right of self-determination is threatened or denied. Self-determination here may mean either democratic self-rule or the exercise of cultural autonomy, depending on whether the national group in question believes it can achieve its goals within the framework of an existing state or seeks a state of its own. (p.3)

Civic nationalism versus ethnic nationalism

Nationalisms talk a lot about ‘the people’ and sometimes invoke ideas of ‘democracy’ but this is deceptive, since ‘the people’ often turns out not to include a lot of the people who live in a particular area, in fact the exact opposite, it turns out that ‘the people’ refers to a restricted and highly defined set. To clarify this, Ignatieff defines another two types of nationalism.

Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic because it vests sovereignty in all of the people. (p.4)

Ignatieff says this concept of civic nationalism was pioneered in Great Britain which by the mid-eighteenth century consisted of a nation state united by a civic and not an ethnic definition of belonging i.e. shared attachment to certain institutions: the Crown, Parliament, the rule of law.

Admittedly this was a civic model restricted to white, (straight) male landowners. The history of nations characterised by this kind of civic nationalism, such as the UK and USA, can be seen as one in which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those excluded groups fought for full civic inclusion.

As a result of their struggle, most Western states now define their nationhood in terms of common citizenship and not by common ethnicity. (p.4)

The other type of nationalism is ethnic nationalism. This is typified by Germany. When Napoleon occupied the German principalities in 1806 he unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour. German poets and politicians argued that it was not the state which created a people – since they did not then possess one unified state – but the people, the ethnic group, the Volk, which forms the state. Instead of the cold logic of the Napoleonic code with its abstract insistence on ‘rights’, German writers across the board insisted a nation was made out of feeling, a feel for and love for the people’s language, religion, customs and traditions.

This German tradition of ethnic nationalism was to go on and reach its acme in the hysterical nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis. But Ignatieff points out that it was this form of ethnic or cultural nationalism – not the civic nationalism of Britain or France – which inspired intellectuals in all the countries of Eastern Europe which, in the nineteenth century, were controlled by foreign empires (Poles and Ruthenians and Baltic peoples by the Russian Empire; Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire; Croats by the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Sociological realism

Which of these two types of nationalism, civic or ethnic, is a more realistic reflection of actual societies? Which has more sociological realism?

Of these two types of nationalism, the civic has a greater claim to sociological realism. Most societies are not mono-ethnic; and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of many claims on an individual’s loyalty. According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community. This in turn assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.

Ethnic nationalism claims, by contrast, that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals which define the national community. This psychology of belonging may have greater depth than civic nationalism’s but the sociology which accompanies it is a good deal less realistic. The fact that, for example two Serbs share Serbian ethnic identity may unite them against Croats, but it will do nothing to stop them fighting each other over jobs, spouses, scarce resources and so on. Common ethnicity, by itself, does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled towards maintaining unity by force rather than by consent. This is one reason why ethnic nationalist regimes are more authoritarian than democratic. (p.5)

You can see why civic nationalism is harder to create than ethnic nationalism because it depends on two things: strong, functioning, well-established and long-lasting institutions, and an educated population. The UK has both, having had universal primary school education for 150 years, and a complex web of long-running institutions like the monarchy, Houses of Parliament, an independent judiciary, local governments, courts, police forces and so on. It has taken a long time and successive generations of hard-working, selfless public servants, politicians, activists and reformers to achieve the current state of British civic nationalism, and nobody agrees it’s perfect. In fact everybody has an opinion about where it is still far from perfect and what needs to be reformed. But all this exists within a broad framework of civic nationalism, namely everyone agrees that all British citizens are equal and entitled to equal rights.

1. Ethnic nationalism is easier

Compared with the complexity of mature civic societies such as Britain, America or France, you can see how ethnic nationalism is simpler: a certain ethnic group seizes power and defines itself and its members and rests its power precisely by who it excludes: everyone not part of the ruling ethnic group who quickly find themselves being attacked as traitors, then rounded up and imprisoned.

Leaving all morality to one side, you can see why government by ethnic nationalism is always going to be quicker to define, set up and manage, especially in states which have little if any experience of the complex web of power centres, rules and traditions which make up civic nationalism.

On this reading it should come as no surprise to anyone that ethnic nationalism, being the quicker, easier option, should be the one opted for by rulers who suddenly find themselves liberated from the rule of imperial masters and with big complicated countries to run.

Roughly speaking, this explains what happened:

  • in the early 1960s in Africa, when the newly liberated post-colonial nations found they had to be ruled somehow and in the absence of the deep-rooted institutions and traditions required by civic nationalism, reverted to authoritarian rule often based around the ruler’s ethnic group, which led to numerous wars of independence fought by ethnic groups who wanted their own nations, for example Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, and the long-running war of independence in Eritrea
  • in the early 1990s in eastern Europe, where the new rulers of the 15 or so nations freed from Soviet hegemony discovered that the quickest way to establish and consolidate power was with forms of nationalism which invoked the supremacy of their people, their Volk, by shared allegiance to language and religion instead of to the more abstract institutions of civic nationalism, a creed which led to actual civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine
  • in the early 2010s, when a raft of Arab countries threw off their long-standing dictators but found that, instead of automatically transitioning to civic nationalism as so many day-dreaming liberals hope, promptly plunged into chaotic civil wars based on ethnic or religious allegiance, most notably in Libya and Syria

The tendency to authoritarianism and extremism of government by and on behalf of ethnic majorities explains the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. In countries based on ethnic nationalism, the most extreme nationalists have a nasty habit of floating to the top and then, in situations of stress – such as the invasion and war in Rwanda or the famine in Sudan – they resort to the most extreme form of ethnic nationalism imaginable, which is the sustained attempt to exterminate everyone who doesn’t belong to the ruling ethnic group.

2. Ethnic nationalism fills a political vacuum

When the Soviet empire and its satellite regimes collapsed, the nation state structures of the region also collapsed, leaving hundreds of ethnic groups at the mercy of one another. Since none of these groups had the slightest experience of conciliating their disagreements by democratic discussion, violence or force became their arbiter. (p.6)

So ethnic nationalism flourishes where there is no tradition of democratic discussion and no experience of the (admittedly often complex and sometimes borderline corrupt) bargaining involved in democratic politics.

3. Negative reason for ethnic nationalism – avoidance of fear

The sense of belonging to an ethnic group within a nation based on ethnic nationalism has many aspects, positive and negative. The most obvious negative one, is the escape from fear. In a society falling to pieces, you are afraid of everyone. This fear is considerably lessened if you know you can at least trust everyone of your own ethnic group. In this respect, ethnic politics are an improvement on a state of total anarchy, where you can’t trust anyone.

In the fear and panic which swept the ruins of the communist states people began to ask: so who will protect me? Faced with a situation of political and economic chaos, people wanted to know who to trust, and who to call their own. Ethnic nationalism provided an answer which was intuitively obvious: only trust those of your own blood. (p.6)

Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost a protection against violence. Where you belong is where you are safe; and where you are safe is where you belong. (p.6)

This was the very important conclusion which came out of the many books I’ve read about the Weimar Republic and the chaotic social and economic situation of so much of continental Europe between the wars. The scared human animal prefers security to freedom. Given a choice between the politician who promises a crackdown on lawlessness, a return to order and stability, with the temporary curtailment of some human rights, and the politician who insists on the primacy of human rights but can’t promise anything about the economy, jobs and violence on the streets, people will always vote for the former. This explains why in the economic and political mayhem between the wars, almost every European nation ended up being ruled by authoritarian or out and out fascist governments.

4. Positive reasons for ethnic nationalism – belonging

That’s the negative aspect, escape from fear of anarchy. But there are also numerous positive aspects of ethnic nationalism which Ignatieff encapsulates as the sense of belonging.

At Oxford Ignatieff studied under Isiah Berlin (wow) and quotes him here to the effect that to be among your own people is to be confident that you will be understood, without having to explain. It is to feel at home among people who share the same language, catchphrases, jokes and references, love the same music, can quote the same national epic and so on.

‘They understand me as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me a sense of being someone in the world.” (quoted page 7)

This explains why the issue of language is so central to disputes in ethnic nationalism over the centuries. If the ‘official’ language, the language of street signs and government forms, is not the language you speak, then quite clearly you are not at home. Hence the issue of which language street signs are in can end up being a matter of life or death.

It also explains why so many of the ethnic nationalists Ignatieff meets are so sentimental. In Croatia, Ukraine and Belfast he met members of violent paramilitaries who showed a consistent tendency to get maudlin drunk, burst into tears or burst into rousing renditions of their national anthem or rebel songs. Sentimental kitsch is the characteristic art form of ethnic nationalists. (He nowhere mentions it, but the idea of a self-pitying, over-armed, drunk sentimentalism reminded me of a certain type of nostalgia for the Confederacy in the American South.)

5. Irresponsibility

There’s another positive aspect of the kind of ethnic nationalism he describes, which is its irresponsibility. Time and again in his journeys he talks to militiamen, paramilitaries and their political leaders, and finds them all saying the same thing: it’s not our fault. This avoiding of responsibility takes at least three forms: 1. it’s all the other side’s fault. 2. we’re the victims. 3. it’s all history’s fault.

Their fault

Again and again, drunk, self-pitying militiamen explain it was the other side who started it, we’re the victims in all this, we only took up arms to protect ourselves, to fight back. Ignatieff doesn’t mention the Rwanda genocide because it hadn’t taken place when he made his tour, but this is exactly the excuse made by every Hutu nationalist interviewed by Philip Gourevitch or Fergal Keane: ‘The Tutsis started it, the Tutsis used to lord it over us, the Tutsis invaded our country: so that’s why we have to exterminate every Tutsi we can find, even the grandparents and the little babies. Why can’t you understand?’

We’re only protecting ourselves

Same view given to Ignatieff about why the Serbs had to bomb Sarajevo, in a siege which went on long after he’d left, in fact from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. Lasting 1,425 days, this made the siege of Sarajevo the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting three times as long as the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. Talk to any Serb commander and they would patiently explain that they had to surround and bombard the city for 4 years in order to protect themselves.

History is to blame

All the militias knew far too much history. From the UDA and IRA in Belfast to the Serb and Croat militias, all these people know far too much about their country’s histories and the histories they know prove they are right. This disproves two great liberal nostrums which I’ve always queried:

  1. Those who ignore their own history are condemned to repeat it. Rubbish. It’s almost always the opposite, it’s the Serbs nursing their grievances going back to the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 or, if you like, going all the way back to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389, it’s the Croats nursing their grievance against wartime Chetniks; or the IRA celebrating their long tradition of martyrs or the UDA nursing endless grievance at the way they’re betrayed by the London government. For all these groups their history is a history of grievances and carefully tending it and memorising it traps them in the prison-house of their nationalist narratives and condemns them to repeat the same conflicts over and over. (It is in this spirit that James Joyce made his famous declaration, leaving Ireland to its endless squabbles in order to make a new life abroad, that ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’ Ethnic nationalists relive and re-enact the nightmare day after day but can never exorcise it.)
  2. History will prove us right. Rubbish. History is as contested as contemporary politics i.e. historians will argue about the significance and legacy of this or that event till the cows come home and very often are swayed by simple professional motivation i.e. the need to come up with a new angle, ‘shed new light’ and so on. The notion that there will eventually emerge one unanimous version of history is a fantasy.

But back to the main theme, blaming history is a way of avoiding taking responsibility yourself. Hence the drunken mumbling of some militia Ignatieff interviews that ‘history is to blame’. This is cognate with the white liberal guilt over empire which drives Gourevitch and Keane to lay blame for the Rwandan genocide on the Belgian authorities for introducing ethnic identity cards in the 1930s and thus hardening the divide between Hutus and Tutsis. This is where the objective study of history topples over into the crowd-pleasing activity of naming and blaming, of which there is no end.

6. Ethnic nationalism as career path = warlordism

Intellectual categorisation of ethnic nationalism risks overlooking another really obvious factor in the rise of ethnic nationalism, which is that it offers a career path to supreme power for men the world had otherwise overlooked and, especially, for latent psychopaths:

Nationalist rhetoric swept through these regions like wildfire because it provided warlords and gunmen with a vocabulary of opportunistic self-justification.

The anarchy of a collapsing state presents terror to most civilians but career opportunities for those brave and amoral enough to seize them. Hence warlordism, a version of the mafia. Local strong men emerge who dominate their area, who rule through fear and intimidation and violence but, if you are of the right ethnic group and follow the rules, they also bring peace and certainty. Which is why Ignatieff is taken on a tour of his fiefdom by one such local strongman and is impressed at the way his open-top car is greeted by cheering crowds, women offering their babies to be kissed, local businessmen giving him gifts.

Some people might find this easiest to understand this as a kind of mafia rule, but it reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and its depiction of a Dark Age Europe made up of a patchwork of very localised regions ruled over by thousands and thousands of warrior kings who ruled by dint of winning battles and distributing loot to their soldiers. It’s this kind of historical perspective i.e. the unchanging link between Europe 500 AD and 2000 AD, which makes me think human nature, and the kind of social structures it creates, over and over again, in all times and places, doesn’t change very much.

Ethnic nationalism within civic states

Obviously, you can have ethnically chauvinist movements within civic nationalist societies, and this would include the movement for Catalan independence in Spain and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, who themselves spawn their opposites, Spanish nationalists within Catalonia, and the special case of the Unionists within Northern Ireland.

Cosmopolitanism and privilege

Finally, Ignatieff addresses the issue of his own perspective and makes the one cardinal point that I have made hundreds of times in this blog which is that cosmopolitan intellectuals have proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong again about the world they live in.

He devotes a fairly long passage to explaining why. He and his ilk of jet-setting intellectuals thought the rest of the world was like them, an associate professorship at Harvard, a research fellowship at Cambridge, a year-long teaching placement in Paris. Winners of life’s game flying round the world on expense accounts, eating out at fine restaurants, knowledgeable about wine and poetry. He and his friends thought the world was set to become ever-more cosmopolitan, ever-more multicultural, ever-more relaxed about race and ethnicity.

But Michael was the son of a Canadian diplomat, who moved his family around the world to different postings, so young Michael grew up naturally cosmopolitan, speaking numerous languages. He was sent to a top private school in Canada where he acquired the elite education and psychological confidence to feel right at home discussing definitions of liberty with Isaiah Berlin. Just like BBC correspondent and superstar Fergal Keane attended the leading boys private school in Ireland, works for the impeccably liberal BBC, and found himself at a complete loss to explain the Rwandan genocide.

Neither of them can comprehend the anger of being an outsider, the all-consuming rage caused by being a member of the poor, the exploited, the repressed, the ignored, the downtrodden, the humiliated, the shat-upon, the mocked and the ridiculed, told they are losers and deserve to be losers for the whole of their lives…

And how – when society starts to fall apart, when there’s an economic collapse, when an invading army turns everything upside down – then it’s your turn to get your revenge, to get your own back, to show them all you aren’t a slave and lackey to be ignored and humiliated but a man, a real man, a strong man, who can click his fingers and have whole villages exterminated, who can hold the life or death of prisoners in the palm of his hand, who distributes the pickings from the looted houses among his followers, likewise the kidnapped women and keeps the best for himself.

Neither Fergal nor Michael have a clue what that must feel like and so simply can’t comprehend what motivates so many of the ordinary soldiers, militiamen and paramilitaries they meet to carry out the murders, gang-rapes, tortures and massacres which their books describe.

But the big difference is Michael is aware of it. Not just aware, but places his own self-awareness of his privilege and ignorance within a dazzling intellectual, political and historical framework which does an enormous amount to clarify, define and help us understand the broader sociological and political causes of the new world disorder.

He acknowledges that the ‘privilege’ he has enjoyed is the reverse side of the coin of the plight of most people in the world. During the Cold War most of the world was divided up into American or Soviet spheres of influence, and these paymasters acted to restrain, up to a point, the behaviour of their clients in countries around the world. But when the Cold War ended, this support and this restraint disappeared from scores and scores of countries where fear of the Cold War master had kept an uneasy peace.

As a result, large sections of Africa, Eastern Europe, Soviet Asia, Latin America and the Near East no longer come within any clearly defined sphere of imperial or great power influence. This means that huge sections of the world’s population have won ‘the right to self determination’ on the cruellest possible terms: they have been simply left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, their nation states are collapsing, as in Somalia and in many other nations in Africa. (p.9)

So, with the imperial police withdrawn from large parts of the world, ethnic rivalries and enmities which had been kept bottled up for generations, could burst out anew: Yugoslavia. Rwanda. The new chaos only appears inexplicable to Ignatieff and most of his readers because they don’t grasp the fundamental geopolitical realities and, more importantly, are limited in their understanding, by their sociological situation.

Globalism in a post-imperial age only permits a post-nationalist consciousness for those cosmopolitans who are lucky enough to live in the wealthy West. It has brought only chaos and violence for the many small peoples too weak to establish defensible states of their own. (p.9)

And:

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation state for granted. (p.9)

And:

A cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation states to provide security and civility for their citizens. (p.9)

Thus when Keane gets into a tricky confrontation with border police, he can play his BBC and British government card. When Gourevitch gets into a tight spot, he can point out he’s an American and his government probably supplies arms to whatever ramshackle militia he’s dealing with. Or both can buy their way out of trouble with dollars, which the BBC or the New Yorker can provide by the suitcase full in order to rescue them. Both dip their toes in the chaos of failed states confident that they always can, if push comes to shove, buy their way out and get on the next plane home.

Neither of them seem to appreciate what it means to be someone who grows up in a society where there is no escape and where ‘kill or be killed’ is the only law and which has been drummed into you since childhood.

Ignatieff makes the dynamite point that many of the most senseless killings and brutal murders can be understood if you grasp the idea that they are fighting and murdering in order to bring a full, final and complete peace to their countries so that they can enjoy the same sense of security and safety which Gourevitch, Keane and Ignatieff have taken for granted all their lives.

Summary

It is Ignatieff’s mighty achievement to not only have created a conceptual framework which makes sense of the panorama of post-Cold War anarchy, extracting core principles and ideas which shed light on every aspect of the new nationalism; and not only to deliver high quality intellectual insights about all the conflicts this book goes on to investigate; but also to deliver an unblinking, candid and winning analysis of his own privileged position, which makes him such a fantastic guide to the new world disorder of the 1990s.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


The new world disorder

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and the countries of eastern Europe and central Asia were freed from Soviet tyranny, many Western politicians and commentators optimistically thought this marked the end of history and the dawning of a golden era of peace and democracy. Well, as any fool could have told them, they were wrong, very wrong.

Instead, relieved of the threat of socialist parties and movements (which found themselves suddenly deprived of moral, political and sometimes financial support by the Soviets) a new more virulent form of neo-liberal capitalism triumphed around the world. Workers and even middle classes in the developed world found their living standards steadily declining, and entire third world countries found themselves being exploited even more effectively by an international capitalist system evermore focused on supporting the lifestyles of westerners and a new class of international global super-rich.

Lacking political maturity (i.e. established democratic systems with a track record of the peaceful transition of power from one elected administration to another; the multifarious aspects of civil society such as a free press, charities) many newly liberated nations, afflicted with economic stress, political instability and unresolved nationalist-ethnic-border issues, not surprisingly, experienced major problems.

The specific causes were different in each case but instead of an outbreak of peace, love and understanding, the 1990s saw the Gulf War, the collapse of Somalia, civil war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, to name just the highlights.

The Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11 added a whole new layer of misunderstanding and confusion to an already chaotic world, leading directly to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequent destabilisation of the entire region. And was followed by the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 which, once again, naive liberal commentators welcomed as an outbreak of democracy and equality but almost immediately led to chaos, civil war and the rise of regional warlords, in Syria and Libya to take the two most notable examples.

New world disorder reviews

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

The 1977 Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Sand is in two parts. Part one consists of a baker’s dozen of late short stories which take up 90 pages. Part two contains 35 poems taken from two of Borges’s final volumes of poetry, The Gold of the Tigers and The Unending Rose, presented in the original Spanish with English translations by the Scottish poet Alastair Reid on the facing page, and also taking up about 90 pages.

There’s an author’s note and an afterword. In the author’s note Borges reaffirms his allegiance to H.G. Wells, often overlooked by literary studies but clearly one of the most fertile, imaginative and influential writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

I have tried to be faithful to the example of H. G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.

In the event, some of the premises of the stories may be fantastical, but they are all conveyed in such a low-key, downbeat, almost offhand manner that you barely notice. The stories don’t signpost their own remarkableness, they downplay it. The stories feel different from those in Dr Brodie’s Report, more consistently fantastical or imaginative than the determinedly realistic narratives in that collection – but both books have more in common and are very different from the intensely bookish ficciones of his Labyrinths phase. Any reader hoping for more ficciones will be sorely disappointed but will, if they allow their expectations to be reshaped by the texts, be rewarded by subtler, more fleeting pleasures.

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A very relaxed, low key story in which Borges quietly remembers going to sit on a bench in Cambridge Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River and realising the young fellow who’s sitting at the other end of the bench is his own self, 50 years earlier. The young self thinks he is sitting on a bench in Geneva overlooking the river Rhone. Old Borges chats a bit about what’s happened to mum and dad, then when young Borges reveals the book in his hand is by Dostoyevsky, they fall to chatting about literature, as you do, quoting Victor Hugo and Whitman.

Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in, which makes conversation difficult. Each of us was a caricature copy of the other. The situation was too abnormal to last much longer…

Neither is terrified, but both afflicted with unease, and so hasten to make their excuses, say goodbye, promise to meet up the next day, and walk briskly away with no intention of keeping the rendezvous.

You know the big difference between this and a story by H.G. Wells. This one has no excitement. It is a teasing situation, but with no development or payoff. In fact it just dribbles to a close.

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

The narrator is named Javier Otálora. He is a professor at the University of the Andes. He is visiting York (in England) when he hears a pretty young woman talking in the hotel bar, gets chatting to her, they go for a walk across the freshly fallen snow which becomes steadily more archetypal or allegorical. There are no cars or roads, just them alone in the deep woods. They hear a wolf howl, she kisses him, they invoke the shades of Sigurd and Brynhilde, they arrive at another inn, climb as in a dream up the stairs to a bed where they make love. I think it is a waking dream. I think the author has been beguiled into some kind of re-enactment of the Sigurd and Brnyhilde legend.

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

Don Alejandro Glencoe was a Uruguayan ranch owner and landowner. At one time he had ambitions to stand for the Uruguayan Congress but the political bosses barred  his way. And so, inspired by something he’d read, he decided to set up a Universal Congress, representing all people, representing all humanity. He starts the process by inviting an assortment of 20 or so people to meet regularly at the Gas-Lamp Coffee House in Buenos Aires, trying to ensure a cross-selection, including women and gauchos and blacks. The narrator is Alejandro Ferri and we follow as he is, first, told about the Congress, then taken along, then becomes an active participant, travelling to England on research into ways to expand it and into which books to order to create a definitive library for the Congress.

Soon after his return, in what one could possibly take to be a typically quixotic, random, Hispanic gesture, Don Alejandro scraps his own creation and abolishes the Congress, insisting the members take the library of (rather random) books they have painstakingly assembled and burning them in the street. The members go on to have a wild, intoxicating night together, then part, never to see each other, but convinced by Don Alejandro’s exhortation that the Congress is not dead; on the contrary, it has now become universal and all men and women are members of it, even if they don’t know it. All this happened between 1899, when the narrator arrived in Buenos Aires, and 1902, when he undertook his ill-fated journey to a snowbound London.

The best of Borges’s ficciones left you with your mind completely blown by the intensity and profundity of the ideas and visions he conjured up. These stories are much more ‘meh’. This is the longest of all Borges’s works of fiction and, after this volume was published, he claimed it was his favourite. Meh.

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

A deliberately hammy hommage to the lurid horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, this one concerns a young student just finishing his studies. He had an uncle who had a house built in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The narrator gets news that his uncle has, sadly, died and then follows from a distance the subsequent developments, namely that the house is sold to a mysterious man who asks the original architect to build new extensions, which the architect indignantly refuses to do. After a few more investigations, the narrator one night, min a heavy storm, finds himself at the gate of the mysterious house, finds himself pushing open the gate, walking up the path, pushing open the front door and investigating the apparently empty and abandoned house and discovering it full of artefacts which make no sense, which don’t seem to have been designed for the human body or purposes… and while he is slowly coming down the stepladder from the attic, he hears the sound of ‘slow and oppressive and twofold’ coming up the ramp into the house…

5. The Sect of the Thirty (4th century Mediterranean)

A fairly brief account which purports to be a manuscript from the fourth century AD describing a Christian heresy, dwelling on the origin of the number 30 before going on to consider the drama of the Crucifixion and to identify ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ actors in it, concluding that there were only 2 intentional ones, namely Jesus and Judas. So the ‘Sect of the Thirty’ takes its name from the thirty pieces of silver which Jesus gave Judas.

This echoes the ficcione ‘Three Versions of Judas’ in which a renegade theologian develops the idea that the real Son of God was Judas, for whereas Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven after a few hours suffering, Judas made the ultimate sacrifice and condemned himself to everlasting hell.

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

Many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila on Florida Street up around Piedad, a group of men are gathered and having an earnest discussion about Plato’s theory of knowledge (which is that we already know everything but have forgotten it, so that ‘learning’ is merely remembering) when an older man interjects with a long and complicated story.

It is the story of the most memorable night of his life, the night of the thirtieth of April 1874,when he was little more than a boy, he was staying on the ranch of some cousins, and met Rufino, a seasoned cowhand. One night Rufino takes him into town to a brothel down a dirty back alley. The narrator is a bit overwhelmed. When confident Rufino sees him looking at a younger, shy woman, Rufino asks her to tell her tale. In a dreamy voice, the young woman, nicknamed The Captive, begins to tell the story about the time the Indians raided her ranch and took her away, but she’s barely got as far as the Indians riding towards her when the door bursts open and real-life bandits enter, led by the notorious outlaw Juan Moreira! He starts causing a lot of noise and when the little house doggy approaches, whips him so hard the dog dies there and then.

Terrified, in all the brawling, the boy narrator slips down a hallway, finds a secret stairwell and goes upstairs, into a room and hides there. It is, unsurprisingly, the room of The Captive, who quietly comes in, closes the door, slips off her clothes and makes him lie with her. It’s not described but the implication is that he loses his virginity.

But then there’s a lot more banging and a gunshot and the Captive tells our narrator to leave by the back stairs. He does so, nips across the garden and shimmies over the wall. He comes face to face with a policeman who grins and lets him go, but as he loiters, the famous outlaw Moreira slips over the same wall, presumably escaping the cops who’ve gone in the front, and the policeman steps forward and bayonets Moreira. And again. While the horrified boy looks on

Then we snap back to the ‘present’ and the now-old man reflecting on his story, that he experienced two of the Great Experiences of Life in the same night, losing his virginity and seeing a man killed in front of him.

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

After the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, in which he had defeated a Norse-Irish coalition, the High King of Ireland orders his chief bard, Ollan, to commemorate it in heroic verse. The story quickly becomes a kind of fairy tale, for it is structured round three magical events. The king gives his bard a year to go to England, travel widely, and compose a great poem. A year later he returns, and amid great ceremony, recites the poem, which is a masterpiece, which repeats and supersedes all the conventions of his forebears. The king rewards him with a silver mirror.

Then the poet goes off to England for another year, sees and hears many things, returns and this time reads from a manuscript, a poem which is much stranger, in form and substance, combining the Christian Trinity with the pagan gods, in which subject and verbs and nouns do not agree but present strange new combinations. Dazzled, the king says that only the learned can understand so strange a composition and that he will store the manuscript in an ivory casket and he gives the poet a golden mask.

After another year the poet arrives at the king’s court but he is a man transfigured, ‘His eyes seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind.’ This time the man asks to see the king alone and laments that the has produced the finest poem yet but wishes the Lord had prevented it. He asks for the hall to be emptied and then recites the poem which consists of just one line, but which is so transcendent, so numinous that both king and bard are shaken to their core, both wondering whether knowing such Beauty is a sin.

‘The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden to men. Now it behoves us to expiate it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the last.’ In the bard’s right hand he placed a dagger. Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland – which was once his kingdom – and that he has never repeated the poem.

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

This short text is pleasurably complicated, working at multiple removes in narrator and time and place. First of all it claims, in the time-honoured way, to be a transcription of a fragment of manuscript found in a dusty old volume in a library, namely an account by of Adam of Bremen, who, ‘as everyone knows’, was born and died in the eleventh century, and it starts off by being an account of what he has discovered about a people named the Urns, who live in Scandinavia.

But barely a page has gone by before Adam brings in a specific character, a traveller from Iceland named Ulf Sigurdsson. Adam claims to have met him at Uppsala, by the famous pagan temple there, where Ulf tells him his story. So now we have three layers of text:

  1. the introductory paragraph explaining this is all a manuscript in an old book
  2. the text itself describing Adam’s journeys into Sweden
  3. the narrative of Ulf

Ulf explains that he was a skald or poet from Iceland and had travelled to Sweden because he had heard that the Urns create poems with just one word. He meets a blacksmith who prepares him to be taken before the king of the Urns, Gunnlaug, in readiness for which Ulf composes a drapa, an elaborate genre of Icelandic poetry. However, when he performs it for the king, although the latter gives him a silver ring, his place is soon taken by a local poet who strikes his lyre and recites a poem which consists of just one word and everyone is much moved.

On leaving the king’s cabin, Ulf is accosted by a fellow poet, Bjarni Thorkelsson, who confirms that the old tropes Ulf used have been superseded and tells him his life is in danger. Together they conspire to get Ulf onto a boat which heads south.

At this point follows a brief summary of the rest of Ulf’s life, which was action-packed and included being an oarsman, a slave dealer, a slave, a woodcutter, a highwayman, a singer, a taster of deep waters and metals, spending a year in the quicksilver mines, fighting in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, having a big love affair with a woman by Sea of Azov, fighting a duel with a Greek, fighting the Blue Men of Serkland, the Saracens.

At the end of this long life, Ulf is a tired old man who makes his way back to the land of the Urns and, after some difficulty, finds the house of the fellow skald who saved him, Bjarni Thorkelsson. Bjarni is bed-ridden and insists on hearing Ulf’s entire life story. As a reward he takes up his harp and speaks the one Word, undr, which means ‘wonder’. The wonder of the world, and finally he understands.

With that the text ends. It does not go back up a level to Adam’s narrative, or up two levels to the original framing modern explanation. It deliberately ends on this symbolic note.

In the afterword Borges points out that one of his most famous ficciones is about an infinite library which contains every combination of every letter in every language ever conceived by man. This is the opposite, a story about just one word, which manages to capture the entire life of a culture.

9. A Weary Man’s Utopia (centuries in the future)

Some kind of vision or maybe dream. The narrator identifies himself as Eudoro Acevedo, born in 1897 in the city of Buenos Aires, 70 years old, a professor of English and American literatures and a writer of imaginative tales i.e. an avatar of Borges himself.

He is walking over a plain in the rain and sees the lights of a house and walks over to it and the door is opened by a tall man who invites him in and signals straight away that he has entered a different century, apparently in the future when other languages have fallen into desuetude and educated people speak Latin. The host is very relaxed and says they receive visitors from the past ‘from century to century’.

In this future the people are taught to forget history and culture and to rise above the present, to live in all time. He is four centuries old and has only read half a dozen books. Printing has been abolished. For his part the narrator explains that in his world, there were newspapers which made a big fuss about the latest news, a continuous turnover of trivia, plus advertising for a thousand and one products no-one needs. To fully exist you needed to be photographed.

Whereas in this future nobody has possessions, there is no money. People study philosophy or play chess. They are free to kill themselves. Everyone must sire one child but this means the human race is slowly dying out. Politics has ceased to exist because nobody paid any attention. He spends his time painting, he shows the narrator some of his paintings and gives him one as a gift.

Then a woman and three or four men enter the house peacefully and they work with the owner to dismantle all the belongings and then carry them through the streets to a crematorium where they burn all his belongings. The scene cuts back to the ‘present’ where the narrator is writing this text,

In my study on Mexico Street, in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.

There is no drama and barely any plot. Instead it is a thing of changing moods and angles.

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

As the narrator admits at the outset this is more of an anecdote than a story. It concerns three American academics who are all specialists in Anglo-Saxon literature. It takes quite a while to explain because it is about a subtle psychological point which requires an explanation of the ‘politics’ in the English Department at the University of Texas.

A key figure in the department is the upright scion of a New England family Dr Ezra Winthrop. He has been helped in his editing of Anglo-Saxon texts by the able scholar Herbert Locke. A conference is coming up, in Wisconsin. Winthrop is advising the head of the department, Lee Rosenthal, who to send.

Recently the department has been joined by a naturalised American of Icelandic descent named Eric Einarsson. The text describes a series of publications he’s made, starting with a new edition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon (which I have reviewed in this blog) then, only a few weeks before the conference, he publishes a long article in the Yale Philological Quarterly. The aim of the article is to attack the way Anglo-Saxon is taught in the department, which mainly focuses on Beowulf (which I have reviewed in this blog) which the article considers too long, confused but above all too refined and baroque a production to teach beginners.

Partly as a result of the article, Winthrop advises Rosenthal to choose Einarsson to represent the department at the forthcoming conference, rather than the loyal capable Locke. The story such as it is, boils down to the final and only real scene in the text, wherein Einarsson drops into Winthrop’s office to thank him for helping choose him to attend the conference – and then candidly lets Winthrop know how he engineered the decision. When he first met him, Einarsson was surprised that Winthrop, despite being a principled Northern, defended the South’s right to secede from the Union in the American civil war. Einarsson realised in a flash that Winthrop’s rigid Puritan morality made him bend over backwards to see the opposing point of view.

That is why he wrote a long article criticising the way the department teaches Anglo-Saxon. It was reverse psychology. He knew that Winthrop would bend over backwards to be fair so someone who had just attacked him, and choose Einarsson over loyal Locke. And that is just what happened. Low-key, eh? Subtle.

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

A peculiar story set in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1897 during the civil war which ravaged the country. It tells of a man from the country, Avelino Arredondo, a little over 20, thin, shortish, poor. He is a part of a group of young men who meet at the Café del Globo. One day he tells them he is going away. He kisses goodbye to his girlfriend, Clementina, adieu to his friends, but instead of setting off to a distant town as he told everyone, he holes up in his little apartment, never going out or reading the papers, attended by an ancient servant who brings him his meals. All is aimed towards the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, which is months away and, because this date is mentioned several times, the reader naturally wonders what might happen. Because the slow passage of time and in fact the change in the subjective experience of time is mentioned several times, we wonder if this is a science fiction story and some fabulous transformation will take place.

Alas, no. Arrendondo wakes on the morning of 25 August, dresses, breakfast, then makes his way to the cathedral square just as a group of dignitaries are leaving morning Mass. He asks a bystander to point out the president of this wartorn country, Juan Idiarte Borda, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. He belongs to the other side in the civil war (the Whites against the Reds). At his trial he is careful to emphasise that he has lived isolated from the world for months, having said goodbye to his girlfriends, all his acquaintances and not read a newspaper for months – all the more to bring out that this was an entirely existential decision by he and he alone.

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

A wonderfully short and strange story. The narrator is a poor woodcutter. A stranger turns up at his hut. He gives him food and shelter. Next morning they go for a walk. When the stranger drops his staff he orders the woodcutter to pick it up. ‘Why?’ asks the woodcutter. ‘Because I am king,’ says the stranger, ‘I am of the line of Odin’. The woodcutter replies he is a Christian. The slightly mad old king says he can prove he is king by showing him the thing in his hand. He opens his fist. There is nothing there, but when the woodcutter tentatively puts out his finger he feels something cold and sees a glitter in the sunshine.

Here is the one spooky eerie detail which makes the whole thing cohere. The king tells him it is Odin’s disk and it has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side.

13. The Book of Sand

The narrator suffers from myopia, lives in a flat by himself. A tall stranger knocks on the door, he lets him in. He says he is from the Orkney Islands. He says he sells Bibles, The narrator replies that he already owns several English translations of the Bible (as you might expect). Then the salesman opens his case and gets out another book. He bought it off an illiterate Untouchable in India. It is called the Book of Sand because, like the desert, it has no end.

No matter where he opens it there seem to be more pages at the front and back. The pages bear fantastically large page numbers and it is impossible to find one again. They haggle about a price and the salesman parts with it for a monthly pension payment and the black letter Wycliff Bible, packs his case and leaves.

Only then are we treated to the slow possession the infinite book begins to exert over its owner. He stops going out, he devotes his life to trying to tabulate the content of the infinite book, he becomes paranoid, he hides is behind other volumes on his shelves, but he begins to realise it is driving him mad, he realises the bookseller came to him willing to get rid of it at almost any price.

One day he takes it along to the National Library (which Borges himself was Director of), slips past the staff, down into the dusty basement, and without paying too much attention to the rack or shelf or position slips it in among thousand of other anonymous volumes and quickly departs, as if from the scene of a crime.

Late style

Writers who live long enough often develop a recognisably late style. In these late stories Borges is closer to the ficciones of Labyrinths than he was in Dr Brodie’s Report – for a start they’re not all set in contemporary Argentina as most of those stories were; many return to the European settings or to the remote times and places of the ficciones, although he appears to show a fondness for rugged medieval pagan Europe more than the flashy worlds of Islam and China which attracted him in the ficciones. I know what he means. There’s something more genuinely weird and eerie and rebarbative about hearing one wolf howl in the great snowy Northern forests, than there is in seeing a thousand geniis pop out of a bottle or all the dragons of Chinese legend.

But it’s not so much the subject matter, it’s the treatment. The tales are more elliptical and elusive. Borges’s late style has learned to eschew flashy effects for something more subtle and lateral. I liked Ulrikke, The Mirror, Undr, A Weary Man because the inconsequentiality of the dream subject matter matches the flat obliquity of the style.

Is it the wisdom of age or the tiredness of age or the indifference of age? Or is it the result of Borges’s blindness? He never learned braille and dictated all his later works, having them read back to him and correcting them orally, a completely different method of composition from seeing the words you write, and re-seeing them, and seeing them again as you review over and over what you have written to give it not only a rhetorical flow but a visual styling, on the page. None of that here. All of that dense reworking, the temptation to be ‘baroque’, had departed along with his sight.

Was it all or any or a combination of these factors, or just a realisation that, after the metaphysical pyrotechnics of ficciones, it was on many levels more satisfying to play a subtler game, to create not the vaunting elephants and leaping tigers of a Salvador Dali painting, but the subtle understatement of a miniaturist. In the afterword Borges describes A Weary Man’s Utopia as the most ‘honest’ of the stories. In it the exhausted and ancient man of the future devotes his life to painting what appear to be modest, not very dramatic, and semi-abstract works.

I examined the canvases, stopping before the smallest one, which represented, or suggested, a sunset and which encompassed something infinite. ‘If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend,’ he said matter-of-factly. I thanked him, but there were a few canvases that left me uneasy. I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Maybe that is an apt description of these stories, products of an old man, far advanced in his chosen craft, indifferent to praise or blame, making them for his own amusement, no longer impressed by the flashy effects of youth and middle age. Lucid and reflective.

I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Nearly… but not quite.


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Borges reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


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Borges reviews

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kings, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William the Bastard who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


Related links

Related reviews

Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns.
(Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for an array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army.

Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who assimilates scholarly works on historical topics and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, McLynn candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce this book – although the ten-page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement by McLynn to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. As the title suggests, McLynn builds it on the scaffold of the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to end up giving a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence it is known as the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, a vast area which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In 1858 civil war between liberals and conservatives broke out and was won by the liberals in 1861. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria.

Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition was never quelled in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw the French army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and Maximilian was executed outside Mexico City. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politician, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, all resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule, known as the scientificos.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the Revolution. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. Resulting in a mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to Madero’s call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City.

Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life.

Zapata, by contrast, was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land. When he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

So Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings.

Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, eventually forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan which prevented the new president from taking active power for a long five months, while civil servants prepared a handover phase.

In practice, this was long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected.

It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero, even when fully in power, was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He was a sort of theoretical democrat. Once a meaningful election had been held, he thought his job was done. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on for such a long time, and was so incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did one actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Easy to understand.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised.

In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces.

Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of Madero, the elected liberal leader, by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against General Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states, the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his own army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, the great generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause.

The only thing remotely like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo better than their rivals. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Germanic warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply reflected whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas.

Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But merely having an –ismo didn’t make this pair special or unique; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time. Followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on.

The thirty odd years of economic progress before the Revolution were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies,that,arguably, has been Mexico’s curse, as of many developing countries.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But Villa and even the most educated of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry, Villa simply printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he then blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, ‘el carnicero’, who shot men for the fun of it – although even he eventually overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe redistributed land to his followers, and with the same net effect.

The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, and simply had a new class of even more anarchic and unpredictable rulers lording it over them. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, by then president of Mexico, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – then maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead, leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. The only question that ever mattered was, Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result was a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing clearly defined political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countries. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end, that whichever bloodthirsty leader rose to the top would soon be overthrown by another bloody coup.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish, Zapata is associated to this day with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still very relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – it is totally irrelevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’, it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president in 1917.

Carranza wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war against the remaining warlords which lasted from 1915 to 1920. This apparently endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except for continuing burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labour and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground and meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged.

Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. Before running away, Carranza looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train which he headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead, the Golden Train was ambushed and Carranza was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken by bandits who then betrayed him. Horrible.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could himself return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country. Intoexile trotted another Mexican ex-president.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y is ruling. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country in order for the country to function.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labour, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church.

In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI declared itself the embodiment of the glorious ‘Mexican Revolution’ in order to justify its existence and its hold on power for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether the social and economic changes which Mexicoexperienced in the 1930s and 40s would have come about anyway, without any of the raveing bloodshed, as a simple result of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources and so on?

But, in the Mexican way, social progress ended up requiring so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable backstabbing.

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land, or to anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toil miserably on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn quotes from extensively.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is usually given as the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and to end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920 – who had himself been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end.

Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

The assassination of Pancho Villa

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón appears to have given his blessing to the complicated assassination conspiracy against Villa which McLynn lays out in great detail.

On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead, with some 250,000 fleeing to America.

The assassination of Alvaro Obregón

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. The various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him.

On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata. he had fought alongside them, and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point, eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence following the nominal ‘end’ date. What a country!

Zapata’s son

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapata the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner himself, got elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old élites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy. Ha!

Conclusions

McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted, despite their best intentions, into struggles not to change the ruling class, but between different factions within the ruling class. Villa and Zapata were suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón.

The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the same age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century.

The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. But,as the documentary makes clear, plenty of Mexicans still live in grinding rural poverty.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe not for its peasants – but for the new brand of 20th century capitalism.


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A Dark Age Chronology

Inspired by Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book, The Hammer and The Cross, I collated key dates from the so-called Dark Ages (let’s say from the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 to the Norman Conquest of 1066). Why? Why not?

An at-a-glance overview of the period would be:
400 Romans leave England – Angles and Saxons invade Christian Britain
500 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms exist all across Britain, the Heptarchy
600 St Augustine comes as missionary to the pagan Anglo-Saxons
800 Vikings attack Lindisfarne, going on to colonise east and north England: a century of battles
900 Alfred the Great and successors unify the Anglo-Saxons against the Danes, creating ‘England’
1000 Aethelred the Unready fails to deal with repeated Viking attacks

5th century
410 Traditional date for the Romans quitting Britain. In fact it was a gradual process: 407 the army elects Constantine III emperor and he takes a lot of the Roman army to Gaul to attack Honorius: how many? was a military commander left or ever reappointed? 408 A Saxon attack repelled by Britons. 409 Zosimus records the natives expelled the Roman administration. 410 the rescript of Honorius – apparently the emperor Honorius telling the Britons they are on their own facing barbarian attacks.
449 (a retrospectively written section of) the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Hengest and Horsa lead Saxons, Jutes and Angles to Kent at King Vortigern’s request to protect from marauding Picts, and decide to stay: the official start of Anglo-Saxon England. The venerable Bede attributes the date of 449. Their names mean stallion and horse: were they real people or legendary symbols?

6th century
500 Beowulf born, according to JRR Tolkien’s chronology. Welsh monk & historian Gildas born.
520s Beowulf fights Grendel
525 King Hygelac of the Geats killed fighting the Franks
550 Gildas writes the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
597 Saint Augustine arrives to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons

7th century
A blank

8th century
732 The Venerable Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
772 Charlemagne comes to the throne
782 massacre of Saxon pagans at Verden
793 Vikings attack Lindisfarne

9th century
800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
814 Charlemagne dies
820 13 Viking ships attack north of the Seine
825 kingdom of Wessex absorbs Sussex and Essex
830 Nennius’s history Historia Brittonum
835 Viking attack on Isle of Sheppey
849 Alfred the Great born
857 Vikings attack Paris, take Rouen
865 Grand Heathen Army invades the east and establishes the Viking kingdom of York
868 the GHA takes Nottingham. Alfred marries the Mercian princess Ealswith
870 the GHA led by Ivar the Boneless defeat the army of and kill Edmund, king of East Anglia, soon to be canonised
870s the settlement of Iceland begins
871 the Saxons fight nine big battles against the GHA: Ethelred dies and is succeeded by king Alfred who makes peace with the Danes
876 the GHA conquers Northumbria
877 the GHA occupies Wrexham and attacks Exeter
878 Alfred hides in the Somerset marshes around Athelney; emerges to defeat Guthrum and make peace at the Treaty of Wedmore and baptise him
886 final peace made with Guthrum and establishment of the Danelaw
889 Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled marries Aethelred aldorman of Mercia
892 dues to his alliances and military reforms Alfred defeats a Viking invasion fleet of 250 ships
899 Alfred dies and is succeeded by his son Edward
890-910 intense period of settlement of Iceland caused by the unification campaign of Norway’s king Harald Finehair

10th century
903 the Vikings driven out of Dublin by Caerball
910-20 Ethelred and Ethelfled build 28 fortified burhs along the border with the Danelaw to defend Mercia and Wessex
911 Rollo founds the Duchy of Normandy
911 death of King Louis the Child ends the Carolingian dynasty in the east
911 Edward son of Alfred annexes Oxford and London
914 Brittany-based Vikings raid south Wales
917 Ethelfled drives the Danes from Derby
918 Ethelfled dies, leaving a daughter, Elfwyn. Within a year she disappears from the record, probably forced into a convent, marking the End of the independent kingdom of Wessex
919 dukes elect Henry the Fowler king
920 Edward son of Alfred is king of all England south of the Mersey and Humber
924 Edward son of Alfred dies, succeeded by his brother Athelstan
927 Athelstan drives Olaf viking out of York
930 settlement of Iceland largely complete
930 Ganger Rolf / Rollo dies and is succeeded by his son William Longsword
934 Constantine king of the Scots challenges Athelstan
935 rule of Gorm the Old ends
936 Henry the Fowler’s successor, Otto the Great, symbolically crowned at Aachen Charlemagne’s capital
936 Haakon the Good of Norway drives out his brother Erik Bloodaxe
937 Athelstan and his brother march north and defeat the Irish-Norse Scots and Northumbrian Norwegians at the battle of Brunanburh, commemorated in an Anglo-Saxon poem
939 Athelstan dies: Olaf returns and retakes York
940 death of Harald Finehair king of Norway
941 Olaf dies: York passes to Olaf Sihtricsson
944 the Danes reject him: Erik Bloodaxe, an exile fromt he Norwegian court, in some versions is baptised by Athelstan and given York. But his wife is unpopular…
954 Eric Bloodaxe expelled from York by king Edred ending the Scandinavian kingdom of York: 100 years after the Danelaw was defined, all of its territories are in English hands once more
955 king Eadwig crowned at Kingston
957 his brother Edgar rises against him
959 Eadwig dies and king Edgar reigns
960s Harald Bluetooth erects the Jelling stones in memory of his parents, celebrating his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and his conversion of the Danes to Christianity
962 in exchange for his military support the Pope crowns Otto Holy Roman Emperor, a title which is to dog central Europe for the next thousand years
973 Harald Bluetooth attacks Otto from Denmark but is repelled
975 Edgar dies, is succeeded by his son Edward
978 Edward murdered to clear the succession for the 10 year old Ethelred; a cult grows around Edward the martyr undermining all Ethelred’s subsequent attempts to rally the English against the Danes
980s settlement of Greenland led by Erik the Red
983 Harald Bluetooth successfully expels Otto from Denmark
987 Harald Bluetooth overthrown by his son Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard, exiled, dies of an arrow wound, in some versions fired by a child
991 Vikings raid along the east coast and win the Battle of Maldon, commemorated in the Anglo Saxon poem
992 Ethelred raises a fleet to attack the Vikings but some Anglos on his own side betray him
993 Vikings sack Bamburgh
994 Olaf Trygvasson and Sweyn Forkbeard attack London with 94 ships
995 bishops approach Olaf and he agrees to be confirmed, sponsored by Ethelred, and to leave England
996 Olaf returns to Norway, defeats and beheads king Hakon and embarks on a violent campaign of Christianisation
998 Viking army in Dorsey
999 Viking army sails up the Thames to Rochester
999 conversion of Iceland to Christianity under threat from Olaf Trygvasson

11th century
1001 Vikings burn and pillage up the river Exe
1002 Ethelred orders the St Brice’s Day massacre of all Danes in England
1003 Sven returns and burns Exeter
1004 Sven’s Vikings burn Norwich
1005 famine drives the Vikings home
1006 Sven’s Vikings base themselves on the Isle of Wight, march through Reading to loot Winchester
1007 Ethelred offers 36,000 pounds of silver as Danegeld
1008 Ethelred orders a massive fleet built but is betrayed by his own side, the fleet is destroyed in storms, never engages the enemy
1009 Canterbury buys off Thorkell the Tall with Danegeld
1011 Thorkell’s Vikings back in Canterbury kidnap the archbishop, Alphege then, bored and drunk, stone him to death
1013 Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard arrives from Denmark and travels round the country being acclaimed king wherever he goes in the Danelaw. Ethelred flees to Normandy
1014 having conquered England and established a kingdom which includes Denmark and Norway, Sven dies. The Danes and Anglo-Danes elect his son Cnut king, but Ethelred returns, raises a fleet and army, and drives Cnut out.
1015 Cnut returns with a massive fleet and ravages the West Country. Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, had revolted against his father and established himself in the Danelaw. Over the next months, Canute conquered most of England, and Edmund had rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on 23 April 1016. The subsequent war between Edmund and Canute ended in a decisive victory for Canute at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18 October 1016. Edmund’s reputation as a warrior was such that Canute nevertheless agreed to divide England, Edmund taking Wessex and Canute the whole of the country beyond the Thames. However, Edmund died on 30 November and Canute became king of the whole country aged 20.
1017 Cnut formally crowned and receives 72,000 pounds Danegeld. Cnut executes high level traitors, parcels out land to his followers, marries Ethelred’s widow, Emma, and takes a Christian name.
1020s Cnut supports the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral, issues laws against heathenism
1019 upon the death of Cnut’s childless older brother Harald, Cnut becomes king of Denmark
1027 Cnut undertakes a pilgrimae to Rome to attend the coronation of the Emperor Conrad II
1035 Cnut dies intending his son by Emma, Harthacnut, to succeed. Harthacanut has to go to Norway to sort out problems there giving his half-brother, Cnut’s illegitimate son by Aelfgifu, Harold Harefoot, chance to seize the throne.
1040 Harthacnut is preparing a fleet to sail back to take Britain when Harold Harefoot dies
1042 Harthacnut proves himself a cruel king, imposing high taxes, burning Worcester to punish the citizens, before dropping dead after drinking heavily at a wedding.
1066 Harald Hardrada invades from Norway. Harold Godwinson defeats him at the battle of Stamford Bridge. William of Normandy invades. Harold loses to him at the battle of Hastings.

For a light-hearted Danish point of view see this web page.

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document – which (from a historian’s point of view) frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it fleetingly refers to, and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research has tended to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon.

Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical Greek tragedies they had all studied in Classics at school.

For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic W.P. Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn, and he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every subsequent study as marking a sea change in attitudes.

For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag, miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, the ragamuffin product of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, the unreason and the unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – e.g. Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre: as he puts it, ‘Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents, in Tolkien’s view, a lack of feeling for ‘the mythological mode of imagination’.

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as the accusation that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated – it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats.

Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster.

For Tolkien, delivering this lecture in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classical tradition.


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