My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


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The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953)

Bester is not a subtle writer. This is his first novel and it opens with the main character waking screaming from a nightmare, and then keeps up more or less the same helter-skelter, overdriven pace throughout. Everyone is running around shouting, arguing, fighting, partying. It’s full of what my kids’ primary school teachers used to call ‘doing’ words:

  • Reich tore out of Personnel…
  • He returned to his own office and paced in a fury…
  • With a roar of rage, Reich snatched up a gold paper-weight and hurled it into the crystal screen…
  • Reich swore feverishly all the way down from the tower apartment to the cellar garage…
  • Reich hurled himself to the ground…

Slam, bam, thank you ma’am. Or, as the characters say, using the latest zippy catchphrase:

‘Pip,’ she said.
‘Pop,’ he said.
‘Bim,’ she said.
‘Bam,’ he said.

24th century telepathy

The Demolished Man is set in the 24th century when telepathy has become common, boring and mundane. Telepaths are called Espers (extra-sensory perception) or, colloquially, ‘peepers’. They have an Esper Guild, which holds exams and enforces rules. There are some 100,000 3rd class Espers in the Esper guild (who can send and receive simple messages, mind to mind), and 10,000 2nd class Espers (who can penetrate some way into a person’s thoughts), and about 1,000 1st class Espers (who can read anything in another person’s mind, drilling right down into their unconscious mind).

Multi-millionaire boss of the multi-planet corporation Monarch Industries, Ben Reich, wakes from a terrifying dream, screaming because he is haunted every night by ‘The Man With No Face’. His  staff analyst, Carson Breen, Esper Medical Doctor 2, therapist, tells him what he already suspects, that this figure is a symbol of his powerful business rival, Craye D’Courtney, owner of the powerful D’Courtney Cartel. In between zipping all over New York (a city of 17.5 million in the 24th century) supervising his multinational corporation, Reich conceives the simple idea of murdering his rival and thus stopping his anxiety dreams, an ambition which becomes burning after D’Courtney rejects merger talks Reich sends him via coded telegram. Right!

He returned to his own office and paced in a fury for five minutes. ‘It’s no use,’ he muttered. ‘I know I’ll have to kill him. He won’t accept merger. Why should he? He’s licked me and he knows it. I’ll have to kill him and I’ll need help. Peeper help.’

Murder is unknown

Peeper help, yes, because it turns out that nobody has committed a murder for generations.

This is the basic idea of the plot: in a world of powerful telepaths, murder – in fact most forms of crime – are impossible, because Espers or peepers will read a criminal’s plans beforehand, and can certainly be hired to track down the guilty afterwards.

So the initial interest of the book, such as it is, is How do you commit a murder in a world where minds can be read? In fact, the answer turns out to be, pretty easily. Reich pays a young woman working in the equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, Duffy Wyg&, to sing him a song so horribly catchy that all he has to do is think it and it completely blocks his thinking from all peepers. Then he blackmails a former peeper who helped him once before and got thrown out of the Espers Guild for his pains, Jerry Church, and who now runs a pawn shop, to sell him an antique, rather odd-sounding ‘knife-gun’.(Not many of them about in the peaceful future.)

Lastly, Reich pays a high-powered Esper, Gus Tate, to establish that D’Courtney is visiting Terra from his base on Mars (humans appear to have colonised Mars and Venus, Reich has a digital clock showing the time on earth, Mars and Venus – later there are quick jaunts to the moons of Jupiter and a vast pleasurecentre which has been built in space). So Reich ascertains that D’Courtney is staying at the house of notorious socialite Madame Maria Beaumont – nicknamed the Gilt Corpse and recipient of vast amounts of plastic surgery which she likes to show off by dressing in the fashionable half-naked style of the times.

The murder

So Reich makes his plans. He sends Madame Maria a copy of an old book of party games which includes the instructions for Sardines (one person hides, everyone else looks for them, as they find them the seekers join the hider, until only one seekers is left; they’re the loser). She is enchanted and, once her party is underway, from a raised platform tells the semi-naked fashionable guests they’re going to play it. The lights go off and – this being a titillating, pulpy novel – most of the guests proceed to take off the remainder of their clothes amid squeals and giggles.

These are exactly the conditions Reich had intended, ideal for making his way through the darkness to the secret upper-floor room where his Esper, Tate, has ascertained that D’Courtney is hiding.

Reich has come armed with stun capsules, to be precise:

They were cubes of copper, half the size of fulminating caps, but twice as deadly. When they were broken open, they erupted a dazzling blue flare that ionized the Rhodopsin—the visual purple in the retina of the eye—blinding the victim and abolishing his perception of time and space.

He throws these into the ante-room to paralyse the two guards, then pushes into the main room to encounter D’Courtney who turns out to be a frail old man who can barely stand and barely talk. He is, apparently, struggling to make peace with bullish Reich and agree and reconcile, when the door bursts open and D’Courtney’s half-dressed blonde daughter, Barbara, comes racing in begging Reich not to hurt her father.

Too late. Reich grabs the fragile old man, grabs his head, forces the pistol into his mouth and shoots him through the mouth and bottom of the brain. Corpse falls to floor. Daughter runs out screaming. Reich turns, tries to follow her through the pitch-dark mansion, gets caught back up in the game, the hostess announces he is the loser since he’s the only one not in her secret hiding place, party lights come back on as guests exit the hiding place and refill the main room where she’s making a jokey speech to Reich when everyone notices blood dripping onto his clothes through the ceiling above. Hostess screams. Someone calls the cops.

Lincoln Powell, the Prefect of the Police Psychotic Division

Apparently, a police procedural is:

a subgenre of procedural drama and detective fiction that emphasizes the investigative procedure of a police officer or department as the protagonist(s), as contrasted with other genres that focus on either a private detective, amateur investigator or characters who are the targets of investigations.

So The Demolished Man is a police procedural insofar as, from this point onwards (about page 80 to the end of the 250-page Gollancz edition), the interest is in whether Reich will be caught.

But it also belongs to the genre of the inverted detective story:

a murder mystery fiction in which the commission of the crime is shown or described at the beginning, usually including the identity of the perpetrator and the story then describes the detective’s attempt to solve the mystery.

It becomes even more so once snazzy Lincoln Powell, the Prefect of the Police Psychotic Division and himself a powerful 1st class Esper, turns up on the scene, pushing his way through the bustling uniformed cops and the forensics boys, as we have seen the handsome lead detective do in thousands of TV cop series and thriller movies, in order to schmooze the bosomy socialite hostess and her guests.

Powell is clever, he is dangerous, and within a few pages he catches Reich out in his account of events (by this time everyone knows D’Courtney has been murdered since half the party went upstairs to see the body, and the hostess has also told them D’Courtney’s daughter was with him but has now disappeared) but Reich lets slip that he knows she (the daughter) was half-dressed – giving away the fact that he was there.

And, although Reich has called to his side a powerful Esper lawyer, Jo ¼maine, Powell still slips into his mind for a moment when it isn’t filled with the inane pop jingle mentioned earlier, and confirms to his own satisfaction that Reich did it.

So by page 100 we know who committed the murder – Reich – and we know that the lead detective on the case knows it, too.

So, in fictional terms, the interest ought to become the cat-and-mouse process of the detective trying to prove it and the culprit trying to prevent him.

Except that this isn’t really a very serious book. I’ve just read several science fiction masterpieces which take the idea of telepathy extremely seriously, powerfully conveying the shock and disorientation and fear that would be caused if someone else really could penetrate your thoughts, and speak to you inside your head – namely Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and, in a rather different mode, The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

By comparison, The Demolished Man is about as serious as an episode of Starsky and Hutch with spaceships. It comes as no surprise to flick through his Wikipedia article and learn that Bester wrote extensively during his career for popular TV shows such as Nick Carter, The Shadow, Charlie Chan, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe and The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

‘Are you rocketing?’ he said hoarsely. ‘Do you think I’ll fall into that orbit?’

Telepathy

No, having destroyed any suspense by telling us who did it, and that the investigating detective knows whodunnit, the interest switches to admiring how many variations Bester can wring out of their cat-and-mouse confrontations, how many wacky, 24th century scenes he can cook up.

First and foremost there is the recurring trope of telepathy, where there’s lots of fun to be had from Bester fleshing out the idea of a Guild of Espers, with all its procedures and politics and rivalries – its selection procedures and what he tells us, straight-faced, is its ‘Esper Pledge’.

I will look upon him who shall have taught me this Art as one of my parents. I will share my substance with him, and I will supply his necessities if he be in need. I will regard his offspring even as my own brethren and I will teach them this Art by precept, by lecture, and by every mode of teaching; and I will teach this Art to all others. The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of mankind according to my ability and judgment, and not for hurt or wrong. I will give no deadly thought to any, though it be asked of me. Whatsoever mind I enter, there will I go for the benefit of man, refraining from all wrong-doing and corruption. Whatsoever thoughts I see or hear in the mind of man which ought not to be made known, I will keep silence thereon, counting such things to be as sacred secrets.

In the middle of the book, Powell finds the runaway daughter, Barbara, brings her safely to his house where he gets an assistant, Mary Noyes to look after her. Barbara is in such a state of catatonic shock – Powell finds her mind to be a raging chaos – that they embark on a newly discovered technique (‘the Déjà Èprouvé Series for catatonia’) of regressing Barbara to childhood and getting her to relive her mental development – the idea being to regrow her mind in an environment where her father is already dead, so Powell can access her adult mind.

But along the way he has to peer deep, deep into her primitive child-mind and these scenes – the sensations and feelings of telepathy – are described for pages with a kind of vivid, technocratic exuberance, with the technicolour blaze of the kinds of American TV sci fi shows I loved when I was a boy – Time TunnelLand of the GiantsStar Trek. It sounds like this:

Here were the somatic messages that fed the cauldron; cell reactions by the incredible billion, organic cries, the muted drone of muscle tone, sensory sub-currents, blood-flow, the wavering superheterodyne of blood pH… all whirling and churning in the balancing pattern that formed the girl’s psyche. The never-ending make and-break of synapses contributed a crackling hail of complex rhythms. Packed in the changing interstices were broken images, half-symbols, partial references… Theionized nuclei of thought.

Similarly, a number of parties are described or encounters and conversations between peepers, in which the exchanges are written in quickfire italics or – a Bester trademark, this – clever and stylised typography, the words of different telepaths set in different positions around the page, for example creating rows and columns which the reader has to navigate, typographically conveying the sense of complex telepathic interactions.

In its shiny, snappy, techno diction and Pop Art layout, this is all a million miles away from the subtlety and Eastern-inspired insights of Ursula Le Guin’s descriptions of telepathy.

Narrative energy

But above all the book’s fundamental quality is the relentless speed, its zingy, fast-paced narrative and its bubblegum, wow-words style.

  • They all shot to their feet and shouted “No! No! No!”
  • He horded the terrified squad toward the door, pushed them out, slammed the door and locked it.
  • Reich wrapped the book, addressed it to Graham, the appraiser, and dropped it into the airslot. It went off with a puff and a bang.

As, indeed, does the whole book.

Colourful incidents

The book is packed with quickfire, colourful incident. Set in New York (admittedly in the 24th century and after some kind of war wrecked parts of the city in the late twentieth) many of the settings (casino, nightclub, pawn shop) and many of the outlandish names (Keno Quizzard, Choka Frood) reminded me of Damon Runyon, but above all the snappy dialogue, and smart-alec  attitude of all concerned.

‘I’ve got no time for a two-bit hater with coffin-queer friends.’

Everyone’s a wiseguy.

‘You took out our tail, Duffy. Congratulations.”
Ah-ha! Hassop is your pet horse. A childhood accident robbed him of a horse’s crowning glory. You substituted an artificial one which—
‘Clever-up, Duffy. That isn’t going to travel far.’
‘Then, boy-wonder, will you ream your tubes?’

This is a snappy exchange between Powell and a sassy young woman he thinks is working for Reich about a guy named Hassop who Powell set to tail her. I like the phrase ‘clever-up’ which numerous characters use to each other, obviously Bester’s 24th century version of ‘wise up’. I’ve no idea what ‘will you ream your tubes?’ means.

Rough and Smooth Anyway, Powell tells his team they’re going to Rough-and-Smooth Reich, with a whole set of plain clothes detectives and snoops following him in plain sight, so that when he evades them he lets his guard down and is accessible to the much subtler undercover cops.

The Monarch Jumper Doesn’t really work out as Reich zips around the city taking care of all the loose ends which might tie him to the crime, and all the time coming up with hare-brained schemes for finding the girl, the key witness. He persuades one of his advertising executives that they need a pretty girl to be the face of ‘the Monarch Jumper’ (apparently a kind of rocketship), and sketches Barbara’s face and tells him to scour the city for her. He offers a fortune to set up sanctuaries for the city’s homeless, and then pays for a man at the door of every shelter, with a sketch of Barbara and a hefty bonus if they spot her.

The Rainbow House of Chooka Frood None of this works till an underworld contact of Reich’s, Keno Quizzard, tracks the girl down to the bizarre entertainment venue at 99 Bastion West, hosted by Chooka Frood (in that crazy twentieth century war a bomb blew up a ceramics factory and created a mad multi-coloured swirl of melting glaze which poured down into the cellar and solidified, hence The Rainbow House of Chooka Frood). Upstairs there’s a ‘frab’ joint, whatever that is.

The Neuron Scrambler Anyway, from different directions, Powell and Reich both arrive there at the same time, Powell getting into the actual room where the blind, sluglike Quizzard is pawing and fondling the catatonic Barbara. Powell paralyses Quizzard and seizes the girl. Reich was slower, having to threaten sleazy Chooka with a ‘neuron scrambler’ in order to get her to reveal the girl’s location, and watches through the transparent floor from the from above, holding the scrambler on both of them.

(A neuron scrambler has three settings or notches: Notch 1. charges the central nervous system with a low induction current. Notch 2. Break-bone ague, brute groans of a tortured animal. Notch 3. Death.)

For a moment he has it in his power to stun Powell and grab the girl but he doesn’t, he himself doesn’t know why. Deep down he’s a decent sort, maybe. Or there is a bond between him and the cop, they’re the same type, clever, charismatic, it’s an accident they’ve ended up on opposing sides.

The harmonic gun There are many many other colourful episodes. Powell drops into Jerry Church’s pawnshop, having invited Reich’s tame peeper Gus Tate to meet him there and is in the middle of carrying out a subtle psychological con on Church when… someone attacks the joint with a ‘harmonic gun’ which sends fatal ripples up through the floor. Powell leaps for the chandelier, along with Church, but can’t prevent Tate falling to the floor where he is instantly vibrated into a bloody raw mess.

In another episode Powell gets the laboratory at the Espers Guild to put on a show for the old and vain Dr Wilson Jordan who, Powell has established, helped Reich with the crime. By pandering to his vanity one of the teams in the lab gets him to own up to inventing the anti-rhodopsin drops which stunned D’Courtney’s guards.

It is extremely intricate and fast-paced and wonderfully silly.

[Choka] shot up from the desk and screamed: ‘Magda!’ Reich caught her by the arm and hurled her across the office. She side-swiped the couch and fell across it. The red-eyed bodyguard came running into the office. Reich was ready for her. He clubbed her across the back of the neck, and as she fell forward, he ground his heel into her back and slammed her flat on the floor.

Spaceland In another abrupt change of scene, Powell and his sidekick Jackson Beck (Esper class 2) get wind that Reich has jetted to Spaceland, the enormous adapted asteroid in space where entrepreneurs have set up concatenations of luxury hotels.

Even more colourful, they learn that his ship crash-landed or was involved in a collision with an asteroid or space junk, but that Reich was injured and one of the passengers killed. When they catch up, Powell and team realise the dead man was Quizzard, the crash was faked, and Reich is leaving a trail of the corpses of his collaborators behind him.

The Reservation But the plot keeps racing on to ever-more colourful scenarios, and now Powell learns Reich has gone into ‘the Reservation’, an off-world recreation of the untouched jungle, and has taken with him Hassop, keeper of Reich and Monarch’s secret codes, and the only man who has a record of the coded exchange that took place between Reich and D’Courtney. With typical wild abandon, Powell recruits a whole raft of civilians to go into the Reservation and track the pair, quickly finding them and closing in to discover that Reich has set up an impenetrable security bubble around them, while he whittles a bow and arrow and Hassock builds a fire. Spooked by what he senses of someone closing in, Reich panics and starts firing his arrows at Hassock who runs round and round the perimeter of the security bubble panicking and screaming, until Powell performs the trick of projecting a vast wave of TERROR at the lowest range possible for an Esper and thus stampedes all the elephants, rhinos and other big game for miles who stomp right through Reich’s security bubble and, in the chaos, Powell grabs hold of the terrified Hassop and yanks him to safety.

Old Man Moses

By page 180, the thoroughly exhausted reader watches Powell gather up all the testimony he has accumulated and present it to the District Attorney and, more importantly, to ‘Old Man Mose’, the giga-computer more correctly referred to as the Mosaic Multiplex Prosecution Computer. After some comic stumbles (the programmer makes a mistake and the computer rejects Powell’s entire case) it not only accepts all the evidence, but states he has a 97.0099% probability of a successful prosecution. Powell is just celebrating when the door opens and two technicians rush in with terrible news – they’ve decoded the exchange Reich and D’Courtney had a few days before the murder – and D’Courntey accepted the offer of a merger. He was giving Reich everything the latter could possibly want. At a stroke, the entire motive for the murder disappears!

Mad finale

At which point the novel feels like it goes into overdrive for the final mad fifty pages:

Assassination attempts First of all there are no fewer than three attempts on Reich’s life – bombs going off in his spacerocket back to earth, in his office and in a domestic ‘jumper’ (a kind of rocket taxi).

Reich jumps to the wild conclusion that it is Powell trying to kill him, out of frustration that his legal case has collapsed and so he creates a diversion, threatening Choka Frood into video phoning Powell that she has the knife-gun which killed D’Coutney. Powell is excited at the thought of getting his hand on key evidence, tells Frood not to move and grabs a jet over… while Reich jets to Powell’s home, stuns Mary (the woman who loves Powell and has move into his house to chaperone Barbara D’Courtney) and starts trying to interrogate Barbara, thinking her little-girl-lost behaviour is a wisecracking act… before Powell arrives home, having realised the Frood gun-thing was a distraction. They talk, they fight, Powell deep-peeps Reich and is horrified by what he finds.

To cut a long story short, Powell realises that Reich is D’Courtney’s son. D’Courtney had an affair with Reich’s mother. For the rest of his life he’s felt increasingly guilty at having abandoned him. Now, in the final stages of throat cancer, D’Courtney had agreed to the merger and wanted to meet Reich to explain that he was his son and to be reconciled.

But Reich was so fired up by his own impetuous rage that he a) misread the telegram back agreeing to the merger b) refused to listen as D’Courtney struggled to tell him the truth, at Maria’s mansion.

This explains a lot of the doppelganger imagery which has been floating round in Reich’s mind, but also explains other oddities, like how he couldn’t shoot the neuron scrambler at Barbara and Powell when the latter rescued her from The Rainbow House of Chooka Frood. It was because, at some level, he knew Barbara was his step-sister.

Anyway, this confrontation builds up to the climax of Powell telling Reich that the real person responsible for the assassination attempts on his is not Powell – it is THE MAN WITH NO FACE, at which point Reich screams in mental agony and blunders out of Powell’s house into the streets.

But in fact this isn’t what had shocked Powell because, as he deep-peeped Reich’s mind he saw something far, far worse, he saw that Reich is one of the rare individuals who can change reality; whose paranoia and fear and rage are so intense that they can wrest reality to their fantasies.

The Esper Guild Council So Powell calls an emergency meeting of the Espers Guild’s Council at which he explains that it is necessary to carry out a Mass Cathexis, a rare united action by the top Espers in which they focus all their energy via one individual. Powell presents his case that Reich is a one in a generation individual who has the capacity to shape the world to his own paranoid needs. To be precise, as Powell tells the emergency meeting of the Esper Guild’s Council:

Reich is about to become a Galactic focal point… A crucial link between the positive past and the probable future. He is on the verge of a powerful reorganization at this moment. Time is of the essence. If Reich can readjust and reorient before I can reach him, he will become immune to our reality, invulnerable to our attack, and the deadly enemy of Galactic reason and reality.’

The council reluctantly agrees to carry out the cathexis – reluctantly because the Esper at the centre of it – in this case Powell – has in all previous cases been destroyed.

Powell jets home and packs off the unwilling Mary and Barbara to Kingston mental hospital in upstate New York, getting them out of the way so he can prepare for the final battle.

Powell goes to NYC police HQ Meanwhile we cut to what turns into the weirdest and most intense passage of the novel, a sequence of scenes in which Reich finds himself in different settings as the universe collapses around him. First he wakes in the gutter in the rain in a foetal position, realising he must have blacked out and being helped to his feet by young Galen Chervil, a minor character we met earlier. Chervil helps him stagger along to police headquarters where Reich demands to see the Chief of Police (who is on his payroll) and learns that the murder case against him has definitely been dropped. He runs out of police headquarters roaring with triumph but then sees, walking across the busy New York street towards him, The Man With No Face!

In Duffy Wyg&’s bed When he comes round he is in the pretty pink bedroom of the songwriter Duffy Wyg& who has always fancied him. They josh and banter in a wisecracking 1950s style, but when Reich sticks his head out the bedroom window he notices something terrible – there are no stars in the sky. Worse, when he quizzes Wyg& about it – she has never heard of stars, doesn’t know what stars are, thinks he’s mad. Terrified, Reich dresses, rushes out into the street and catches a jumper to the city observatory where the man at the telescope tells him there are no stars, there have newver been stars… turns round and is revealed to be… The Man With No Face!

At Monarch HQ Running out the observatory screaming, Reich tells the jumper pilot (basically a rocket taxi) to take him to Monarch HQ, where he calls senior managers to his office to announce the merger with D’Courtney and that he will soon be ruling over Mars and Venus and all the satellites. They look at him blankly. They’ve never heard of Mars and Venus. Reich has a fit mad and ransacks through the office files to get confirmatory documents but there are none – there is no record of a Venus or Mars or indeed of the entire solar system. It doesn’t exist. It has never existed.

Reich’s people call Monarch security – the boss has obviously gone mad, but Reich dodges them and makes it out into the streets of the hectic city to discover that…

There is no sun. There has never been a sun. The world has always been illuminated by streetlights. Reich shouts about it at passersby who look at him as at any maniac. He goes to a public information booth and quizzes the central computer, which says… there has never been a sun. Overhead is black black black.

At each of these junctures he has suddenly come face to face with… The Man With No Face… And now there is no New York, there is just a waste land in darkness stretching off in every direction and the voice, the voice loud and commanding saying There is nothing, There is nowhere, the voice of the Man With No Face.

An hysterical style for a tale of hysteria

This is all very effective. Because the entire novel has been written at such a hectic pace, the reader has become used to being rushed and buffeted into new scenes and revelations, and this final sequence feels like a natural climax to Reich’s hysteria.

It is thrilling to read about the slow demolition of the universe and I assumed that it really reflected reality, that Reich really was remodelling the universe to reflect his own terrors, as in a Philip K. Dick novel or in Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven where individual’s minds can change the world… although I was a little puzzled that there was no sign of Powell and the big Mass Cathexis we had been promised…

But then, a new chapter starts and all is made clear. The universe and the world haven’t ended at all. What we had read so vividly described in the previous chapter was the Mass Cathexis. It was the power of all the Espers in the Guild channeling their energy through Powell who projected it into Reich’s mind, and made all his worst fears come true in his mind. Eventually there is nothing but darkness and The Man With No Face in Reich’s mind only because he has gone mad. And been shut down. Neutralised.

Kingston Hospital The scene cuts to Kingston hospital in the sunshine where happy patients are doing outdoors exercises as Powell’s rocket descends.

  1. He survived. He was not consumed in the Mass Cathexis.
  2. Reich was contained. His destructive energies were broken. Now he is a mad patient at the hospital.
  3. Powell has come to declare his love for the beautiful blonde Barbara D’Courtney, bringing with him a box of luxury treats.

The sun is shining, the world is saved, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. They walk into the sunset…

Oh, there’s a slight interruption when Reich gets free and jumps from a balcony into the garden setting patients screaming. Powell puts Barbara protectively behind him and walks over to confront Reich. The latter is half-way through his treatment, the psychological ‘demolition’ which gives the book its title. What does that entail? I’m glad you asked:

When a man is demolished at Kingston Hospital, his entire psyche is destroyed. The series of osmotic injections begins with the topmost strata of cortical synapses and slowly works down, switching off every circuit, extinguishing every memory, destroying every particle of the pattern that has been built up since birth. And as the pattern is erased, each particle discharges its portion of energy, turning the entire body into a shuddering maelstrom of dissociation. But this is not the pain; this is not the dread of Demolition. The horror lies in the fact that the consciousness is never lost; that as the psyche is wiped out, the mind is aware of its slow, backward death until at last it too disappears and awaits the rebirth. The mind bids an eternity of farewells; it mourns at an endless funeral. And in those blinking, twitching eyes of Ben Reich, Powell saw the awareness… the pain… the tragic despair.

Reich is not going to be executed. That’s the kind of barbaric punishment they meted out back in the twentieth century ha ha. He is going to be stripped down and remade, preserving his manic energy and character, refocusing it on socially useful ends.

Powell looks into the eyes of the slobbering half-man in front of him, and gently offers him the goodies he had brought Barbara. His attendants arrive and take Reich away. Powell returns to the pretty blonde who is his reward for being such a hero. All’s right with the world.

Thoughts

It has been a rollicking read. My guess would be that most initial readers were blown away by the thoroughness of Bester’s ideas and conceits – namely his working out of all aspects of the his very practical conception of telepathy – the Guild, the pledge, the comic conversations telepaths have at parties and so on – along with the powerful (for 1953) Freudian themes of oedipal murder, frustrated incest, and so on – not to mention the intense final scenes where Reich goes mad and experiences a collapsing universe – and all this stuff is tremendously compelling, albeit in a dated, bubblegum, 1950s sort of way.

But reading it 60 years later, what is clear to me is that the real secret of The Demolished Man is its extraordinary verbal energy and phenomenal narrative pace. It is a rollercoaster of a read which it is impossible to put down or pause. As so often, I believe the real secret of a bestseller or legendary book, is in the quality of its writing. Reich may be going out of his mind but Good God, the energy of the man, and the energy the writing conveys right into the reader’s head.

  • He carried her to the window, tore away the drapes and kicked open the sashes…
  • He shoved her away, turned and ran to the bathroom…
  • He flung out of the apartment and rushed down to the street…
  • Reich cried out. He turned and ran. He flew out of the door, down the steps and across the lawn to the waiting cab…
  • He darted to the desk and yanked out drawers. There was a stunning explosion…
  • He ran out of his office and burst into the file vaults. He tore out rack after rack; scattering papers, clusters of piezo crystals, ancient wire recordings, microfilm, molecular transcripts…
  • Reich howled. He leaped to his feet, knocking the desk chair backward. He picked it up and smashed it down on that frightful image…
  • He spun around twice, heart pounding, skull pounding, located the door and ran out…
  • He ran blindly onto the skyway, shied feebly from an oncoming car, and was struck down into enveloping darkness

Of course the themes are important and the plot is gripping, but it’s this bombardment of hyperactivity, it’s all the running and smashing and kicking and yanking and exploding and screaming which really characterises the visceral experience of reading this breathless text.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

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

The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel – part one (1984)

‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’
(Franz Kafka, 8 January 1914)

This is a hugely enjoyable biography of Franz Kafka, chiefly because it is itself so unKafkaesque, so informative and logical and entertaining.

Although the subject matter and settings of Kafka’s novels and short stories vary, what all Kafka’s works have in common (well, apart from the really short stories) is the long-winded and often convoluted nature of his prose which seeks to reflect the over-self-conscious and over-thinking paranoia, anxiety and, sometimes, terror of his protagonists, narrators or characters.

Pawel’s book, by contrast, is a wonderfully refreshing combination of deep historical background, penetrating psychological insights, fascinating detail about the literary and cultural world of turn-of-the-century Prague, and hair-raising quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and works, all conveyed in brisk and colourful prose. Pawel is about as variedly entertaining as prose can be, which came as a huge relief after struggling through the monotone grimness of a story like The Burrow.

Three ethnicities

If you read any of Kafka’s works it’s difficult to avoid blurbs and introductions which give away the two key facts of his biography – 1. his lifelong fear of his father, Herrmann, and 2. how he spent his entire working life in a state insurance company, itself embedded in the elephantine web of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was an integral part of the pullulating Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that, like a giant net of near-epic intricacy, covered the entire Hapsburg domain. (The Nightmare of Reason, page 183)

Between them these two facts can be used as the basis of entry-level commentaries on Kafka’s stories, interpreting them as being about either:

  1. anxiety and dread of some nameless father figure who inspires an irrational sense of paralysing guilt
  2. or (as the two famous novels do) as unparalleled descriptions of vast, impenetrable bureaucracies which the helpless protagonists can never understand or appeal to

So far, so obvious. What I enjoyed most in this biography was all the stuff I didn’t know. First and foremost, Pawel gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the history, the politics and, especially, the ethnic make-up of Bohemia, where Kafka was born and lived most his life, and of its capital city, Prague – and explains why this mattered so much.

What comes over loud and clear is the tripartite nature of the situation, meaning there were three main ethnic groups in Bohemia, who all hated each other:

1. The majority of the population of Prague and Bohemia was Czech-speaking Czechs, who became increasingly nationalistic as the 19th century progressed, lobbying for a nation state of their own, outspokenly resentful of the Austrian authorities and of their allies in the German-speaking minority.

2. A minority of the population, around 10 to 15%, were ethnic Germans. They regarded themselves as culturally and racially superior to the Czechs, who they thought of as inferior ‘slavs’. The Germans were bolstered 1. by their proximity to Germany itself, with its immense cultural and literary heritage, and 2. because they spoke the same language as the Austrians who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most schools in Bohemia taught German as the official language, resulting in a state of civil war between the two languages and low level conflict between the two cultures – Pawel describes it as an ‘abyss’ (p.140).

Kafka, for example, although he was complimented on his spoken Czech, never considered himself fluent in it, and was educated, preferred to speak and wrote in German. In reference books he is referred to as a master of German prose.

3. And then there were the Jews. Pawel goes into great detail and is absolutely fascinating about the position of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bohemia in particular. He goes back to the Emperor Joseph II’s 1781 Patent of Toleration, which allowed Jews and Protestants for the first time to practice their religion in the Empire, and the charter for religious freedom granted the Jews of Galicia in 1789. From these statutes dated a series of other laws enacted throughout the nineteenth century designed to ’emancipate’ the Jews from a range of medieval laws which had placed huge restrictions on how they could dress, where they could go, what jobs they could hold.

But this so-called emancipation was a double-edged sword, because it also abolished the communal autonomy which the Jews had enjoyed, it forbad the wearing of traditional Jewish clothes, and it enforced the Germanisation of Jewish culture.

The effect of all this was that, through the 19th century, successive generations of Jews tried to break out of the squalor and poverty of their predominantly rural settlements, emigrated to the big cities of the Empire, dropped their traditional clothing and haircuts, learned to speak German better than the Germans, and in every way tried to assimilate.

Both [Kafka’s] parents belonged to the first generation of assimilated Jews. (p.54)

Unfortunately, this ‘aping’ of German culture mainly served to breed resentment among ‘true’ Germans against these cultural ‘impostors’, with the net result that, the more the Jews tried to assimilate to German culture, the more the Germans hated them for it.

Thus, in a bitter, world-historical irony, an entire generation of urbanised, secular Jews found themselves in love with and practicing a Germanic culture whose rightful ‘owners’, the Germans, hated them with an unremitting anti-semitism (pp.99, 149).

And these hyper-intelligent Jews were totally aware of the fact, bitterly reminded of it every time another anti-semitic article was published in their newspapers or anti-semitic ruit took place in their towns. And so it helped to create a feeling that if only they weren’t Jews everything would be alright. It helped to create the phenomenon known as Jewish self-hatred, a condition Pawel thinks Kafka suffered from, acutely, all his life (p.108).

(Though not as much as the journalist Karl Kraus. In a typically fascinating digression, Pawel devotes an excoriating passage to Kraus, a secular Jew born into a wealthy industrialist family, who became a leading satirical writer and journalist, and devoted his flaming energies to protecting the ‘purity’ of the German language, and – according to Pawels – castigating ‘the Jews’ for importing provincial jargon and Yiddishisms. Kraus was, in Pawel’s view, ‘the quintessential incarnation of Jewish self-hatred’ (p.226).)

And don’t forget that, all the while they were the subject of German anti-semitism, the Jews also got it in the neck from the other side, from the nationalist Czechs, the more Germanic the Jews strove to become, the more the Czech nationalists hated them for sucking up to their oppressors. The Jews got it from both directions.

I knew about Austrian anti-semitism, not least from reading biographies of Freud. But I didn’t know anything about the distinctive dynamic of Czech anti-semitism.

The emancipation of the Jews

Pawel describes all this in such depth and detail because it explains the impact on Kafka’s own biography – namely that Franz’s father, Herrmann, was one of that generation of Jews who, in the mid-nineteenth-century, escaped from the grinding poverty of the rural shtetl, migrated to the city, and finagled the money to set himself up in business, to try to rise in the world.

One of the best-known things about Kafka is how he lived in abject fear of his father, who instilled a permanent sense of terror and anxiety in him, but Pawel explains brilliantly how Kafka senior was a highly representative figure, just one among a great wave of Jews of his generation who escaped rural poverty, migrated to the city, became more or less successful businessmen and… sired sons who despised them.

He wasn’t alone. Pawel shows how it was a pattern repeated across educated Jewry (p.98).

Seen from this historical perspective, Sigmund Freud (born 1856 in Příbor in what is now the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) is a kind of patron saint of his and the slightly later generation (Kafka was born in 1883) for Freud’s father, Jakob, was the son of devout Hasidic Jews, who, in the classic style, moved from his home district to the big city of Vienna where he struggled to run a business as a wool merchant, rejecting along the way all the appurtenances of the rural Judaism which were so associated with poverty and provincialism. It was as a result of Jakob’s deracination, that his son decisively broke with any religious belief, and became the immensely successful and highly urbanised founder of psychoanalysis.

Same or something similar with a whole generation of Jewish-German writers artists and composers – Kafka, Brod, Hermann Broch, Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and so on (pp.98, 99). It was a world of staggering artistic brilliance – this was the generation which contributed to and helped define the whole idea of Modern Art. But it was all built on a volcano, the fierce hatred of ‘genuine’ Germans for the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews who (they thought) were appropriating their culture.

This was the atmosphere of Kafka’s world, dense with hate. (p.44)

Judaism is replaced by literature

A further consequence emerges from Pawel’s historical approach which is that this generation, the first generation of truly urbanised Jews, which had largely lost its religious faith in the process, nonetheless continued, like their rabbinical forefathers, the Jewish obsession with the written word.

Only instead of devoting their lives to interpreting the Holy Scriptures as their Hasidic forefathers, rabbis and holy men had – these largely irreligious urbanites now nagged and worried about secular types of writing – namely literature and philosophy and criticism and aesthetics. God may have been declared dead and words no longer used to pray and worship – but instead, the endless finagling of rabbis and commentators was now applied to existence itself, to a scrupulous cross-examination of modern life in the hurly-burly of hectic cities.

The Jewish intelligentsia on the whole remained isolated, inbred and inward looking…Theirs was a paradoxically communal shtetl of cantankerous individualists huddled in the warrens of their self-absorption, with literature as their religion and self-expression their road to salvation. (p.153)

As Pawel puts it with typically colourful rhetoric:

Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of a reason for faith. (p.100)

The same intense scrutiny the forefathers paid to every word and accent of the Talmud, their heirs now devoted to the production of texts exploring the experience of the modern world which boiled down, again and again, in the hands of its most dogged exponents, to an investigation of language itself.

And so we find Kafka in December 1910 making one of the hundreds and hundreds of diary entries he devoted obsessively to the subject of writing, of words, of prose, of literature:

I cannot write. I haven’t managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge; on the contrary, I threw out everything – it wasn’t much – that I had written since Paris. My whole body warns me of every word, and every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me. The sentences literally crumble in my hands.

‘Every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me’! In Kafka’s hands, even language itself is gripped by fear.

Kafka’s diet

Kafka was a lifelong hypochondriac who also happened to suffer from actual illnesses and conditions. From early in adulthood he experimented with a variety of cures from surprisingly silly quack doctors. He became obsessed with diet, first becoming a vegetarian, and then implementing an increasingly complicated regime of diets, which Pawel describes in detail.

But once again Pawel uses this to make the kind of socio-psychological point for which I really enjoyed this book, when he points out the following: In the Jewish tradition, strict adherence to kashrut or traditional Jewish dietary law linked the individual to the community, made him one with a much larger people and their heritage – whereas the dietary rituals Kafka made for himself completely cut him off not only from the Jewish tradition, but even from his own family, and ultimately his own friends. Later in life Kafka:

gradually got into the habit of taking all his meals by himself and intensely disliked eating in anyone’s presence. (p.209)

Like everything else in his life, even eating became a source of anxiety and dread and shame.

Hermann Kafka and his family

Although Pawel records the lifelong terror and feeling of humiliation which Herrmann inculcated in his over-sensitive son, he injects a strong dose of scepticism. As you read Franz’s Letter to his Father, the sustained thirty-page indictment of Herrmann which poor Franz wrote at the age of 36, you can’t help beginning to feel sorry a bit sorry for Herrmann. It wasn’t his fault that he emerged from grinding poverty all but illiterate and had to work hard all his life to support his family. Whereas Franz enjoyed 16 years of education and wangled a cushy job at the Workers Insurance Company thanks to a well-connected uncle. From one point of view, Franz is the typically ungrateful, spoilt son.

And in a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional story, Pawel wonders if it wasn’t Kafka’s mother, Julie, who did most damage to her son. How? By being totally aware of young Franz’s hyper-sensitive nature, but doing nothing about it – by effectively ignoring his hyper-sensitive soul in order to suck up to her bullying husband.

Because, as Pawel points out, Kafka gave the notorious Letter to His Father to his mother to read and then pass on to the family ‘tyrant’. She certainly did read it but never passed it on, returning it to Franz after a week and, well… Franz could easily have handed it over to his father by hand – or posted it. But he chose not to. That, Pawel speculates, is because the letter had in fact achieved its purpose. Not to address his father at all, but successfully implicating his mother in his childhood and teenage trauma. After all:

All parents fail their children, and all children weave their parents failure into the texture of their lives. (p.82)

As this all suggests, Kafka’s story was very much a family affair, a psychodrama played out in the claustrophobic walls of the Prague apartment he shared with his mother, father and three sisters.

Indeed it is a little staggering to read Pawel’s description of the apartment the family moved to in 1912, whose walls were so thin that everyone could hear everyone else cough or sneeze or open a window or plump a book down on a table – let alone all the other necessary bodily functions. What a terrible, claustrophobic environment it was (and we know this, because we have hundreds of diary entries made by Franz moaning about it) and yet – he didn’t leave.

More than once Pawel suggests there is something very Jewish about this smothering family environment and the way that, although he could easily have left once he had a secure job, Kafka chose to remain within the bosom of his smothering family.

It’s aspects of Kafka’s psychology and life like this which drive Pawel’s frequent comparisons and invocations of Freud, dissector and analyst of the smothering turn-of-the-century, urban, Jewish family, investigator of the kind of family lives that the young women of his case studies made up hysterias and neuroses, and the young men made up violent animal fantasies, to escape from.

But here, as in other ways, Kafka stands out as taking part in a recognisable general trend – but then going way beyond it – or moulding it to his own peculiar needs – because at some level, deep down, he needed to be smothered.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

And all around them, surrounding the anxieties of family life, were the continual ethnic tensions which regularly broke out into actual violence. Sometimes it was Czech nationalists rioting against their Austro-German overlords in the name of Czech nationalism – as they did in the so-called Prague Pogrom of 1897 when Czech nationalists started off by ransacking well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, but ended up devoting three days to attacking Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew.

Slowly, over his lifetime, Kafka noted the situation getting steadily worse. Fifteen years later, the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz-Joseph led to violent attacks organised by the Czech National Socialists on German properties, which led to troops being sent in and the imposition of martial law (p.298).

But whether it was the Germans or the Czechs, and whether it was the journalistic or bureaucratic attacks of the intelligentsia, or crude physical attacks on the street (and street fighting occurring on an almost weekly basis, p.205):

The extremist demagogues prevailing in both camps were equally vocal in their common hostility to the Jews.

This pervasive fearfulness among Jews helps explain the origins of Zionism, first given theoretical and practical expression by Theodor Herzl, another urbanised and ‘assimilated’ Jewish son of poorer, more rural parents, from the same generation as Freud (Herzl was born a year later, in 1860).

In 1896, deeply shocked by the anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that anti-semitism in Europe couldn’t be ‘cured’ but only avoided altogether, by leaving Europe and founding a state solely for Jews.

The theme of Zionism looms large in Kafka’s life. Many of his school and university friends became ardent Zionists – including his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who managed to escape Prague on the last train before the Nazis arrived, and successfully made it to Palestine. Zionism it was one of the big socio-political movements of the time, along with socialism, anarchism, and Tolstoyan pacifism. (pp.61, 290)

And it was a practical movement. The Bohemian Zionists didn’t just campaign for the establishment of a foreign homeland; closer to home they organised the community, publishing a weekly magazine named Self Defence edited by Kafka’s friend Felix Weltsch (one of the many writers, journalists, critics and poets who Pawel tells us about).

Above all, they preached the idea that all the Jewish hopes for ‘assimilation’ were a fantasy: the Jews who worshipped German culture were adulating their abuser. There could never be full assimilation and the sooner the Jews realised it and planned for their own salvation the better. Tragically, the Zionists were to be proved entirely right.

So from Kafka’s twenties onwards, Zionism was one of the half dozen cultural and political themes of the day. Late in life Kafka encouraged his sisters to develop agricultural skills preparatory to emigrating to Palestine. It was a constant possibility, or dream of his, mentioned in diaries and letters although, being Kafka, he knew it was not a dream he would ever live to fulfil.

Multiple reasons to be afraid

Thus it is that Pawel’s book brilliantly conveys the multiple levels or sources of Kafka’s terror.

  1. He was born over-sensitive and anxious and would have had a hard time adapting to real life anywhere. He was painfully shy and morbidly self-aware.
  2. His father was a philistine bully who ridiculed his son’s weakness and intellectual interests, exacerbating the boy’s paranoia and anxieties in every way.
  3. In newspapers and even in lectures at the university he attended, Kafka would routinely read or hear the most blistering attacks on the Jews as enemies of culture, emissaries of poverty and disease from pestilent rural slums, Christ-killers and followers of an antiquated anti-Enlightenment superstition.
  4. And then, in the streets, there would be periodic anti-Jewish riots, attacks on individual Jews or smashing up Jewish shops.

In the midst of explaining all this, Pawel makes a point which it is easy to miss. He notes that in Kafka’s surviving correspondence with Max Brod or with his three successive girlfriends, Kafka rarely if ever actually alludes to anti-semitism, or to the street violence, clashes, public disorders and growing power of the anti-semitic nationalist parties in Prague. Pawel makes what I thought was a really powerful comment:

It was only in his fiction that he felt both safe and articulate enough to give voice to his sense of terror. (p.204)

An insight I thought was really worth pondering… something to do with the way fiction, or literature, can be a way of controlling and ordering the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming, the personally overwhelming and the socially overwhelming…

Anyway, that’s a lot of sources of fear and terror to be getting on with, before you even get into Franz’s more personal anxieties – not least about sex and everything sexual, which sent him into paroxysms of self-disgust.

Sex

I had no idea that Kafka was such an habitué of brothels. I mean not now and then. I mean routinely and regularly, as well as having sexual escapades with all sorts of working class girls, serving girls and servants and waitresses and barmaids and cleaning women in the many hotels he stayed at on his business trips. We know this because it is all recorded in the copious diaries he kept, and in his extensive correspondence with Max Brod and he even mentions it in letters to his various fiancées.

The subject prompts another one of Pawel’s wide-ranging cultural investigations which I found so fascinating, this time a lengthy description of the way the madonna-whore dichotomy experienced a kind of ill-fated, decadent blossoming in turn of the century Austro-Hungary – in the Vienna we all know about with its Klimt and Schiele paintings, but also in Germanic Prague.

Sex… was the sinister leitmotif dominating literature, drama, and the arts of the period. And beyond the poetic metaphors loomed the brutal real-life affinity of sex and death – botched abortions, childbed fever, syphilis, suicides. (p.77)

All his friends were at it, they all slept with prostitutes: we learn that Max Brod’s marriage got into trouble because he simply refused to carry on sleeping with every woman he could. The women – we learn – came in different grades, from professionals in brothels, to semi-pros in doorsteps, to amateurs – cleaners and suchlike – who would give you a quick one for cash.

All of which exacerbated the aforementioned Madonna-Whore complex, whereby women were divided into two categories – the generally working-class whores you paid to have dirty sex with – and the pure, high-minded and chaste young ladies you accompanied to concerts and were expected to marry (p.180).

To an astonishing extent, Kafka was a fully paid-up member of this club and had an extraordinary number of casual sexual partners – innumerable encounters which he then followed up with the predictable paroxysms of self-loathing and self-hatred. In this respect he was surprisingly unoriginal.

There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between Kafka’s intense but guilt-ridden sex life and the peculiar relations his two key protagonists have with women (in The Trial and The Castle) but that’s for others to write about. I’m interested in history, and language.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia

It is a revelation to discover that Kafka was good at his job in this insurance company. Not just good, vital. His quick intelligence and pedantic attention to detail were just what was needed. He was tasked with auditing safety regulations about a whole range of industrial processes, a job which required him to travel extensively around the country, staying in hotels (shagging chambermaids if possible) and visiting a huge range of factories and workplaces.

His annual reviews still survive and glow with praise from his superiors and colleagues. He started work at the company’s offices in 1908, was promoted within a year, given full civil service tenure in 1910, advanced to Junior Secretary in 1913, to Secretary in 1920, and senior Secretary in 1922. His immediate superior, Chief Inspector Pfohl, wrote that without him the entire department would collapse. He was a model employee, prompt, intelligent, diligent and polite, as all the testimony from his colleagues confirms.

Fourteen years of following bureaucratic procedures in an institute which was itself part of the wider bureaucratic Empire. And of writing official reports in the tone and style of a senior bureaucrat. You’d have to be quite dense not to link these factors with a) the visions of a vast topless bureaucracy which form the core of the two great novels, and b) with the parody of official, academic-bureaucratic style which is so omnipresent, especially in the later stories.

Kafka’s officialese

Commenting on the contradiction between Kafka the florid hypochondriac and Kafka the smartly turned-out insurance inspector, a contemporary Prague’s literary circle, Oskar Baum, is quoted about how the mental or intellectual structures of the workplace, of its official and stern prose, mapped very handily onto Kafka’s intensely personal obsessions with writing.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

It’s easy to overlook, but this is a profoundly distinctive aspect of Kafka’s art which is easy to overlook: that all these delirious and often visionary stories are told in very formal and precise prose, and in a style which, in the later stories, becomes really heavily drenched in bureaucratic or academic or official rhetoric.

Pawel’s lurid style

So I found the way Pawel’s factual information about the social, economic and political changes in Bohemia leading up to Kafka’s birth – specifically the changing role of Jews in Bohemian culture – and then his detailed account of Franz’s family life and how that was woven into the complicated social and intellectual currents of the time, really built up a multi-layered understanding of Kafka’s life and times.

But curiously at odds with all this is Pawel’s own very uneven style. One minute he is describing statistics about industrial production or the percentage population of the different ethnicities in the tone of a government report or Wikipedia article:

Prague’s German-speaking minority was rapidly dwindling in proportion to the fast-growing Czech majority, from 14.6 percent in 1880, when the first language census was taken, to 13.6 percent in 1889, Kafka’s first school year. The city’s population totaled 303,000 at the time; of these, 41,400 gave German as their first and principal language. (p.31)

Or:

Between 1848 and 1890, Bohemia’s share in the total industrial output of the monarchy rose from 46 to 59 percent. By 1890, Bohemia and Moravia accounted for 65 percent of Austria’s industrial labour force. (p.37)

The next, he is writing wild and extravagant similes which seem to belong to another kind of book altogether. Here he is describing one of Kafka’s teachers:

Gschwind, author of several studies in linguistics, was rightfully regarded as an eminent classicist, and one can only speculate on the reasons that led him to waste his scholarly gifts and encyclopedic knowledge on a gang of recalcitrant teenagers who, as a group, progressed in classical philology with all the speed and enthusiasm of a mule train being driven up a mountain. (p.73)

Here he is describing Kafka’s anxiety about his end-of-school exams:

The prospect of those apocalyptic trials turned the final school years into a frenzied last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling ramparts of knowledge, retrieve eight years of facts and figures, and prepare for a bloodbath. (p.76)

Once he starts engaging with Kafka’s stories, Pawel often adopts their phraseology, or at least their worldview, in over-the-top descriptions which could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe.

Kafka’s impulse was basically sound – that of a trapped, starving animal wanting to claw its way out and sink its teeth into a solid food. (p.114)

Here he is describing the ferociously competitive literary world of Edwardian Prague:

In their panic it was every man for himself, a wild stampeded of gregarious loners grappling with monsters spawned in their own bellies. (p.155)

Or describing the detailed and self-punishing diaries Kafka kept all his adult life.

These so-called diaries assumed many forms and functions, from the writer’s version of the artist’s sketchbook to a tool for self-analysis; they were a fetishistic instrument of self-mutilation, a glimpse of reason at the heart of madness, and an errant light in the labyrinth of loneliness. (p.213)

In fact you can watch Pawel’s style go from sensible to overblown in just that one sentence.

I’ve read criticisms of the book which ridicule Pawel’s purple prose and certainly, from a po-faced academic point of view, much of his writing can sound a bit ludicrous. But as a reader I found it deeply enjoyable. It made me smile. Sometimes it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud.

I liked it for at least two reasons: after struggling with the long-winded and often very official and bureaucratic prose of late Kafka, reading Pawel’s juicy similes and purple paragraphs was like going from black and white to colour.

Secondly, it matches Kafka’s own hysteria. Kafka really was a very, very weird person. His letters abound in the most extreme language of paralysing fear and inchoate terror and crippling anxiety.

My fear… is my substance, and probably the best part of me.

He describes not being able to stand up for fear, not being able to walk for fear, not being able to face people or say anything because of the terror it caused him.

This craving I have for people which turns to fear the moment it reaches fulfilment (letter of July 1912)

– all symptoms of what Pawel calls his ‘near-pathological sensitivity’.

Kafka describes the way words crumble at his touch, his heart is going to explode, his head is too heavy to carry. He talked and wrote regularly about suicide (except that, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, he wrapped it round with paradoxes and parables).

Always the wish to die, and the still-just-hanging on, that alone is love (Diary, 22 October 113)

In other words, much of Pawel’s lurid and melodramatic writing, while not in the same league as Kafka’s, while much more obvious and pulpy and sometimes quite silly – nevertheless is not an unreasonable way to try and catch the permanent atmosphere of extremity and hyperbole which Kafka lived in all the time. I thought it was a reasonable attempt to translate Kafka’s own worldview from Kafkaese into phraseology which is easier for you and me to process and understand.

Fear, disgust, and rage were what this recalcitrant bundle of taut nerves, brittle bones, frail organs and coddled flesh had aroused in him from earliest childhood.

And sometimes Pawel’s phrases are so colourful and exaggerated that they’re funny. And humour, real laugh-out-loud humour, is in short supply in this story.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it. (p.48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data  from hundreds of experiments, which show just how prey the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which the supposedly rational human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes. By the end he claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read it in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of reading medieval history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

 

Reading it now, 20 years later, having brought up a couple of children and worked for a while in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children – and then so many examples of the corporate conformity, avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement to be found in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise, more a confirmation of what I’ve witnessed at first hand.

But to have the errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty of these. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes. Far harder to acknowledge, in many cases, very hard to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment: acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

More seriously people can be alcoholics, drug addicts, and prey to a wide range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data, and b) the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. People irrationally believe they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions Sutherland tricks the reader no page one by asking a series of questions and then pointing out, that if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since they don’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in patients who don’t have it. The diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, to be – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit, it is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the effect is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they were presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although of course there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. Clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks despite identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.

Stereotypes 1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions. 2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.

Projection People project onto neutral phenomena patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. Compounded by –

Obstinacy Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. Exacerbated by –

Group think People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one what you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –

Obedience The Milgram experiment proved that people will do any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.

Conformity Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment. You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75%! of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see, know is wrong – because people are that easily swayed.

Sunk costs fallacy The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and to try to disprove your own position. The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor -Observer Bias Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves, we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the greatest errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Not in Sutherland’s book, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, “the liberal fallacy”: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true. People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.

  1. TTTTTT
  2. TTTHHH
  3. THHTTH

Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.

Hindsight In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.

Overconfidence Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


Statistics

The trouble with this and Paulos’s books is that the entire area of statistics is separate and distinct from errors of thought and cognitive biases. I.e. you can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make howling mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics, there is a simple conclusion: most of us have little or no understanding of the principles and values which underpin modern society.

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they’re so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume. Briefly, common mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers

Gambling

This is even more true of gambling. It is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games which have been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. Some points that emerge:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3 – 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively  misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with varied and sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.


Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on is very slow and laborious. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:

Suggestibility. Humans are just tremendously suggestible.

Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave in an extrovert manner to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. Thus, the initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underling many of them is this simple-or-garden observation, that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.

Anthropomorphism Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.

Cures

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour he quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help make wonder how the digital age has changed or added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking he gives, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

Grumpy

But it also has passages where Sutherland extrapolates out to draw general conclusions and some of these sound more like the grumblings of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging. He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

He thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185). He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle and upper middle class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186). He criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215). In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

He really has it in for psychoanalysis which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

On the other hand it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar?

He also states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

And finally, these are the mistakes made by the most intelligent and best educated among us, people trained to assess and act on evidence.

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are, how shall we put it, of low educational achievement. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

which all contributes to the general festival of irrationality.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


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The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy @ Tate Modern

Pablo Picasso. You might just have heard of him, since he is probably the most famous artist of the twentieth century. Picasso had a number of ‘great years’, years in which he made stylistic innovations which really did send ‘shockwaves through the art world’ and change the way that educated people see and think about art.

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy has the simple idea of looking at one of Picasso’s Great Years in immense detail. It takes us month by month through Picasso’s life and output in 1932, ‘a time so pivotal in Picasso’s life and work that it has been called his “year of wonders”‘.

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The exhibition includes more than 100 outstanding paintings, sculptures and works on paper to give you a flavour of Picasso’s prolific and restlessly inventive character. It includes an unprecedented range of loans from collections around the world, including the Musée National Picasso-Paris, as well as many works from private collection, reuniting some of Picasso’s greatest works of art, many of which are rarely shown in public, for the first time in 86 years.

What was happening to Pablo Picasso in 1932

In 1932 Picasso turned 50. He was married (to Russian dancer, Olga Khokhlova) and had an 11-year-old son Paulo. Many galleries were vying with each other to stage a retrospective of his works, a competition won by the Galeries Georges Petit, which staged Picasso’s first major retrospective in June 1932.

Picasso was the most famous living artist. He  bought a big farmhouse in Normandy, created a studio in the barn and toyed with having an outdoor swimming pool built. He owned a luxury apartment in Paris and was ferried around in a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza car.

Yet he was restless. He had been carrying on an affair with a sporty, outdoorsy 22-year-old blonde, Marie-Thérèse Walter. And the new flavour of the month in fashion-conscious Paris were the Surrealists, who in the 1920s had mostly been a literary movement, but whose visual experiments and confidence had been given a shot in the arm by the arrival of Salvador Dalí, who joined the group in the late 1929.

Some critics wondered whether Picasso was finished, a man of the past. He consciously set out to prove them wrong, with the result that 1932 marks an explosion of creativity and a restless set of experiments in oil painting, sculpture and drawing.

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Pictures of women

When I (and the curators) say ‘experiment’ something must be emphasised right from the start: the exhibition showcases Picasso’s stunning creativity and includes a dozen or more quite wonderful works – but at the same time you can’t help noticing the monotony of subject matter. Women. Women are his subject. Or rather, single women. A woman in a chair. Sleeping woman. Woman reflected in a mirror.

Later in the show there are several women playing on a beach. Or a man saving a woman from drowning. Or women lying around while being serenaded by fauns. But at the imaginative core of the work is one woman.

You don’t get far into the exhibition before you’re being told that the woman in question is Marie-Thérèse, the mistress. She was blonde and she had the kind of nose which is an extension of the forehead without a dent or kink, a Roman nose it’s sometimes called.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The obsessive repetition of the same woman, sleeping or sitting in a chair makes the visitor wonder whether there was some kind of a trade-off – that Picasso had to limit his subject matter to the tiny world of the studio, and his one, central muse figure – blanking out the entirety of the roaring, industrial, political, urban world of 1932, rejecting every visual thing in the universe except his blonde lover and a few studio props – in order to be imaginatively free to submit it to so many fantastic and brilliant variations.

Information

Each room is dedicated to a month or two, and the audioguide zeroes in on pictures often painted on a specific, named day.

The exhibition includes a huge amount of biographical information, a host of articles about what was going on in Paris at the time, about the fashionable popularity of Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytic theories, about the competition from the Surrealists and the launch of the Surrealist magazine Minotaur (first edition published June 1933 and devoted almost entirely to Picasso), about Picasso building the sculpture studio at his Normandy house, a detailed account of his comings and goings during the year, and the elaborate preparations for the retrospective exhibition.

So much so that it’s almost easy to lose sight of the art in the blizzard of explanations and timelines.

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Practicing curves

One way to approach them is via the room devoted to some of the black-and-white charcoal drawings on canvas which Picasso made throughout 1932. The commentary very usefully pointed out that the sweeping lines, the curves and arabesques of the charcoal lines, are like a preparation for the paintings. For in the paintings, the scholars tell us there was little if any preparation. Picasso rarely painted from life – he started from memory and imagination and created shapes and patterns by great sweeping curves of his hand.

The charcoal pictures show his hand and arm building up the technique of creating great sweeping curves first time, with no afterthought or adjustment, again and again depicting the kind of curve which, in the finished paintings, become a woman’s face or nose or arms or torso or bottom.

His habit was to mark out shapes and patterns in black paint and, once he was happy with the composition, to fill in the shape with colour, but quite happy to leave both elements (black lines and colour) unfinished, rasping the paint, letting undercolours or even blank canvas show through.

All of the paintings here benefited from looking at close up to see this technique up close. Colouring and setting varied a little, but the fundamental idea of the defining black line (almost, at times, the thick black line of a cartoon) is always paramount.

Wallpaper

It may sound trivial and the commentary didn’t mention it, but I was struck by the care with which he depicts the wallpaper behind the subjects.

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The curator’s commentary dwells on the fact that these are paintings of a woman, and paintings of Picasso’s mistress. Either angle gives the opportunity for lengthy discussions of either his private life, or the long tradition of painting women in Western art. A woman near a mirror is bound to set off a small explosion of art theory referencing the long tradition of associating women with ‘vanity’.

Maybe. But when I look at this picture the first thing I notice is the dark blue patterned wallpaper and then the orange frame of the mirror, in other words the overall design of the composition, long before I notice the broad-nosed sleeping blonde with her ripe-apple boobs. And after processing her shape and curves, it is to the extraordinarily deep blue of the backdrop that my eyes returns.

In this concern for the decorative ancillaries to the main image a lot of these paintings reminded me of the purely decorative concerns of Picasso’s long-time frenemy, Henri Matisse.

The subject may be a female nude, it may be his hushed-up mistress, she may be passively sleeping and yet reflected, in a semi-surreal way, by the mirror. But the painting is also an arrangement of colours on a flat surface. It is a decorative object, whose subject you can almost ignore, if you will. It is first and foremost a big bright image and I think the viewer reacts immediately, either for or against the size and vibrancy of the colour and shape of the composition, long before you get round to thinking about the ‘issues’ of women and mirrors or marriage and mistresses.

Angles

Again, putting aside the subject matter for a moment, by the time I’d got to the end I realised Picasso had roughly three approaches or ‘styles’, at least in this year of 1932.

One is the curvy, ‘feminine’ style exemplified in the pictures shown above. But there was another, very different style – characterised by uncomfortable angles, distortions, harsh straight lines and geometric interactions. There are quite a few of them here and they feel completely different to the soft curvy sleeping blondes.

The most striking instances are a sequence of smaller works he made which are all variations on the idea of a woman sunbathing – but not a woman as you or I might conceive the subject.

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso / DACS London 2018

The commentary points out that the small circle in the middle is the woman’s anus. Apparently, Picasso’s usual gallerist refused to exhibit the series because he said he didn’t want a load of ‘arseholes’ in his shop. But I think this rather typical obsession with sex and the body on the part of critic and seller is missing the more obvious point – which is the entire conceptualisation of the human figure which has, in a work like this, become fantastically stylised.

In the strange combination of the zoomorphic (i.e. curved shapes) with harsh geometry (the set of triangles and the table leg-style legs) there’s a lot of the influence of Surrealism, maybe of Max Ernst, influencing Picasso’s own abstracting tendencies.

But Picasso never actually becomes abstract – his paintings are always of something, almost always of people, and overwhelmingly of young nubile women.

Henry Moore

The closest he comes to pure abstraction is in the works of his third style, which kept reminding me of the drawings and sculptures of Henry Moore. In both the styles identified above – curvy and angular – the image is essentially flat. There may be token references to chairs or wallpaper but they don’t really create a sense of depth.

In the works where he does go for a sense that the picture is a window into the world, the effect is strikingly odd, for there’s a thread throughout the work of pictures made up of blobs and odd, curved shaded shapes, which look like the products of a pot-maker or clay modeller who’s gone mad.

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Here the two balls in the middle, the curved object which seems to contain them, and the curving cowl up towards two tiny eyes in a blank monster’s face – all of them have shade and shadowing which give them the illusion of three dimensionality.

Can you see why I mention Henry Moore? They look like paintings of Henry Moore sculptures.

One room in the show is devoted to a rarely-seen sequence of thirteen drawings Picasso made based on the crucifixion section of the Isenheim Altarpiece by the German painter Matthias Grünewald.

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The commentary goes heavy on the religious subject matter, but what struck me was how Picasso recast almost all his versions by breaking down the human figure into a sequence of Henry Moore-style blobs and craws.

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The approach may also, possibly, owe something to the Surrealists Hans Arp or Yves Tanguy. It was very much a style of the age. But on the evidence of all these works it does look as if, when Picasso thought of depth and perspective, everything turned into shaded, blobby shapes.

Sculpture and landscapes

There are many more themes and subjects. It is, ultimately a staggering and exhausting exhibition. How did he manage to think and see and create so many different things in one short year?

There is a series of surprisingly charming landscapes of the view from his Normandy house over the nearby village, Boisgeloup, which could almost be illustrations of a children’s book.

There is an entire room dedicated to classic works from earlier in Picasso’s career – including Blue Period, Rose Period and Cubist paintings – to give us a flavour of the major retrospective of June 1932. Picasso was very careful in which works he chose to include in it and, most strikingly, he mixed them all up, eschewing chronological order in order to create a solid wall of art, all of it as relevant as any other.

And another room has been carefully arranged to recreate something of the atmosphere of the rough and ready sculptor’s studio he created in a barn at his Normandy house, with one entire wall of the room covered in a massively blown-up photo of the studio with its decrepit barn doors, a sequence of b&w photos made of the artist at work on his sculptures by the classic photographer, Brassaï, and a handful of actual sculptures – big, semi-abstract heads. (Notice the Roman nose – I wonder who this could be a bust of?)

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The rescue

But the exhibition ends with a turn to a completely new subject, something you wouldn’t have predicted at all from all the sleepy blondes or blondes in armchairs from earlier in the show.

1932 ended traumatically for Pablo when Marie-Thérèse fell seriously ill after swimming in the river Marne. During the illness she lost most of her iconic blonde hair. The result in his art was a series of paintings, large and small, showing the rescue of a drowning woman by a man – all heavily stylised.

Some of the variations take on a dark overtone with the male presence not rescuing but threatening the drowning woman, and at least one of them is titled The Rape.

Or there are variations like this one in which a woman appears to be saving the drowner. And who is the third figure at bottom right – a passing swimmer or a siren reaching out to drown the unwary? (And note the scrappier use of colour – in the earlier sleeping woman pictures the colours tended to be uniform within each section demarcated by a solid black line- – in these last paintings the colours are more blotched and varied within each section.)

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Here, in the last room, the commentary leads off into a load of history, explaining that only a month or so later, in January 1933, Herr Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and it was only 3 years later that General Franco rebelled against the Republican government of Spain, triggering the brutal Spanish Civil War. And then World War Tow. And the Holocaust. And the atom bomb.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that terrifying things were just around the corner, but I think a) nobody in 1932 had an inkling that any of that was going to happen, and b) the curators are over-politicising a painter who went to great lengths not to reference the contemporary world in any way at all in his art. Guernica was still seven years off and even then it is a thing of primitive people and horse. Not many planes, trains and automobiles in Picasso’s entire oeuvre. In this respect – in  terms of subject matter – he was a very unmodern, a surprisingly conservative, artist.

Anyway, I had never seen any of the works in this room before so, in some ways, found it the most rewarding room of the exhibition. The many variations on The Rescue, although mostly done in the big, cartoony, boldly coloured style of the previous rooms, were nonetheless haunting and powerful.

For reasons I can’t put into words I found one particular painting in this room especially hypnotic and upsetting.

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

It’s at the most abstract end of his range. Probably the ‘figures’ are women, but they really seem more like creatures caught in some agonising death dance and suddenly turned to bronze, against a crude sea and an eerily realistic sky.

Picasso almost never painted landscapes, certainly not intending to make them ‘realistic’ depictions. This reproduction doesn’t convey the incongruity of setting such a completely abstract, modernistic, sculptured shape against that extreme rarity, a realistic Picasso sky.

I don’t know if I was more upset, or scared, or touched by it.

Sometimes it is good to just be in front of a work of art, undistracted by curatorial talk about mistresses and wives, breasts and anuses, analysis of the male gaze, and the theme of the mirror, and rivalry with other painters, and the vagaries of the Paris art market, and the looming European catastrophe, and all those other issues and stories.

To just stand in front of a work and be awed and puzzled and confused and absorbed and transported.

Videos

A brief, wordless overview of the exhibition.

A longer tour of the show by two art experts.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Make Me by Lee Child (2015)

We can’t fight thirty people. To which Reacher’s natural response was: Why the hell not? It was in his DNA. Like breathing. He was an instinctive brawler. His greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. (p.136)

Make Me is the 20th novel in the series featuring tough ex-U.S. Army Military Policeman-turned-investigator, Jack Reacher.

The series is immensely popular, with every one of the novels having been optioned for movies, and two – One Shot and Never Go Back – made into ‘major motion pictures’ starring Tom Cruise. Which is odd since Cruise is famously on the short side (5 feet 6 inches) whereas the whole point of Jack Reacher is that he is a hulking bear of a man (six foot five).

Lee Child

The single most interesting thing about the Jack Reacher novels and their star, the tall, street wise, intelligent and bullet-proof American tough guy, is that their author is English.

Lee Child was born in Coventry and grew up in Birmingham. You can hardly get less glamorous and more provincially English than that. What turned him into an international publishing phenomenon? Eighteen years working with Granada TV, writing trailers, introductions, commercials and news stories. This honed his skills for getting to the point. (In fact Lee Child is a nom de plume: his real names is James Grant.)

Praise

The cover of the book is festooned with praise from his peers in the thriller-writing business, such luminaries as James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Ken Follett, Stephen King and Frederick Forsyth. It is noticeable that all the women writers describe Reacher in terms of physique and sexual attractiveness.

Patricia Cornwell says she picks up Reacher ‘when I’m in the mood for someone big to solve my problems.’

Karin Slaughter says Reacher is ‘one of the sexiest characters in fiction.’

Joanne Harris says reading Reacher is ‘one of my essential guilty pleasures.’

The most revealing comment is from British journalist Lucy Mangan:

I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can’t shag him, then I want to be him.

(The bold is in the originals.) Reacher is tall, blonde and handsome, He is strong and silent. He protects women and the vulnerable. He doesn’t start trouble but if there is trouble he can more than handle himself in a fight. ‘What do women want?’ Freud is said to have asked. Jack Reacher, apparently.

Slow buildup

I was surprised and then amazed at how slow-moving this novel is, very slow, very slow-moving indeed. It has 492 pages divided into fifty-nine short punchy chapters (8.3 pages per chapter, though each one manages to feel much briefer because of the snappy writing).

By half way through, the following has happened: Reacher has stepped off a train at a remote and minuscule settlement in the American mid-West, intrigued by its incongruous name, Mother’s Rest. A woman steps out of the shadows as he strolls towards the central strip of town, clearly expecting him to be somebody she knows, then realises he isn’t.

They get chatting and it emerges that she is Michelle Chang (a name as tokenistically ethnic, but really as bland and commonplace as his own). Chang is ex-FBI, now a freelance investigator, having set up a detective agency with a few other investigators in the same situation. One of them was named Keever. He called in to tell the others that he was investigating something here in Mother’s Rest, then disappeared. She’s come to find out why.

We, the readers, know why – because Child opened a novel with a description of ‘them’ – an unnamed group of men – burying Keever. He’s dead. They killed him. This much we know. But why?

Very slowly Reacher gets drawn into Chang’s problem, not least because he is irked by the unfriendliness of the guys in town. (All men are referred to as ‘guys’ throughout.) The one-eyed owner of the only motel in town is twitchy and nervous, refuses to answer questions about Keever, keeps an obvious eye on Reacher and Chang.

As Reacher moseys round the small town he realises he is being followed by a kid and that various store owners lift the phone as he walks by – phoning in his progress to a central figure, who goes unnamed – we only know that he wears pressed jeans and has blow-dried hair. Ooh. Creepy! They are all nervous about the way Reacher is snooping around. They all talk about ‘us’, and how ‘we’ will have to take some action…

Reacher and Chang decide to drive to Keever’s apartment in Oklahoma City to find out more. Some guys from Mother’s Rest follow them as they drive. Reacher stops the car, gets out, confronts them and, as they go for their guns, kicks one in the nuts and smashes the other’s cheekbone with his elbow. He’s so tough. He’s so strong. Men want to be him. Women want to shag him. The appeal really does seem to be as primitive as that.

Reacher’s ‘technique’ is thoroughness

Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are clever and unexpected. Reacher’s feel far more obvious. He and Chang find a scrunched-up note in Keever’s room with a phone number and a name on it. They ring the number. It’s a science journalist in LA named Westwood. He agrees to meet them. They fly to LA. The science journalist explains that he gets calls from cranks all the time. Reacher guesses that whoever had hired Keever might be one of these cranks. They check Westwood’s database of calls. They systematically ring them all and eliminate all the obvious fruitcakes or unanswered calls. This narrows it down. One particular caller made lots of calls from Chicago, from a number they identify as the public library. They fly to Chicago. They take a taxi to a hotel. They check in.

By this stage Reacher and Chang have got beyond edgy camaraderie, progressed to sharing theories and hunches, and have had dinner together. He is tall, blonde and handsome with eyes of Arctic blue. She is lean and fit with curves in all the right places. Go on. Guess what happens.

Yep. They go to bed. What do women want? To be wined and dined, to be respected and courted. And then to be shagged senseless by a tall, super-capable man. Repeatedly. In hotel rooms across America.

They visit the public library in Chicago where the calls came from. They interview the librarian who knew the old, sad man who they now think was the caller, Keever’s client, the instigator of Keever’s investigation, name of McCann.

As I mentioned, Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are deliberately made outlandish and improbable. By contrast, at every step of the way Reacher is shown working through the possibly scenarios with very clear logic and application. If Reacher has a method, it is extreme thoroughness. At every stage, almost on every page, there are options and alternatives. He considers them rationally and logically. He works through them. He chooses the best one. It generally proves to be correct.

There is more than a touch of Mr Spock about Reacher.

Lucky man

But one of the things that makes this an example of genre fiction is the easiness, the fluency and the luck. Reacher is lucky, continually lucky.

He speculates that it was Keever’s client who called the LA journalist – and is proved right.

He speculates that the caller will have called in a specific time window 3 to 4 months earlier – and is proved right.

He guesses that the caller, having been blocked by the journalist as a nuisance, will change his name and continue calling, but call from the same number or area code. He does, and that’s what helps them recognise the fake name he uses second time round, which in turn leads them to his real name – McCann.

(It helps that Chang has a contact in the US telephone system who does her favours and helps them identify the various numbers.)

All this evidence narrows the search down to Chicago so they fly there, check into a hotel, have sex, then visit the library. All of which proves to be the correct deduction.

Similarly, the polite lady librarian at the Chicago public library won’t give them the address of the man they have now identified as McCann, out of a sense of confidentiality – but Reacher asks a series of tangenital questions about whether he drove or took public transport to work (walked) and his health (poor) from which they deduce that McCann’s home must be among the surrounding three blocks. Which is correct.

A block away from the library is a dusty old pharmacy which sells the kind of temporary cell phones (known as ‘burners’) which they speculate that McCann used. So Reacher guesses that the old boy walked past it on his walk to the library – so his house must be in that general direction. Which turns out to be correct.

The librarian had said that McCann gave the impression that he was ashamed of where he lived. So Reacher guesses it’s not a nice house but an apartment, probably in a rundown block. And so it is that after half an hour of working along the street, looking at nameplates to every flat on every apartment block, Michelle finds one with ‘Peter McCann’ on it.

They pretend to be making a delivery in order to get buzzed into the block, walk up to the apartment in question, to find the door is open.

And so on.

At every juncture Reacher makes reasonable enough guesses based on the odds, working things through steadily and methodically. But he is always lucky. The cards always fall his way. The time period of calls to the journalist turns out to be dead right. Chicago turns out to be the right hunch as location for the mysterious client. Guessing the pharmacy is the one where McCann bought his disposable phones turns out to be right. His apartment has a nice legible name label (unlike most I’ve ever visited) – and it gives McCann’s real name. The door to the apartment is unlocked.

Same with women. Reacher’s guesstimates about how to pace things in his relationship with Chang turn out to be picture perfect – when to hold off, when to be polite and professional, when to be slightly more personal, when to take her to dinner, when to wait for her signal, when to make a first move (a kiss) and when to take her to bed – all turn out to be right. He is right all the time. About everything.

Tall, tough and handsome, and always right.

Fighting

This supernatural skillfulness comes into its own in the many scenes of violence, fighting and shooting.

When he gets out of the car he and Chang are driving to Oklahoma City to confront the two toughs who have been tailing them – the reader partakes in his expert assessment of the situation, his estimate of where best to stand in order to a) kick one in the nuts and still have time to b) smash the other in the face.

When an assassin confronts them outside Keever’s apartment, we once again share Reacher’s immensely detailed calculation of the best way to handle the situation, and a literal blow-by-blow account of the fight.

Later in the book, Reacher and Chang go to visit McCann’s sister to find out more about his motives for hiring Keever. She’s married to a rich doctor and they’re supervising wedding celebrations for their grown-up daughter when three assassins hired by the Mother’s Rest people burst in. Three assassins with guns. Once again Child gives us an extremely detailed account of how Reacher thinks through the problem, works the angles, creates a diversion, and ends up killing all three and saving himself, Chang and McCann’s sister’s family unscathed.

We see his careful planning and calculations, so it’s not dumb luck. He thinks the problem through, calculates the angles, waits for the right moment, and so on.

Still pretty lucky, though.

When they figure out that the assassins were sent by ‘the fat man’, who is the head of the organisation of hitmen and which has been sub-contracted by the Mother’s Rest mob to rub them out – Chang and Reacher:

a) easily identify the nightclub which is a front for the gang
b) find the gate to the fenced compound around the club conveniently open
c) find the fat man sitting inside the compound, so that
d) Reacher can walk up to him, shoot him in the head, turn and walk away.

No bodyguards protecting him, no-one comes bursting out of the club firing at him. Lucky, huh?

Reacher is always right, about everything.

No wonder men want to be him. No wonder women want to shag him.

Characteristics of a Jack Reacher novel

Simple Child’s prose style is pared right back in the standard thriller style.

1. Partly because all modern American prose is pared back – generations of American creative writing teachers have told all their students to go over and over their manuscripts to remove unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, to keep it simple. So now American prose is simple. Doesn’t mean it can’t be thoughtful, though. Imaginative. Evocative.

Three Rugers [a type of gun], three guys. Black clothes, scalped hair, pale skin. Big enough and heavy enough, but also somehow bony. Tight cheekbones. Hard times in their DNA, from not too long ago. From Europe, maybe. Far in the marshy east. Every man against his neighbour, for the last thousand years. (p.330)

2. Partly because over the past hundred years the masculine world of crime fiction with its strong silent types has been associated with tough, no-nonsense prose for tough, no-nonsense guys. Hard boiled. Nothing soft or wishy-washy. True since the 1920s at least. Dashiell Hammett. Keep it simple.

Simple sentences. Short sentences. Sometimes three words. Or two. One. Limited vocabulary. Repetition.

Reacher listened hard, and heard nothing.
He stepped around the desk to the private side.
He glanced at the ledgers. And the files. And the notebooks. Routine motel stuff. Accounts, orders, to-do lists, percentages.
He listened again. Heard nothing.
He opened a drawer. Where the guy kept the room keys. He put 113 in, and took 215 out.
He closed the drawer.
He stepped back to the public side.
He breathed out. (p.73)

It gives a bleached-out, empty effect. Obviously designed to be tense and taut. Minimum perceptions. Human as robot, as terminator, stripped of all uncertainty and hesitation. Human as pure knowing, calculating machine.

A gated community. Rich people. Taxpayers. Political donors. The Maricopa County sheriffs on speed dial.
They waited at the kerb, a hundred yards short.
It was three in the afternoon. Five, in Chicago.
There was one guard behind the glass.
Reacher said, ‘We should have figured.’
Chang said, ‘If she’s heard about her brother, we’ll never get in.’ (p.291)

Said When characters talk they never question, answer, reply, respond, smirk. They never do anything with any colour or inflection. They just ‘say’. She said. He said. The guy said. They said.

Chang said, ‘He could be a brother or a cousin…’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said…
Chang said, ‘We have to be certain…’
Reacher said, ‘Did your contact mention family members?’..
Chang said, ‘We don’t know of any family members.’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said… (p.352)

The deliberate reduction of the complex and multi-faceted human activity of speaking, questioning, answering, discussing and joking down to one monotonously reiterated word – ‘said’-  typifies the general strategy of simplification.

All men are ‘guys’. All roads are blacktop. Taxis are taxis. They took a taxi to the hotel. It was part of a chain. The Mothers Rest hard goods store is like hundreds of others. The pharmacy in Chicago is the type you see everywhere.

Hardly anything is really described, certainly not given any detailed vibe or atmosphere. That would require invoking an element of subjectivity on the part of the narrator, that would involve soft, wishy-washy feelings and perceptions and these – in this genre – are banned.

Instead, atmosphere is almost entirely implied by Reacher’s reactions to a situation, sizing up the guy, weighing the odds, calculating the angles.

Paused a beat Hence another characteristic: characters often pause in speaking — pause a beat or, in another common phrase, pause until the silence becomes uncomfortable.

He paused a beat… She was quiet for a long moment, five or six seconds, right to the edge of discomfort. (p.492)

During these pauses the characters – mostly Reacher – are calculating the odds, thinking the problem through.

Which Another mannerism is, after anyone has made a decision or acted a certain way, to have a short sentence starting with ‘which’ and approving it.

Which made sense. (p.349)

Which was a good question. (p.468)

Which was good. (p.457)

If you say it out loud, in a slow tough guy drawl, you can see how it conveys laconic, wise approval. One pro nodding approval of another pro. Good choice. Wise move.

The bloody climax

In the end, you won’t be surprised to learn that the sleepy little ville of Mother’s Rest does indeed contain a gruesome and disgusting secret, a secret so sordid and violent that the townspeople are all jumpy whenever a stranger arrives, and have outsourced ‘protection’ to a Ukrainian mobster, Merchenko, and his hitmen.

(These are the hitmen Reacher deals with in the scene where they invade McCann’s sister’s house in Phoenix – referred to above – which prompts him to track down and coolly execute Merchenko.)

In fact, there turn out to be two secrets, a secret within a secret, which is very effective, in narrative and thriller terms.

As the plot moves along, Westwood introduces Chang and Reacher to a geek who can access the so-called Dark Web, the vast cyberspace with hidden websites and transactions, mainly used for pornography and crime. He is referred to simply as ‘the guy from Palo Alto’ (p.378).

This guy uses the evidence our team have assembled to tell the following story – a middle-aged man named Peter McCann had a 30-year-old son, Michael, with mental health issues who he was concerned about and who had gone missing on a bus journey through Mother’s Rest. McCann made repeat calls to Westwood asking for his help tracking his son down. Why? Because McCann had written an article way back, one he’d more or less forgotten about, on the subject of the Dark Web, and McCann wanted Westwood’s help in delving into it to find out what happened to his son. McCann had discovered that his son was a frequent visitor to dark websites concerned with suicide.

The guy from Palo Alto confirms all this and goes on to discover that it looks like Michael made a pact with someone he met on the Dark Web to go to Mother’s Rest and be euthanised.

In other words, the dark secret behind the sleepy little town, is that a dozen or so of its inhabitants have set up a euthanasia centre on a remote farm a dozen miles outside of town. Here customers can commit suicide in a number of ways. The guy from Palo Alto tracks down a hidden brochure which lists the methods: injection of poison, carbon monoxide piped into a peaceful room to nice music etc.

Having discovered all this Reacher and Chang return to Mother’s Rest along with Westwood, pretty sure there will be a welcoming committee and there is. The ten or so men in the euthanasia syndicate have posted lookouts around the town and are waiting with guns.

There is a very bloody shootout. Reacher and Chang lure out of the stronghold, cosh and tie up five of the baddies, before the situation degenerates into a prolonged shoutout with the other five.

Despite being trapped in a large shed-like building with the baddies firing rifle bullets through the thin walls, our heroes survive unscathed, while despatching all five of the armed baddies. Lucky, eh?

It is only during the shootout that they discover there is an even darker side, to the euthanasia setup than they had originally thought. I won’t give it away, partly because it’s so disgusting, partly because… you should read it yourself!

Reacher is a calculating machine

By page 492 – in among the violence, the pared-back prose style, the inevitable championship sex between Chang and Reacher and the incredible fluency and mobility of American life (on one level the book is a blizzard of planes and trains and coaches and taxis and hotels and gold cards) –  I kept being struck by the surprisingly Darwinian nature of its worldview.

The longer it goes on the more you realise that Reacher is a calculating machine – not doing sums, but calculating the odds of everything. What is really going on in Mother’s Rest, why does a shopkeeper glimpsed through a window move his arm (phoning someone?), what are his chances with Chang, how will the assassin in the doorway move next, how accurate will the shooters with their M16 rifles be – and so on. He never stops. He is permanently calculating the odds and possibilities of everything.

Some of this is unconscious. On a number of occasions Child tells us that Reacher is calculating something with the frontal, conscious part of his mind – but meanwhile, the unconscious back part is making its own split-second decisions – what he refers to several times as ‘the lizard brain’.

A forty per cent chance, the back of Reacher’s brain told him, immediately and automatically… (p.332)

Then the guy in the yard opened the slider and stepped inside, and the back of Reacher’s brain showed him the whole chess game right there, laid out, obvious, in flashing neon arrows, in immense and grotesque detail… (p.327)

Meanwhile the guy [Reacher has just shot] was going down vertically, as if he had stepped into an elevator shaft, and Reacher was turning fractionally left, from the waist, shoulders braced, looking for the third-base guy, the furthest away, because some back-of-the-brain calculation was telling him the guy had a better line of fire… (p.337)

It’s like being inside the brain of a cheetah or a leopard, stalking its prey on the savannah, permanently calculating, continually alert to its next move.

At one point Reacher is described as a predator poised above the waterhole. This is exactly what he feels like all the way through. When not being pressed he is gentlemanly and courteous, to old ladies or women like Chang. But when at all pressed, he turns into super-predator, an unrivalled calculator of the odds for fighting and surviving and beating all the opposition in sight.

He’s not just tall and strong and trained to kill in twenty ways. He is a super-predator, a quintessence of the hunter-killer instinct which the biologists tell us is inside all of us.

Which, according to the blurbs, men want to be, and women want to shag – in order to have babies by him, in order to be protected by him.

The heartlessness of American life

Where does Reacher get his money from? There seems to be no end to the train tickets, hire cars, airplane flights, hotel rooms and taxis, taxis everywhere. Credit cards, cell phones, the internet, shiny hire cars, the rich doctor in his gated community, the party by the pool, power breakfasts, brunch in diners, dinners in restaurants – to me there is a sickening surfeit of wealth.

In their films and fictions, Americans seem to take it for granted that they can go anywhere, do anything, eat anything, shoot anyone. By and large Americans don’t realise how rich and privileged they are.

Which makes the contrast with the sickening sadism, violence and general heartlessness of almost the characters so upsetting and disturbing. The novel opens with a murder, there’s a lull while Chang and Reacher slowly uncover the powder trail leading to the gruesome truth – and then a steady increase in tempo of the opponents Reacher has to blow apart, behead, execute and generally eviscerate.

For me there’s an umbilical connection between the two: The casual way they accept the train tickets, plane flights, hire cars, identikit hotel rooms, everything is described in solely functional terms, as expressions of wish and desire. I wanna go there. I’ll getta plane. I’ll hire a car. I’ll getta taxi. I want, I get.

The characters apply the same instrumental mindset to each other. You’re in my way. I gotta kill you. Sorry it ain’t personal, it’s business. I’m being paid to execute you, sorry but a job’s a job.

In the scene where the assassins burst in on Chang and Reacher talking to McCann’s sister and her family, the assassins – once they’ve lined the good guys all up on the sofa – proceed to share the fact that they’re upset: they were paid to kill three people (Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister) and now they’re confronted with five people. Well, that’s just not fair, is it? If they gotta kill five they want more money. I mean you would too, right? Am I right?

Presumably this scene is meant to be funny. In fact it’s the delay while the assassins try to figure out which of the five people in front of them are the three they’ve been sent to assassinate – Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister (well, Chang being Chinese is easy enough, but they’re uncertain about the other two) that allows Reacher, with his lizard brain, to contrive a strategy which evens up the odds enough for him to tackle all three assassins and – lucky as usual – to go from sitting on a sofa completely unarmed, to getting the better of three armed assassins. What a guy.

It’s possible to enjoy books like this for the thrill of the narrative, for its tongue-in-cheek hard man prose, for its ridiculous love scenes – but still be appalled by the insight they give into a society which has been hollowed out and lost all its humanity.

Every possible facility of advanced twenty-first century life is laid on for these Americans. And yet, with a kind of tragic inevitability, books like this show how having everything has somehow withered Americans’ humanity and turned them into killing machines. Not every American is a soulless killer, obviously. But our time does seem to be witnessing a plague of mass shootings by Americans with plenty of guns and no soul whatsoever.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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Related reviews

Surrealism by Michael Robinson (2005)

This is an almost square, thick, glossy art book (17.1 x 16.1 cm) whose 384 pages – after the brief foreword and introduction – contain nearly 200 colour reproductions of Surrealist works of art. Each one gets a 2-page spread, image on the right, text giving the artist, title, medium and some interpretation, on the left. A kind of flip book of Surrealist painting, divided into four sections – Movement overview, Influences, Styles & techniques and Places.

The left-page analyses vary widely in quality, some telling you really insightful things, others little more than recaps of so-and-so’s career or an anecdote behind the picture. There is an obtrusive political correctness in many of them – Robinson is the kind of white man who has to make it quite clear he is on the side of feminists in their struggle against the patriarchy, and regrets the cultural misappropriation of colonial exploiters like Picasso, Matisse and the rest of those awful white men.

Here he is discussing Meret Oppenheim’s Occasional Table (1939):

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

In this work Meret Oppenheim continues with a number of Surrealist preoccupations, the most significant of which is the preconception of specific gender roles and stereotyping in a patriarchal society. At first this object may appear as an opulent or even decadent excess of Art Deco design for the bourgeois market, particularly in its use of gold leaf. Oppenheim is, in line with Dada and Surrealist ideals, commenting on bourgeois excesses, as well as on gender stereotypes.

Let’s just stop here and ask if you, the reader, can identify specifically how this work of art is tackling ‘the preconception of specific gender roles and stereotyping in a patriarchal society’. Spotted it? Good. Now, read on:

As a (male) viewer one is drawn to the legs to consider their shape before considering their functionality. There is an obvious parallel here with women being viewed in the same stereotypical manner. The viewer is also being denied access to the rest of the body, emphasised by the flatness and width of the table’s top. (p.224)

So, if I’m reading this correctly, Robinson is claiming that if you are struck by the fact that an ordinary-looking table is being supported by a pair of bird’s legs, this is not because it’s rather unusual and incongruous – in the deliberately disconcerting Surrealist/Dada fashion – it’s because you are always looking at legs and sizing them up, because you are a misogynist member of a patriarchal society guilty of gender stereotyping. Unless you are a woman. In which case you just see a pair of bird’s legs.

I hope all my male readers have gone away suitably chastened and reformed.

Here he is preparing to talk about a work by Wifredo Lam:

At the turn of the nineteenth century many modernists adopted and adapted ritualistic or totemic motifs from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Oceania – in fact from most places that were European colonies. The use of these misappropriated motifs can be found in the so-called ‘primitive’ aesthetics of Paul Gauguin’s Post-Impressionism, the Cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque, much of German Expressionism and some of the Fauvism of Matisse. However, Surrealism differed in this regard thanks largely to the multi-ethnicity of its group and a genuine interest in anthropology. (p.184)

Will all those white European artists who ‘misappropriated’ motifs from non-European cultures please stay behind after school and write out one hundred times ‘Michael Robinson says I must only use subjects and motifs from European culture and not misappropriate motifs from any other source’. Naughty Picasso. Naughty Matisse. Unless you’re black or Asian or non-caucasian, in which case it’s fine: you can use any motifs and imagery you like.

Your use of non-European motifs is cultural misappropriation; our use of non-European motifs is different, because we have ‘a genuine interest in anthropology’. Michael says so.

Some notes

The sheer number and variety of art and artists tell their own story about the Surrealists’ broad-spectrum dominance of the inter-war period.

First conclusion is there were so many of them – Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Jacques Baron, Max Morise, Pierre Naville, Roger Vitrac, Gala Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Georges Malkine, Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour, Antonin Artaud, Raymond Queneau, André Masson, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy – just for starters.

Surrealism followed on from Dada, founded in 1916 in Switzerland as a really angry response to the pointless barbarity of the Great War.

By 1920 a lot of former Dadaists had gravitated to Paris and were experimenting with Freud-inspired ideas of accessing or depicting the unconscious, via stream-of-consciousness prose or automatic writing. One of them, the bullish, domineering poet André Breton, decided the trouble with Dada is it had been too anarchic, chaotic, unfocused – which had led to its eventual collapse.

Breton decided to form a real movement, not just literary but with social and political aims. This led in 1924 to the publication of the first of numerous Surrealist manifestos.

It was primarily a movement of writers – poets and novelists – not artists. Artists came later. Ironic, because now we are soaked in the artists’ imagery and I wonder if anyone reads the old surrealist prose works, or could name any.

And Surrealism was political, designed to undermine and overthrow the existing scheme of things, opposing traditional bourgeois values (kinder, küche, kirche), religion, the rational, the scientific – all the things which, it was claimed, had led Europe into the inferno of the Great War.

Breton conceived of Surrealism as a philosophy and a way of life, rejecting the stifling repression of bourgeois society, setting free our deep inner selves. It wasn’t just teenage rebellion for its own sake. Breton and many of the others thought that Western society was really seriously crippled and doomed by its steadfast refusal to acknowledge the most vital part of the human being – the unconscious, source of all our creative imaginative urges, which can only be accessed via dreams and other specialised techniques.

Only if we can tap into our unused creativity, into our irrational minds, into the sensual part of our psyche, can we ever hope to change the repressed, uptight, bourgeois, scientific, technocratic society which is leading us to destruction.

You can see why this genuine commitment to radical social change led many Surrealists, as the 1920s turned into the Fascist 1930s, to declare themselves communists and how this led to numerous splits and bitter quarrels among them.

In his rules Breton declared that surrealist writers and artists (and film-makers and photographers) could work in any medium whatsoever, depicting any subject whatsoever, with only one golden rule – it must come from inside, from the unconscious, from the free imagination untrammeled or restricted by conscious thought or tradition. You could use realistic figures and objects from the real world – but only in the service of the unconscious.

Of the scores of artists connected the movement, probably Dalí and Magritte created the most widely recognized images of Surrealism. Dalí joined the group in 1929 (after  his brief abandonment of painting for film and photography) and played a crucial role in establishing a definitive visual style between 1930 and 1935.

Outliers

Assuming we’re all familiar with the usual suspects – Dali, Miro, Ernst, Arp, Magritte, Ray – one of the interesting facets of the book is how widely it casts the net, to include artists never part of the official movement but clearly influenced by it. I enjoyed the inclusion of English artists like Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and, especially, Roland Penrose.

The real pleasure of the book was coming across quite a few artists I’d never heard of before:

Women

There were quite a few women surrealist artists and it was genuinely interesting to a) learn about them and their work, considered purely as artists b) to learn how many of them really were feminists, how many disliked the bullying male environment created by Breton, how many of them tried to develop an aesthetic which escaped male stereotyping and the sexualising of women’s bodies. From a crowded field I think Dorothea Tanning stood out for me.

Lee Miller was an important muse for many of the male Surrealists. She had an intense affair with the photographer Man Ray, who taught her photography as well as making her the subject of many of his greatest works. Later she married Roland Penrose, the English Surrealist painter. His painting, Bien vise, above, depicts her naked torso. But Miller also painted, created surrealist objects and took surreal photos in her own right (as well as her later, awesome, war photos).

Surrealism and gender

The gender issue with Surrealism strikes me as simple enough: all these men thought they had a duty to express the unconscious; the dominating master and ‘discoverer’ of the unconscious was  a man, Sigmund Freud; Freud insisted that the unconscious was drenched in repressed sexuality (only later adding aggression and violence in the form of the Death Wish); which meant that this large and influential group of male artists felt it was their moral and artistic duty to be as frank as possible about sex and sexuality, to be as shocking and provocative as they could be; and so they saturated their works with erotic images and symbols; and, being men, these tended to be images of women, their own objects of desire.

And almost all the women, in one way or another, reacted against this use of women as sex objects, as objects of desire, in male painting, and tried to redress the balance by painting women fully dressed or in poses where they obviously dominate men or as girls on the cusp of adolescence (or abandoned figuration altogether to paint abstracts).

The really interesting biological-anthropological question is about the difference in ‘desire’ which this tends to bring out. Men paint women, but women paint women, too. Everyone seems to take ‘women’ as a fit subject for painting. Very few of the women artists paint pictures of big naked men or fixate on the penis in the same way that men paint countless breasts and vulvas. Why? Broadly speaking, feminists from de Beauvoir onwards say that gender differences are entirely due to social conditioning; the vast majority of the population and all the biologists and evolutionists I’ve read point out that there are certain unavoidable differences in DNA, physiology and behaviour between males and females of almost every species: why should we be any different?

All that said, I’ve just flicked slowly through the nearly 200 images in this book and only a handful of paintings – about ten – actually depict realistic images of naked women (and some of those are by women e.g. Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday; among the men Paul Delvaux had the most persistent in (admittedly dreamy zombie) naked women e.g. The Sleeping Venus).

If you go looking for naked women to support this thesis, they are in fact surprisingly absent from the classic surrealist images (by Magritte, Dali, Ernst).

Surprise

I had no idea that Desmond Morris, author of the immensely popular Naked Ape/Manwatching books, was an official member of the Birmingham Surrealist group while still an undergraduate studying biology. This work, painted when he was just 21, is immediately pleasing, in colour, design and the formal symmetric arrangement. It also demonstrates the general rule that Surrealism, which set out to turn society upside down, ended up producing charming and delightful images which could safely hang on the walls of any investment banker or corporate lawyer. Art changes nothing.

Conc

This book is a useful reservoir of some classic Surrealist images, but its real value is as a stimulating introduction to a far wider range of less well-known artists.


Credit

Surrealism by Michael Robinson was published by Flametree Published in 2005.

Related links

Surrealism-related blog posts

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