Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

In 1942 Albert Camus published his famous long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus in which he addressed the issue of Suicide i.e. Is the world so empty, pointless and absurd that we might as well cash in our chips?

He takes a hundred pages or so to answer No, the basis of his argument being that at the core of every man is a Revolt Against His Fate.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Rather oddly, Camus added on to his passionate essay a 14-page appendix about the work of Franz Kafka, to be precise:

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

The whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.

This is comparable in its bluntness to Walter Benjamin’s thought that the most important thing about Kafka was his failure. But then critics are much given to saying the most important thing about x is y — it is a structural limitation of the genre (and, maybe, of how we think about aesthetics).

Anyway, Camus is approaching Auden’s view that Kafka was the master of the parable which everyone interprets in their own way, from a different angle, from the insight that you get to the end of a Kafka story and are left wondering what it meant. Hence you are forced to reread it.

Camus speaks of Kafka’s symbols as overflowing with meaning, as refusing to deliver a pat meaning.

His summary of the plot of The Trial makes it sound quite a lot like his own novel The Outsider in that he focuses on the last act where Joseph K is brutally murdered and more or less skips the weird atmosphere, the strange encounters, the agonisingly long dialogues and the eerie details (all those attic rooms) which characterise the previous 250 pages.

He is on to something when he talks about the ‘naturalness’ with which Kafka’s characters accept their inexplicable predicaments.

The more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it. It seems that this naturalness is Kafka’s.

Other critics have brought out the way that Kafka’s language is calm and sensible, and lacks almost all metaphor and simile: is flat and factual and precise. Early on Camus begins to impose onto Kafka his own conception of ‘the Absurd’.

He will never show sufficient astonishment at this lack of astonishment. It is by such contradictions that the first signs of the absurd work are recognized.

I’m afraid I recoiled at much of the pretentious rhetoric Camus employs in this essay. In my review of Camus’s other essays in The Myth of Sisyphus collection, I highlight the contrast between the pre-war essays full of lush verbiage and inflated rhetoric and the post-war essays which are immensely more chastened, more overt and accessible. This one definitely belongs to the pre-war, hothouse period.

The Castle is perhaps a theology in action, but it is first of all the individual adventure of a soul in quest of its grace, of a man who asks of this world’s objects their royal secret and of women the signs of the god that sleeps in them. Metamorphosis, in turn, certainly represents the horrible imagery of an ethic of lucidity. But it is also the product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly.

But Gregor Samsa feels no amazement, none at all, at changing into a giant insect, in fact neither do his family. He never does and his family, after their initial shock, settle down to accepting it s part of everyday life. That’s the whole point.

Camus wants to impose on Kafka a simple set of binary oppositions of which one is his pet notion of The Absurd.

These perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found throughout his work and give it both its resonance and its meaning. These are the paradoxes that must be enumerated, the contradictions that must be strengthened, in order to understand the absurd work.

Though he is correct to point out the reconciliation in Kafka’s stories of the mundane practical prose of everyday life on the one hand and, on the other, an almost supernatural anxiety.

There is in the human condition (and this is a commonplace of all literatures) a basic absurdity as well as an implacable nobility. The two coincide, as is natural. Both of them are represented, let me repeat, in the ridiculous divorce separating our spiritual excesses and the ephemeral joys of the body… Thus it is that Kafka expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical.

Or – the horrific, the terrifying is all the more effective if it is understated. As with all his early essays Camus veers in and out of making sense.

The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.

Contrary to what he said a moment ago about the ‘incalculable amazement’ Gregor feels at turning into an insect, he is closer to the mark when he points out the combination of the extreme and the everyday. Thus this man to whom befalls the most amazing thing that has ever happened to anyone, ever, is a boring travelling salesman whose first thought is concern about what his boss will say when he’s late for work (Gregor having, in a very characteristic Kafka way, not yet acknowledged that he is never going back to work).

Camus tries to persuade us that The Castle complements The Trial in ‘a barely perceptible progression’ which represents ‘a tremendous conquest in the realm of evasion.’

The Trial propounds a problem which The Castle, to a certain degree, solves. The first describes according to a quasi scientific method and without concluding. The second, to a certain degree, explains. The Trial diagnoses, and The Castle imagines a treatment. But the remedy proposed here does not cure. It merely brings the malady back into normal life.

Like a lot of Camus this sounds good but melts in your hands. If it is an interesting idea it deserves to be expanded and explained at greater length. He is right to point out how K. is the more buoyant of the two protagonists, never gives up hope, remains optimistic even though he quite obviously will never make it into The Castle, never realises or accepts that each new chapter ‘is a new frustration’. Camus notes how K. strives endlessly to try and become normal, to become one of the villagers, like everyone else – to be accepted.

Camus refers o God a lot in his discussion of The Castle and talks about Kierkegaard’s notorious leap of faith (Kierkegaard thought man can never know whether or not there is a God; he has to take a leap). He refers to Nietzsche and uses words like ‘existentialism’, but without persuading the reader that he really understands what he’s talking about. As with his other early essays we see the triumph of rhetoric over meaning.

That stranger who asks the Castle to adopt him is at the end of his voyage a little more exiled because this time he is unfaithful to himself, forsaking morality, logic, and intellectual truths in order to try to enter, endowed solely with his mad hope, the desert of divine grace.

He tries to appropriate Kafka for his own concerns, and in particular the special use of the word ‘hope’ which he had developed in The Myth of Sisyphus. In that essays ‘hope’ is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world.

The word ‘hope’ used here is not ridiculous. On the contrary, the more tragic the condition described by Kafka, the firmer and more aggressive that hope becomes. The more truly absurd The Trial is, the more moving and illegitimate the impassioned ‘leap’ of The Castle seems. But we find here again in a pure state the paradox of existential thought as it is expressed, for instance, by Kierkegaard: ‘Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope,’ which can be translated: “One has to have written The Trial to undertake The Castle.’

Clever sounding, but what does it mean? In the essay’s final page he tries to do the same thing as in Sisyphus, which is bring a discussion which began with despair and the Absurd round to a positive conclusion, something along the lines of: Embrace the Absurdity, relish the challenge of the universe’s meaninglessness. Feel the fear, and do it anyway 🙂

It is strange in any case that works of related inspiration like those of Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Chestov -those, in short, of existential novelists and philosophers completely oriented toward the Absurd and its consequences – should in the long run lead to that tremendous cry of hope. They embrace the God that consumes them. It is through humility that hope enters in.

If you say so. But I think Camus is hopelessly [sic] distorting Kafka. There is no hope in Kafka. There is no uplift or rejoicing. By this stage I’ve realised that Camus is imposing his own dynamic onto Kafka (as, according to Auden, everyone does). I realise that he is imposing his own newly minted concept – The Absurd – on Kafka in order to make Kafka perform the same movement from despair to hope, or Revolt and lucid hope, which he has enacted in Sisyphus.

The absurd is recognized, accepted, and man is resigned to it, but from then on we know that it has ceased to be the absurd. Within the limits of the human condition, what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition? As I see once more, existential thought in this regard (and contrary to current opinion) is steeped in a vast hope.

1. I don’t think this is a very accurate or useful summary of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre or the earlier existentialist philosophers. 2. There is no hope in Kafka, in fact the essay on Kafka by György Lukács which I’ve just read references a characteristically bleak and wry quote from Kafka on precisely this subject:

In conversation with Max Brod, after Brod had asked whether there is ‘hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know’, Kafka is said to have replied: ‘Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.’

Now that is the true Kafka note, the bleak humour but also the teasing quality, the feeling that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, he is privy to some kind of doctrine or knowledge that none of the rest of us understand: that his works are all fragments pointing towards some amazing new doctrine which, however, was never completed and never could be completed.

Comparing Camus’s superficial references to Kierkegaard and ‘the existentialists’ against this quote from Kafka, or against the force of Benjamin’s tremendously powerful essay, makes me realise that Camus is out of his depth.

He simply isn’t mature enough, clever enough or deep enough to grasp the unfathomable abyss which Kafka is plumbing. Thinking he can go from a set of superficial remarks about Kafka’s symbols and the elementary observation that The Castle complements The Trial before hurrying on to declare that, in the end, embracing the Absurd is paradoxically hopeful and uplifting — Camus comes over as an excitable teenager. His concluding remarks are painfully trite.

His work is universal (a really absurd work is not universal) to the extent to which it represents the emotionally moving face of man fleeing humanity, deriving from his contradictions reasons for believing, reasons for hoping from his fecund despairs, and calling life his terrifying apprenticeship in death. It is universal because its inspiration is religious. As in all religions, man is freed of the weight of his own life.

But Kafka emphatically was not freed of the weight of his own life. Camus is thinking about the emotional journey which he himself has just been through in The Myth of Sisyphus and not at all of the actual writer Franz Kafka who was more oppressed from start to finish of his career by the unbearable weight of his own life than any other writer in history. Who couldn’t escape himself or the delusion of trying to escape himself, no matter where he turned, who saw error building upon error and doors closing at the end of every corridor.

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid. (Kafka, Letters)

Camus’s distance from Kafka’s books is symbolised by the mistake he makes about the end of The Trial where he has the two men who arrest Joseph K. ‘slit his throat’, whereas, in fact, ‘the hands of one of the men closed round his throat, just as the other drove the knife deep into his heart and turned it twice.’ Camus has maybe misremembered this because it is, at some level, a little more capable of redemption that what Kafka actually wrote, which seems to me to be absolutely pitiless. Into the heart goes the metal knife. And then they twist it. There is no hope or rejoicing and no clever paradox about it. Camus’s final remarks are incoherent and, I think, profoundly irrelevant.

For if nostalgia is the mark of the human, perhaps no one has given such flesh and volume to
these phantoms of regret.

‘Phantoms of regret’ is a wholly inadequate phrase to convey anything to do with Kafka’s work. Camus’ prose is overblown, romantic, melodramatic and immature whereas Kafka’s was precise, understated, and unsparing.

The translation

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka was translated by Justin O’Brien. Is it O’Brien’s fault or Camus’s that the text is often badly phrased and poorly structured, sometimes becoming incomprehensible?

A symbol is always in general and, however precise its translation, an artist can restore to it only its movement: there is no word-for-word rendering.

There are works in which the event seems natural to the reader. But there are others (rarer, to be sure) in which the character considers natural what happens to him.

In the fullest sense of the word, it can be said that everything in that work is essential. In any case, it propounds the absurd problem altogether.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary between the wars, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for a Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács survived, unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the war’s end he was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority he was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again he had experienced the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957, abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and was allowed to keep his academic posts, continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the premises and working through of the ideas and theories and insights which support this basic conclusion.

He begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the century, which paid determined attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Zola saw his novels as sociological experiments. For Lukács he had already lost the tricky balance the realists maintained between character and ‘type’ – which helps to explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century a shoal of movements erupted which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity: it turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into almost wordless vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because i) it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points ii) it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and iii) it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas.

Time There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

He compares and contrasts their approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar. Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, the stream of consciousness is deployed as a tool within which particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static versus dynamic Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobile and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their back on healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap to go from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness)
2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (p.24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (p.26)

Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, as the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, of having been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which were promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (p.38)

By contrast, Lukács invokes the fundamental insight of one of the founders of western philosophy – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight goes through to Hegel in the early nineteenth century, who applies his mental model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch, War and Peace).

It is the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment, from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn, which gives us fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, he goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (as you can have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (p.54)

The Modernist, on the other hand rejects all this. More often than not their characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad, and he points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Details are chosen not to highlight their representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted, or barely exists, or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or entry level fridge freezer, p.53)

In a striking manoeuvre he invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. I.e. one of the major planks of though underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on the morbid and the unnatural (p.30)

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (p.36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction, which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he chose with absolute genius to convey his sense of utter, paralysing futility and nonsense.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pp.44-45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of the aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

But all that said, later on in the book an unnervingly more dogmatic tone emerges. Scattered references early in the book about the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into political polemic. He links his concept of the Good Realist writers directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, he explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by making a direct and rather crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring.

When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (p.77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude?

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless useless bureaucracy of his books is not that of snappily efficient America or Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a commissar like himself, and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács.


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The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death by Walter Benjamin (1934)

The German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) published several pieces about Franz Kafka, which were later collected in the selection of his essays titled Illuminations.

Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death (1934)

What makes Benjamin so enjoyable to read also makes him difficult to summarise. This is that he proceeds by a process of association, linking together thoughts and ideas to whip up a meringue of insights in a manner which is closer to that of a creative writer than a logical analyst. One thing leads to another which leads to another, and all sorts of sparks fly off all along the way.

This is exacerbated by the way he tends to bring out a flavour or aspect of a writer by comparing, by laying them alongside, work by another writer or from another tradition i.e. he works by a process of comparison and association.

Thus he opens the whole essay, not with anything by Kafka at all, but by telling a legend associated with the great Russian statesman Potemkin in order to make a preliminary definition of ‘the Kafkaesque’ – and at other moments he describes part of the legend of Ulysses, compares Kafka’s writing to that of the Chinese sage Lao Tse, or to Chinese theatre, or to the relationship between Jewish Holy Scriptures.

Some commentators have compared Benjamin’s approach to the Modernist technique of collage, cutting up and pasting next to each other material from different sources and traditions, in order to spark and jar interesting new perspectives and insights.

This makes for an immensely enjoyable, learned and impressionistic carnival ride through the subject being analysed, and reading Benjamin makes you feel wonderfully well-read and clever – which accounts for his enduring popularity among undergraduates ever since his essays were translated and became available in the 1970s. But also makes it quite difficult to grasp and define the points he’s making, or to extract logical summaries of his essays. That said, here’s my attempt to summarise the key points of this essay:

Original sin

Kafka’s world is one of people dogged by the Original Sin of having been born to fathers who have instituted an obscure and unknowable Law, which no-one can live up to, fathers who are themselves subject to decay, decline and fall. It is a primeval world:

  • ‘Laws and definite norms remain unwritten in the prehistoric world. A man can transgress them without suspecting it.’
  • ‘It takes us back far beyond the time of the giving of the Law on twelve tablets to a prehistoric world, written law being one of the first victories scored over this world. In Kafka the written law is contained in books, but these are secret; by basing itself on them the prehistoric world exerts its rule all the more ruthlessly.’
  • ‘…the prehistoric forces that dominated Kafka’s creativeness’
  • ‘In the mirror which the prehistoric world held before him in the form of guilt he merely saw the future emerging in the form of judgment.’

A world so prehistoric that it seems to exist before the world of myths and legends that we learned about at school, a world of inchoate feelings which only later, in man’s earliest myths and legends, found their first expression. [This is clearly an impressionistic, literary way of thinking about Kafka.]

The only beings who seem to exist outside the punishing dyad of decaying authority figures and stricken sons are ‘the assistants’, that category of characters who are not serious, are frivolous, who giggle and fool around. They seem to have escaped, or were never part of, the fallen world of endless guilt.

Characters in experimental theatre

Benjamin brings together allusions from the ‘gestic’ nature of ancient Chinese theatre and the melodramatic postures of characters in El Greco paintings, to bring out the way that many of the stories and characters can be seen as gestures. Each is playing a stylised role.

Key to this insight is the central role of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, in Amerika, which is clearly an allegorical entity, and which everyone is welcome to join.

a good number of Kafka’s shorter studies and stories are seen in their full light only when they are, so to speak, put on as acts in the “Nature Theater of Oklahoma.” Only then will one recognize with certainty that Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings. The theater is the logical place for such groupings.

It strikes me as a profound way of reimagining the stories to say that ‘ Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures’. That’s quite a fertile insight, it makes you reflect back over the oeuvre, and consider how much and in what way it applies to the stories or novels.

The next bit is even more powerful:

a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.

Now that is really profound because it opens up your understanding. A basic level understanding of Kafka’s work might be to say that he kept trying to write more or less the same story but kept failing. The motto of this fairly linear reading of Kafka would be Samuel Beckett’s famous line:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (from Worstward Ho!, 1983, Beckett’s second-to-last published work)

Benjamin’s metaphor is immediately more accurate, rich and suggestive, in that it is three dimensional: now the varied characters Kafka created are not doing the same thing, but actors trying out different stylised gestures within a vast stage or theatre (three dimensional because, though most are on the surface of the earth, some are up in the air – like the trapeze artist of First Sorrow, some beneath the ground like the narrator of The Burrow).

Parables

Benjamin makes some preliminary remarks about parables, dividing them into two types, ones which unfold like a bud blossoming into a flower, the other like a careful piece of origami which the maker opens and flattens out into a flat blank piece of paper, and goes on to relate the second type to Kafka’s work. Very brilliantly he nails the sense I’ve had throughout reading them that all the stories are immensely pregnant with deeper meaning but that… they resist all attempts to reveal, expose or define it.

They are not parables, and yet they do not want to be taken at their face value; they lend themselves to quotation and can be told for purposes of clarification. But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which K.’s postures and the gestures of his animals clarify? It does not exist; all we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it.

Not only does it not exist, but Benjamin brilliantly captures the profoundly evanescent feel of this eluding meaning – that Kafka was struggling to express something ancient and primeval or, in a brilliant moment, that his works could just as well be taken as the building blocks towards a new doctrine and teaching of some kind.

Kafka might have said that these are relics transmitting the doctrine, although we could regard them just as well as precursors preparing the doctrine.

Benjamin takes a detour into discussing how the central subject of the works was how we organise ourselves into society, and takes the story about the Great Wall of China as a classic example of meditating on this subject. But then he returns with another thought about parables, which is the care Kafka took to ensure that they resisted interpretation.

Kafka had a rare capacity for creating parables for himself. Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously, and warily.

This is a more practical, understandable point – that Kafka’s writings seem to be cast in the form of allegories and parables in order to prompt and invite interpretation by his readers. And yet, the closer you look, it feels like the more cannily they have been arranged so as to lead you only so far, before resisting all final, one-version interpretations. Before evading your grasp.

Talmudic interpretations

Benjamin was acutely aware of his Jewish heritage, and powerfully tuned in to the social plight and cultural role played by Jewish Germans of his own generation, a theme explained very clearly and thoroughly by Ernst Pawel in his biography of Kafka. This essay is sprinkled with references to Kafka’s Jewishness and by allusions to Jewish literary, theological and interpretative traditions and to individual Jewish folk stories or legends. Thus he writes of Kafka’s parables

This does not mean that his prose pieces belong entirely in the tradition of Western prose forms; they have, rather, a similar relationship to doctrine as the Haggadah does to the Halakah.

But I have no idea what the Haggadah or Halakah are. This particular section ends with Benjamin retelling a Talmudic legend told by a rabbi in answer to the question why Jews celebrate a meal every Friday evening. Some of Benjamin’s many allusions (like the one which compares the gestures of Kafka protagonists to the stricken, arms-raised gestures of El Greco figures who seem to be ripping open the sky behind them) illuminating and empowering. But I found Benjamin’s references to the Jewish tradition, on the whole, closing and narrowing.

This is by contrast to the lengthy sections Ernst Pawel devotes to the social and cultural plight of German-speaking Jews in the 1890s and early 1900s, in Austria, in Germany and in Kafka’s Bohemia, which I found electrifying. As Pawel describes the legal and political discrimination they suffered, the almost daily indignities, the attacks in the Press and by academics and nationalist writers, Pawel builds up a sense of the real climate of fear and alertness to attack from any sides which many of them felt and which I found helped me gain a deeper appreciation of Kafka’s permanent sense of unease and dread.

The hunchback

Benjamin asserts that the two commonest ways of interpreting or criticising Kafka’s texts – the psychological and the religious – are equally wrong.

There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation. Both the psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations equally miss the essential points.

I tend to agree. (And so does Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture on Kafka.) When Benjamin quotes some overtly Christian literary commentary on Kafka, its main effect is to make you realise how completely the entire Christian philosophy and worldview has disappeared from criticism and indeed most contemporary discourse. There are many many more articles about Islam in my newspapers and magazines than there are about Christianity.

As to psychology and psychoanalysis, still very much with us, I find it too trivial. That Kafka was afraid of his father or trapped in a hothouse stifling Jewish urban household, doesn’t begin to explain his genius, or the effect his writings have on us.

I didn’t understand much of what Benjamin says here.

Kafka could understand things only in the form of a gestus, and this gestus which he did not understand constitutes the cloudy part of the parables. Kafka’s writings emanate from it.

Nor when he quotes Kafka writing about a fictional character labouring under the weight of his ‘family, and goes on to say:

Doing this family’s bidding, he moves the mass of historical happenings as Sisyphus rolled the stone.

But I do mostly understand him when he goes on to emphasise the prehistoric nature of Kafka’s world, which he strikingly describes as a swamp world.

Kafka did not consider the age in which he lived as an advance over the beginnings of time. His novels are set in a swamp world.

This swamp metaphor allows Benjamin to link to some of the women Kafka’s protagonists encounter, describing them as swamp women (which chimes with the eerie detail in The Trial that the middle fingers of the woman Leni are joined together by a web of skin.) Benjamin makes the claim that only conceptualising the stories as coming from primeval prehistoric zone can we read them correctly.

Only from this vantage point can the technique of Kafka the storyteller be comprehended.

And then to move briskly on to the notion that everyone Joseph K. talks to speaks to him as if her has actually known all along the processes and procedures of the Court, but has for some reason forgotten them. This allows Benjamin to assert that the real subject of The Trial is forgetting and then to segue, as he so often does, into the role of memory in Jewish belief and ritual, quoting from Willy Haas that:

Memory plays a very mysterious role as piousness. It is not an ordinary, but … the most profound quality of Jehovah that he remembers, that he retains an infallible memory ‘to the third and fourth, even to the hundredth generation.’ The most sacred . . . act of the . . . ritual is the erasing of sins from the book of memory.

Benjamin conflates this deep memory as extending back into the prehistoric primeval world he has conjured up

What has been forgotten – and this insight affords us yet another avenue of access to Kafka’s work – is never something purely individual. Everything forgotten mingles with what has been forgotten of the prehistoric world, forms countless, uncertain, changing compounds, yielding a constant flow of new, strange products. Oblivion is the container from which the inexhaustible intermediate world in Kafka’s stories presses toward the light.

And, Benjamin suggests, this is why Kafka was attracted to narrators who are animals – because Kafka is plunging back into a world so deep, that it is pre-human. That or it casts back to a time when pre-literate tribes identified with sacred animals and set them on their totem poles. In some moods, Kafka is more of the animal world, than the human.

Which, after some convoluted reasoning, brings Benjamin to the biographical snippet that Kafka referred to his tubercular cough as ‘the animal’ – something pre-human rising up out of his own body.

Speaking of the body, Benjamin goes on to point out the frequency of characters in the novels with their heads bent down onto their chests. He then makes a larger than usual leap to connect these fictional characters with the figure of the hunchback in an old German folk song. And from there arrives at a conclusion of sorts, rejecting the two schools of false interpretations mentioned earlier – psychological or Christian – and instead associating Kafka with the prehistoric depths of the German (and Jewish) folk traditions.

In his depth Kafka touches the ground which neither ‘mythical divination’ nor ‘existential theology’
supplied him with. It is the core of folk tradition, the German as well as the Jewish.

Sancho Panza

The final section of the essay is titled Sancho Panza after Cervantes’ comic character, but, with characteristic ellipsis, Benjamin begins by not mentioning Sancho at all, instead quoting another Talmudic or Jewish folk story. See what I mean by the way Benjamin proceeds by building up mosaics or multiple levels of reference and association?

This section weaves together a brief consideration of the Jewish folk story with references to Jaroslav Hašek’s comic character, The Good Soldier Švejk, then refers to Plutarch of all people, to Peter Schlemihl, and arrives back at the Oklahoma Nature Theatre, the student Karl meets in Amerika, the bucket rider and Red Indian and Bucephalus short stories, to create a whirligig of insights and connections. I understood this part:

The invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation of men from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationships which have become their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own walk on the screen or his own voice on the phonograph. The situation of the subject in such experiments is Kafka’s situation; this is what directs him to learning, where he may encounter fragments of his own existence, fragments that are still within the context of the role. He might catch hold of the lost gestus the way Peter Schlemihl caught hold of the shadow he had sold. He might understand himself, but what an enormous effort would be required!

I think this section ends up by concluding that hope derives from learning, but learning without a goal.

The gate to justice is learning. And yet Kafka does not dare attach to this learning the promises which tradition has attached to the study of the Torah. His assistants are sextons who have lost their house of prayer, his students are pupils who have lost the Holy Writ.

And he ends his essay by saying it is all summed up in yet another of Kafka’s really short, gnomic pieces, the one about Sancha Panza – and hence the name of this section.

Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon set out in perfect freedom on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.

Which I partially understood, but Benjamin himself makes no effort to explain.


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Dates are dates of composition.

Camus by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970)

O’Brien (1917-2008) was Irish and had a long and varied career alternating between politics (Irish Foreign Office, United Nations, MP), journalism (editor-in-chief of the London Observer) and teaching (at universities in Ghana and New York). So he was well-placed to give an all-round assessment of Camus’s role as a novelist, playwright and above all, politically engaged writer and intellectual, 10 years after the Frenchman’s tragic death.

Only when I’d finished it did I understand the blurbs on the back of the book which point out that the entire study is written to a thesis, with a particular political interpretation in mind.

The Arab problem O’Brien starts by briskly outlining Camus’s biography and then gets on with ruffling feathers and questioning received opinion. He quotes a French writer on Camus who claims that all the working class inhabitants of the slum where Camus grew up were happily inter-racial. No, they weren’t says O’Brien; that kind of community is always troubled and there is evidence of outbreaks of unrest throughout Camus’s life.

O’Brien quotes some of Camus’s earliest essays which already make generalisations about Mediterranean Man, invoking images of Greek temples and so on. Absolutely nowhere in these portraits of his homeland does he mention mosques, muezzin, nowhere in any of his fictions is Arabic spoken. (Arabic was, in fact, banned in Algeria’s French-controlled schools.) Just a few pages into his study, O’Brien claims that, regardless of his conscious intentions, throughout his career Camus’s concept of ‘Mediterranean culture’ – by completely erasing Arab culture – served to legitimise French colonialism.

The Outsider (1940) Tough attitude, eh? O’Brien takes it on into his reading of L’Etranger. Here he points out that the account of Mersault’s trial is misleading. a) Mersault’s defence lawyer would have shown that he was defending himself against an Arab who had drawn a knife and had already attacked his friend, Raymond. Chances are a French court would only have charged him with manslaughter and possibly let him off altogether. No way it would have condemned him to death for self-defence against an Arab. b) The entire trial subtly implies that Frenchman and Arab had identical legal and civil rights in French Algeria, but they didn’t.

By gliding over this basic fact, the entire novel softens and conceals the harshness of French rule. This partly explains why the entire second part, devoted to the improbable trial and a schematic encounter with the prison priest, although its central to the plot, is less well remembered than the first half, set in the streets of Algiers, the beach, the desert heat.

O’Brien voices the misgivings I myself had on recently rereading L’Etranger, that the killing of the Arab is not really real. It is for his entire detachment from society that we feel Mersault is convicted – and this mood of rebellious detachment appeals now as it did then to adolescent minds everywhere. But no longer being a troubled adolescent, for me what stood out was the way the Arab has no name, never speaks and goes completely unlamented.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) O’Brien suggests this long essay is less a work of philosophy than the soliloquy of an artist meditating on suicide and death. He questions the novelty or viability of Camus’s notion of ‘revolt’, claiming that the post-God stance was the common currency of the time, and that every nation had rebelled against the Nazi occupation. O’Brien says that nonetheless the book had a big imapct on him and  his contemporaries because of its vivid affirmations of life in the face of death and despair.

The Plague (1947) O’Brien says The Plague is a masterpiece but it is not a novel; it is an ‘allegorical sermon’, and quotes Camus who himself referred to it as ‘a tract’.

O’Brien points out its flaws. For a start, Camus was apparently influenced by a recent article of Sartre’s on bourgeois fiction, to drop the notion of an omnipotent narrator. Apparently this explains why there is a fallible ‘Narrator’ who makes a fuss explaining how he has collated other documents, including Tarrou’s diary, to create his text, but this subterfuge is a) not consistently carried through – it ought to have had more newspaper reports or other sources to give it a real documentary feel b) is clumsily undermined when the text reveals at the end that ‘the Narrator’ is none other than Dr Rieux – who has been its central character! Puzzling and unsatisfactory.

But O’Brien goes, once again, for its most striking feature – the complete absence of the Arabs who, of course, made up eight-ninths of the population of Oran, the supposedly Algerian city where the plague breaks out.

O’Brien suggests they have to be erased from the narrative if it wants to be an allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France; for that allegory to work the chosen city must be a purely French city; the presence of Arabs complicates the allegory, in fact would ruin it, because you would have an oppressed population within the oppressed population. But O’Brien speculates that Camus might also have been aware of a more subversive interpretation of his allegory: that it was the French in Algeria who were the plague, the violent conquerors of the free Arabs.

By now O’Brien’s tone is scathing. He refers to the erasure of Arabs from the novel as ‘an artistic final solution to the problem of the Arabs’ – and points out how breath-takingly hypocritical it is that this genocide of the imagination takes place in a book stuffed so full of worthy characters calling for ‘total honesty’ about describing their situation; in a book whose central message is honesty and integrity in the face of the world’s injustice. Ha!

The Rebel (1951) O’Brien concentrates on the political message of The Rebel, specifically its anti-communism, using it as a focus to trace the slowly increasing vehemence of Camus’s anti-communism from the ambivalence of the Resistance days, to his final speeches and essays.

Argument with Sartre (1951) Camus’s attitude to communism was the crux of the break with Sartre when a journalist reviewed The Rebel unfavourably in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes. O’Brien, surprisingly, takes Sartre’s side by suggesting it needed more integrity to stand up to the immense weight of anti-communist feeling at the time, much of which was stoked up by CIA-funded publications and journalists. Sartre never joined the communist party but for writing in general terms about revolution he was subjected to lots of criticism. Via the same agents of cultural control, Camus found himself being championed as an exponent of liberal democracy and freedom (which he largely was, but with the vulnerabilities O’Brien is pointing out).

Colonialism O’Brien thinks the mounting vehemence of Camus’s hatred of communism and the historical/philosophical arguments he put forward in The Rebel to argue that communist regimes were uniquely, and inevitably, evil and repressive – masked a very bad conscience about the equally inevitable violence and repression of the French Empire, which had started as soon as the World War ended with violent suppression of independence movements in Algeria and Indo-China, to name the two biggest.

Exile and the Kingdom (1957) O’Brien dates these six short stories to just before the Algerian war broke out. Interestingly, O’Brien sees La Femme adultère and Le Renégat as a diptych contrasting heaven and hell. In the first a bored ignored wife has a mystical experience under the stars of the Algerian night sky; the latter is the demented monologue of a Christian missionary to native tribes who has had his tongue ripped out and been reduced to madness.

O’Brien notices how all the stories, even the realistic one about workers at a small workshop in Algiers who go on strike – have a dream-like quality. Everything he wrote, no matter how brutally realistic, was pulled towards a kind of allegorical abstractness.

Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) In 1958 Camus published an entire collection devoted to bringing together all his writings on Algeria, O’Brien is correct to describe them as ‘depressing’. I have just read those of them which Camus selected to be included in his selection of journalism, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961). What’s depressing is their growing irrelevance, which is matched by a steady escalation of high-minded sentiment.

O’Brien catches this in a neat formulation, when he describes them as ‘categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.’ Yes, it’s the categorical style of all Camus’s factual writing which I find so wearing, the sense that every sentence is pointing out important distinctions and subtleties in what are, in actual fact, a depressingly narrow range of ideas – freedom, oppression, death, life, suicide, freedom, death, rebellion, freedom. Round and round like hamsters in a cage.

The Algerian War of Independence broke out with attacks on French military and civilians on 1 November (All Saints Day) 1954. After a year of escalating massacres and political deadlock, in January 1956 Camus went in person to Algeria and held a public meeting at which he presented his one contribution, the idea of a ‘truce for civilians’ which both sides could abide by. (The speech is reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.) He was barracked by the Europeans and ignored by the Muslims and the meeting broke up in disarray. He wrote numerous articles and interviews, but that was his one and only public intervention. His suggestion sank like a stone. The massacres continued for another six years, spreading to mainland France and leading to the widespread use of torture, before the French eventually conceded defeat and granted Algeria independence on 5 July 1962.

O’Brien is cutting. The Algerian war fatally undermined Camus’s position.

  • In his articles Camus was always careful to balance both sides. This sounds fair but what it really means is that he can’t bring himself to come out and state the fact that the entire disaster is the result of French colonialism, government incompetence, cultural arrogance, and systematic repression (rather like the defeat of France in 1940 – almost like there’s some kind of pattern).
  • Camus consistently ruled out any negotiation with the Front de Libération Nationale (the FLN, the leaders of the Algerian revolt), insisting that: 1. Algeria be restored to peace before 2. discussions with moderate Arab representatives could take place, but 3. Algeria could never be given independence because of its economic and social backwardness. But Camus’s central positions – no negotiation with the FLN, no independence – echoed and in effect supported the main French government policy and the military strategy which, with horrible inevitability, led on to the torture and massacres, and to the rise of the French terrorist organisation, OLS, which would end up trying to assassinate the president and organise a military coup in France. It was a complete dead end.

The volume of essays, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, counterpoints the writings on Algeria and his trip there in 1956, with Camus’s two long pieces about the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet control which took place on October-November of the same year. O’Brien dwells on the way Camus really goes to town on the evil repression of the Hungarian Uprising, and repeats in summary form the argument of The Rebel that communism is somehow uniquely and especially inhumane and violent. Camus tries here (as everywhere in his later writings) to be balance the two sides in the Cold War, to talk about two poles of repression. He goes out of his way to mention that the West, too, practices its oppressions and injustices, but he doesn’t even mention the stupid fiasco of Suez (another great triumph for French strategy and arms) and nowhere gives any sense that Western imperial repression was perceived as just as total and unjust as he thinks communist oppression. He can’t escape his Eurocentric point of view.

For O’Brien, although Camus continued for the last few years of his life with his ‘categorical and resonant’ defences of freedom, in practice he was now a right-wing apologist for the colonialist French government.

The Fall (1956) Camus’s third and final novel began life as a short story for the Exile and the Kingdom  volume. Like many of those stories it has a strong dreamlike quality, what with its fairy tale setting in a foggy, allegorical Amsterdam.

O’Brien brings out the centrality of Christian themes and imagery in this story of a successful society lawyer who loses his confidence, who comes to realise he is a fraud, who undergoes voluntary exile in Amsterdam and can only find release (like the Ancient Mariner) by buttonholing strangers and telling them his strange confession. (Having aligned Camus with the French colonialist government and now emphasising the essentially religious nature of his imaginative vision, for a moment I thought O’Brien might go on to predict that, given another 20 years, Camus might have turned into a crusty, right-wing French chauvinist and Catholic. But no.)

O’Brien says that, in contrast to the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom which are (mostly) hard and unrelenting, The Fall involves a return to irony, pleasure, mystery – the positive and enjoyable qualities of his two earlier novels. He has an interesting reason for this. He speculates it’s because the short stories – especially The Guest – dramatise Camus’s excruciating in the early 1950s, caught between two cultures and two irreconcilable armed camps. Whereas, by the time of The Fall a year or so later, Camus has to some extent reconciled himself to his position as an outsider from both sides.

Thus the Amsterdam of the novel is not only, in thematic terms, the anti-Algeria: foggy and wet to Algeria’s blazing sunshine. Its political significance derives from the narrator of The Fall‘s insistence that it is also like the Limbo of the theologians, neither heaven nor hell, a place outside time, a dream-place where one man sits condemned to tell his story over and again. It is the corner into which Camus has painted himself.

Conclusion

O’Brien heads towards the thundering conclusion that Camus’s political position was flawed and wrong. O’Brien believes that Sartre was right and if Camus had allied himself more equivocally with the Sartre group in criticising Western imperialism, much trouble in both Algeria, and then Vietnam, might have been avoided.

He seriously undermines the idea of Camus as some kind of secular saint, a hero of free speech and humanism. Instead, he sees Camus as the most representative voice of Western consciousness and conscience of his era, not because he was a great liberal, but because he had a crippled, fatal relationship to the colonised Third World.

Trying to do the right thing but according to an entirely Eurocentric set of values, incapable of understanding the rights and demands of the colonial peoples, putting up one impractical idea after another while all the while, in effect, acquiescing in the repressive policies of his government – and finally forced into a humiliating silence – he is the representatively troubled intellectual of the Great Decolonising Era, of the end of the European empires.

This is all brought out much more clearly in the title the book was given in America – Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. It is a grimly tragic view of the man and his stance, but I find it very persuasive, having myself noted the elimination of the Arab presence in his novels, the vehement anti-communism of The Rebel and the surprising presence of Christian themes and ideas throughout his work.

And it isn’t all negative. O’Brien also pays reverence to the strengths of his three flawed but haunting novels and, in particular, his deeply political interpretation of the man and his times lends a new depth and resonance to the short but haunting masterpiece, La Chute.


Credit

Camus (Modern Masters) by Conor Cruise O’Brien was published as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970. All quotes & references are to the 1976 paperback edition (which cost me 65p).

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Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

Camus’s style in The Plague

I don’t understand why critics refer to the lucidity and clarity of Camus’s style; I find it quite the opposite. I think three elements contribute to his turgid and often impenetrable prose.

  1. Lack of interest in telling a conventional story with its use of suspense, character development, detailed descriptions and therefore a style which simply presents action and narrative incident.
  2. This is because Camus is consciously writing ‘philosophical’ fiction, designed to convey ideas and feelings about those ideas, rather than to provide narrative thrills, so that the narrative frequently stops while we listen to the narrator’s long-winded opinions and reflections on the plague.
  3. The translation doesn’t help. On every page there are turns of phrase which an English speaker or writer would never use. (‘A minute or so later Rambert and Rieux were sitting at the back of the doctor’s car.’ (p.168) ‘At’ the back?) On the plus side this helps keep the text feeling a little alien and estranged. On the downside, it often makes passages seem heavy-handed and obtuse.

Long winded 

Here is the narrator reflecting on what would be needed to deal with the plague.

But these extravagant forebodings dwindled in the light of reason. True, the word ‘plague’ had been uttered; true, at this very moment one or two victims were being seized and laid low by the disease. Still, that could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end, because it was unthinkable, or, rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines. If, as was most likely, it died out, all would be well. If not, one would know it anyhow for what it was and what steps should be taken for coping with and finally overcoming it. (p.37)

See how long-winded that is. And see how he uses the word ‘lucid’ as if this thinking actually was lucid when in fact it is the opposite – it is woolly, vague and needlessly melodramatic – ‘forebodings’, ‘seized’, ‘shadows’, ‘unthinkable’. Same goes for the frequent use of the word ‘precisely’ which almost always appears in a passage of tortuous obscurity – as if saying something is precise and lucid will make it precise and lucid.

Obtuse

Here is a typical reflection by the narrator:

And, as it so happens, what has yet to be recorded before coming to the culmination, during the period when the plague was gathering all its forces to fling them at the town and lay it waste, is the long, heartrendingly monotonous struggle put up by some obstinate people like Rambert to recover their lost happiness and to balk the plague of that part of themselves which they were ready to defend in the last ditch. This was their way of resisting the bondage closing in upon them, and while their resistance lacked the active virtues of the other, it had (to the narrator’s thinking) its point, and moreover it bore witness, even lit its futility and incoherences, to a salutary pride.

This is almost meaningless. At its core it is saying that Rambert’s determination to escape from the closed city reflects a healthy pride. Takes a long time to do it.

Poetic

Over and again the text creates reflections about the condition of plaguefulness which dwell on the sense of exile, isolation, and then apathy which overcomes the population, reflections which combine poetic phrasing with the never-ceasing search for fossicking distinctions. Possibly this is a characteristic of French fiction which is less evident in English fiction, or of the French essay-writing tradition, this continual definition, redefinition and counter-definition of words.

Now, at least, the position was clear; this calamity was everybody’s business. What with the gunshots echoing at the gates, the punctual thuds of rubber stamps marking the rhythm of lives and deaths, the files and fires, the panics and formalities, all alike were pledged to an ugly but recorded death, and, amidst noxious fumes and the muted clang of ambulances, all of us ate the same sour bread of exile, unconsciously waiting for the same reunion, the same miracle of peace regained. No doubt our love persisted, but in practice it served nothing; it was an inert mass within us, sterile as crime or a life sentence. It had declined on a patience that led nowhere, a dogged expectation. Viewed from this angle, the attitude of some of our fellow citizens resembled that of the long queues one saw outside the food-shops. There was the same resignation, the same long-sufferance, inexhaustible and without illusions. The only difference was that the mental state of the food-seekers would need to be raised to a vastly higher power to make it comparable with the gnawing pain of separation, since this latter came from a hunger fierce to the point of insatiability. In any case, if the reader would have a correct idea of the mood of these exiles, we must conjure up once more those dreary evenings sifting down through a haze of dust and golden light upon the treeless streets filled with teeming crowds of men and women. For, characteristically, the sound that rose toward the terraces still bathed in the last glow of daylight, now that the noises of vehicles and motors, the sole voice of cities in ordinary times, had ceased, was but one vast rumor of low voices and incessant footfalls, the drumming of innumerable soles timed to the eerie whistling of the plague in the sultry air above, the sound of a huge concourse of people marking time, a never ending, stifling drone that, gradually swelling, filled the town from end to end, and evening after evening gave its truest, mournfulest expression to the blind endurance that had ousted love from all our hearts. (p.152)

Impressive, eh? The obvious poetic descriptions are accompanied by a kind of poetic philosophising, a poetry of ideas. Some of the similes are comparisons with natural phenomena but loads of them reach for abstract entities (‘sterile as crime or a life sentence’) which sound incredibly weighty but don’t really bear close examination — or just reach for extreme and hyperbolic expressions – why, for example, are people waiting in a queue ‘without illusions’? Why the introduction of this tremendously heavy-weight philosophical idea?

Because everybody in the text is recast in the light of this pseudo-philosophical discourse. Everyone is acting under the arc lights of Camus’s Absurdist worldview which gives everything a garish, long-shadowed melodramatic feel.

Dramatic dialogue

Sometimes Camus dramatises the characters’ differing views of their plight with the punch and counter-punch you would expect of a playwright, reminding you that he was ‘a man of the theatre’, writing five original plays, adapting five novels for the stage, and himself starring in a number of productions.

Suddenly he realized that Rambert was returning his gaze.
‘You know, doctor, I’ve given a lot of thought to your campaign. And if I’m not with you, I have my reasons. No, I don’t think it’s that I’m afraid to risk my skin again. I took part in the Spanish Civil War.’
‘On which side?’ Tarrou asked.
‘The losing side. But since then I’ve done a bit of thinking.’
‘About what?’
‘Courage. I know now that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn’t capable of a great emotion, well, he leaves me cold.’
‘One has the idea that he is capable of everything,’ Tarrou remarked.
‘I can’t agree; he’s incapable of suffering for a long time, or being happy for a long time. Which means that he’s incapable of anything really worth while.’ He looked at the two men in turn, then asked: ‘Tell me, Tarrou, are you capable of dying for love?’
‘I couldn’t say, but I hardly think so, as I am now.’
‘You see. But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.’
Rieux had been watching the journalist attentively. With his eyes still on him he said quietly:
‘Man isn’t an idea, Rambert.’
Rambert sprang off the bed, his face ablaze with passion.
‘Man is an idea, and a precious small idea, once he turns his back on love. And that’s my point; we, mankind, have lost the capacity for love. We must face that fact, doctor. Let’s wait to acquire that capacity or, if really it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come to each of us anyway, without his playing the hero. Personally, I look no farther.’ (p.136)

You see how this could immediately be staged, in fact change the names and it could fit into his play about ardent revolutionaries, The Just. 

It’s melodramatic, intense and yet, once you stop to think about it… ‘Mankind has lost its capacity to love.’ Hmmm: I don’t think we have, actually.

In sequences like this I can follow the fictional interplay between the characters but it is difficult to get worked up about their actual points of view. They seem factitious, meaning ‘artificially created’, ‘worked up’, ‘contrived’ in order to create drama and conflict where there isn’t really any.

Translatability

A good deal of Camus’s prose consists of pedantically nitpicking between different definitions, in search of rather elusive distinctions. You can’t help wondering how this fine tuning of the definitions of words and ideas can possibly be translated into English, with its completely different sets of connotations.

‘It’s high time it stopped,’ people would say, because in time of calamity the obvious thing is to desire its end, and in fact they wanted it to end. But when making such remarks, we felt none of the passionate yearning or fierce resentment of the early phase; we merely voiced one of the few clear ideas that lingered in the twilight of our minds. The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place
to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence. (p.149)

‘Despondency not to be mistaken for resignation which is nonetheless a particular kind of acquiescence.’

He’s performing a kind of conjuring trick with words and you can’t help wondering how accurately this has been – or could be – translated into a different language.

Commonplace

When it is stripped of the convoluted terminology, Camus’s thought is often quite trite.

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness. (p.110)

You can see why the much cleverer Sartre and de Beauvoir used to read Camus and snigger.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime, and then found among his papers after his death, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49).

I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and about the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

The ideas and issues raised in the introductory material and essays are so numerous that I discuss them in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1).

In this blog post I am commenting solely on the two large fragments of the uncompleted novel itself. These were given by Sartre the titles of: A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

Mathieu and Brunet at the end of Iron in the Soul

In the third novel of the published trilogy, Iron In the Soul, we followed the activities of Mathieu Delarue, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, as they both, separately, retreated in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ended up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself deciding to quit the squad of demoralised men he’d arrived with, and instead throw in his lot with a still-pugnacious lieutenant and his platoon, who have arrived in the village after carrying out a fighting retreat.

Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied some of the soldiers to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. When the first Germans enter the village, Mathieu and comrades begin shooting at them, sparking a fierce firefight, which is only ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu, until the last minute firing from this church tower, was killed.

Meanwhile, by a large coincidence, without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, the tough-minded communist, Brunet, has also ended up in the same village, but here he makes a very different decision. He decides to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising what is obviously going to be a larege number of French prisoners of war into a communist cell.

The final part of Iron in the Soul had followed Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others, Decent feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to a prison camp in the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and imprisonment in 1940.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet had found himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background. At key moments Schneider points out the flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident that the descriptions of the camp and of the horrible conditions are accurate.

What gets the action of A Strange Friendship going is the arrival of new prisoners at the camp, one of them being Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by announcing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who had denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was therefore expelled from the Party
b) that Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, namely organising the prisoners, recruiting the willing ones to a communist cell, with the long term plan of undermining the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a representative of the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy).

He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over yet, that the USSR will crush Germany, that the workers should reject the armistice, that the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, that the French prisoners should still consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s recent radio broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, that the Vichy government is illegitimate, that the armistice the new french government signed with the Nazis was treason. With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a propagandist for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his men must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the Germans, the communist party ought to cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and to get a foot into the French National Assembly again.

To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle – who is merely a mouthpiece for British imperialism – and direct the workers towards pacifism, not towards enmity to the Germans (p.63).

Brunet listens with astonishment to this interpretation of the situation which is completely opposite to everything he has been telling the men he’s recruited to the communist cause. Chalais has the impeccable authority of being a senior party member, and of having been free – and so in touch with the communist hierarchy – more recently than Brunet himself.

Brunet tries to quell his misgivings, to make himself a servant of the Party and to obey.

This is an example of Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

(There is also a massive authorly irony at work here, because the reader knows that Chalais is dead wrong – when Hitler invades the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin immediately declares Germany the enemy and reverses every one of the policies which Chalais had been championing. Brunet was to be proved right. But not yet.)

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the men he has so suddenly deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with this problem – the men don’t trust Chalais and now think Brunet was lying to them. Chalais floats the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as so many old Bolsheviks did in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as depicted in the classic novel, Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unwavering faith in the Party is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue i.e. History is bigger than the Communist Party.

1. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to his own free thought i.e. that it was merely a bourgeois self-indulgence which he needed to repress.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(It’s worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone as a classic of dystopian fiction, like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture all through and for long after the war.)

2. And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and if the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to the fact of his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider – a traitor to the Party because he criticised Stalin’s Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.

Recalling all their talks and all the help he’s given him, Brunet comes to Schneider’s rescue and interrupts the pair of thugs beating Schneider. But the two men – who Brunet himself recruited to the communist cause – don’t understand why he’s protecting Schneider. Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too?

In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the thugs in the face and the pair of thugs slope off, at which point Brunet realises that he has burned all his bridges. Now ‘his’ men belong to Chalais and everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. He has fought all his adult life for the Communist Party. Now the Party has decreed that he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape. In the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans.

As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, but vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death.

Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. You can immediately see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this story. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, as it stood in the winter of 1940-41, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes in this edition point out, the official Party line was itself continually changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, a vast amount had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse.

Why write about the arcane disputes of this increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? As you read the fragment it becomes increasingly obvious why Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in in the early 1950s.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, nearly 80 years later, all the characters seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain.

And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koestler’s fictional recreation of the interrogation and show trial of an old Bolshevik in his classic novel, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. The french hated each other much more than they hated the Germans.

At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls ‘dogs’.

(It is important to remember that the French Communist Party called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.)

Chalais prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. This is an amazing thing to really process and let sink in. And Chalais exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’.

Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on a man (Brunet) who wants to be a loyal Party servant but finds himself torn between ideology and loyalty to the men he’s recruited.

I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom: as, for example, Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic – but refuses, in the end, to give up and insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems like just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, during the revising, once the narrative scaffold was in place.

This text as we have it consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose used to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to.

Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose.

I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section is intended to enact the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals.

Whereas the moments of high delirium which Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but:

a) there’s no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see would be extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment with the Party)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape. The Germans always remain disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically enough – the Germans don’t need to do anything. They know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics. The French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted. I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from a place where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting.

Vive la France! Vive la Revolution! are essentially comic declarations.


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

All the readers of the original trilogy of novels thought that Mathieu Delarue – the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher much like Sartre – had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul. But no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The other sizeable fragment of the unfinished novel – titled The Last Chance – just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s soon transferred out into the wider camp.

The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed. Huh.

As usual, two things happen immediately with Mathieu: he is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on.

And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to perceive the world normally, cease even perceive themselves as human, instead become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on.

I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things.

Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insects, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. He was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

The structure of the complete novel

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes, the editor Craig Vasey, explains that the plan for the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first-person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the prisoners gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations.
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post-traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagines killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape, the snow-bound escape attempt in which Schneider died. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, Brunet returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. He is no longer under imminent threat of assassination. Then Brunet gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • That it is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is one of boredom and mild dislike.
  • The novel climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should have triumphantly completed the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly and convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him.

Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu has not only ‘become free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked.

But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia.

This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie.

Worst of all, all the men or blokes are referred to as ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial verbal choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the entire reading experience and its continual repetition had the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’

Credit

The French edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Whale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the Mine (1937)

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

The whole chapter opens with a typically ringing Orwell statement –

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

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

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

England Your England (1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting an Elephant (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, Orwell comments, is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics and the English Language (1946)

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

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

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

These trends can be summarised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prevention of Literature (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boys’ Weeklies (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

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

Related links

George Orwell’s books

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

A Choice of Kipling’s Verse by T.S. Eliot (1941)

Kipling… is the most inscrutable of authors. An immense gift for using words, an amazing curiosity and power of observation with his mind and with all his senses, the mask of the entertainer, and beyond that a queer gift of second sight, of transmitting messages from elsewhere, a gift so disconcerting when we are made aware of it that thenceforth we are never sure when it is not present: all this makes Kipling a writer impossible wholly to understand and quite impossible to belittle.

There are a number of paperback selections of Kipling’s poetry in print, which all include a more or less similar selection from the 350 or so poems he published, certainly all including the 20 or 30 greatest hits. This selection, for example, includes 123 poems – but what really distinguishes it is the magisterial introductory essay by the dean of Modern poetry, Thomas Stearns Eliot.

It’s a long and densely argued essay that is sometimes difficult to follow, but it is packed with fascinating insights.

Poetry and prose inseparable Kipling’s verse and prose are inseparable halves of the same achievement. ‘We must finally judge him, not separately as a poet and as a writer of prose fiction, but as the inventor of a mixed form.’ This is certainly the case in the volumes I’ve read recently, in the stories from Puck of Pook’s Hill onwards through to Debits and Credits, where every story is introduced or followed by a poem which comments on the characters and actions, shedding new light, modifying, deepening or perplexing our response.

Common criticisms

Eliot lists the common criticisms of Kipling:

Superficial jingles Most critics have to defend modern poetry from charges of obscurity; the critic writing about Kipling has to defend him from charges of ‘excessive lucidity’. We have to defend Kipling against the charge of being a journalist, writing for the lowest common denominator, against the charge that he wrote catchy superficial ‘jingles’. And yet there is no doubt that real deeps of poetry are sounded in many of his poems.

Topicality A further obstacle is Kipling’s poems’ topicality. So many of them are written a) for very specific occasions and b) from a political point of view which hardly anyone sympathises with nowadays. Personally, I have found occasional and political poetry to be an acquired taste. When I was young I liked emotional or rhetorical or dramatic poetry which spoke to my emotions. It was only in middle age that I tried Dryden again and realised, to my surprise that, once I fully understood the political background to his satires, I enjoyed their craft and wit and appropriateness. Same with Kipling. And in fact, as Eliot points out, the gift of being able to write really good occasional verse – i.e. verse directly speaking to a current event – and to do it to order, ‘is a very rare gift indeed’.

Similarly, both good epigrams and good hymns are very rare, and Kipling produced fine examples of both.

Imperialism Kipling thought the British Empire was a good thing. He thought the British had a unique ability to rule other peoples wisely and fairly. (And a comparison with the alternatives – with the Belgian or French or Spanish or Portuguese or German empires of the period – does tend to support this view; let alone a comparison with the alternatives of the Nazi Empire and the Soviet Empire, which grew up between the wars.)

But, contrary to the uninformed view that he is a prophet of Empire, his early stories are almost entirely satires on the greed, stupidity and snobbery of the British; throughout his prose runs blistering criticism of British politicians; and stories and poems alike from the Boer War onwards lament in graphic terms England’s failure to live up to her own best ideals.

The most notoriously imperial poems are less hymns to any kind of racial or cultural superiority, but rather calls to duty and responsibility. He explicitly condemns the mercantile parties (in Britain and America) who used the high ideals of empire as a fig leaf for rapacious exploitation.

Racism I find Kipling’s casual contempt for some Indian natives (as for many of the women) in his early stories revolting. But there is a good deal of evidence that he was in fact surprisingly tolerant for his time. The prime exhibit is Kim, his best book and one of the best English fictions to come out of the Raj, in which all the most sympathetic and real characters are Indian: the Lama, Mahbub Ali, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee and the widow. One of his most famous poems is Gunga Din in which the Indian is, quite simply, declared a better man than the narrator. He treats the multiple religions of India with equal respect or satire, depending on the context.

Kipling wrote a lot and his attitudes – or the attitudes of his narrators and characters – are mixed and contradictory. But one consistent worldview that the white man, the Englishman, is always and everywhere innately superior to the inferior races – is not there in his writings. He believed that white Western culture had a responsibility to bring the benefits of civilisation – law, schools, hospitals, railways, roads – to the developing world, and so spoke about the White Man’s Burden to do all this – and lamented the resentful ingratitude of the recipients, and the relentless criticism of anti-imperialists at home. But:

a) The era of empires and colonies is over – India and Pakistan will soon have been completely independent for 70 years – and so Kipling’s views have receded to become just the most forcefully expressed of a whole range of opinion from a period which historians can investigate and the literary reader can imaginatively inhabit, as I inhabit the mind of a 17th century French Catholic courtier when I read Racine or a medieval monk when I read Chaucer.

b) Throughout the month that I’ve been soaking myself in Kipling – with his relentless rhetoric about the responsibility of the ‘White Man’ to help the rest of the world – I have also been opening newspapers and hearing on the radio relentless calls for ‘the West’ to intervene in the bombing of Aleppo or do more about the refugee crisis, or intervene in Yemeni civil war. If you replace ‘white man’ in his poems with ‘the West’ you’ll see that a lot of the same paternalistic attitude lives on, even in self-proclaimed liberals and anti-imperialists: there is still the assumption that we in ‘the West’ must do something, are somehow responsible, somehow have magic powers to sort out the world’s troubles which (it is implied) the poor benighted inhabitants of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and all the rest of them lack.

In other words, although all right-thinking contemporary liberals decry Kipling’s patronising racism, or the paternalistic implications of his belief that the ‘White Man’ has some kind of responsibility to guide and help and save the rest of the world, I am struck by how much the same attitude of paternalism is alive and kicking in the same liberal minds.

Anyway, you only have to compare Kipling’s thoroughly articulated view that the White Man’s burden is to help and raise up the peoples he finds himself set over, with something like the Nazi doctrine of the innate superiority of the Aryan race, which saw every example of every other race as genetically inferior and only fit to be used as slaves or to carry out live experiments on – to realise the difference. Set against the Nazis, Kipling’s work overflows with sympathy for all types of native peoples – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists – and with numerous narratives where the ‘native’ turns out to be the equal of or, quite often, a better person than the struggling white man.

Professionalism Eliot draws attention to Kipling’s professionalism – an aspect of his work which I also find admirable:

No writer has ever cared more for the craft of words than Kipling… We can only say that Kipling’s craftsmanship is more reliable than that of some greater poets, and that there is hardly any poem, even in the collected works, in which he fails to do what he has set out to do.

As Eliot points out, quite a few of the stories, particularly the later stories, refer to art and, specifically, to the redeeming element of craft, craftsmanship, the skill and dedication involved in making something. In this respect Kipling is more like the engineers he venerated – building useable structures for specific purposes – than the lyric poet of popular mythology, wanly waiting on inspiration from the Muse. (As Eliot points out, for both Dryden and Kipling, ‘wisdom has the primacy over inspiration’.)

Lack of psychology But this very facility lends itself to a further criticism, that it was in some sense too easy for Kipling; or, put another way, that his verse never feels as if it comes from the kind of psychological depths or offers the kind of personal, intimate or psychological insights which the post-Romantic reader is used to. We like to feel that a writer is in some sense compelled to write what and how he did. Eliot contrasts Kipling with Yeats, whose career included all kinds of compulsions – political, personal, social, romantic – and is often compelling because of it. Almost all Yeats’s poetry is lyrical in the sense that it is designed to arouse feeling. Kipling is the opposite. He is more like Dryden; both writers used poetry ‘to convey a simple forceful statement, rather than a musical pattern of emotional overtones’. His poetry might arise out of some particularly effective statement, but it is statement first and foremost, with almost no emotion or psychology.

In this respect, then, the objectivity of the ballad form suits the objectivity of his approach. For no other writer of comparable stature is there less sense of ‘this inner compulsion’, less sense that he had to write what he wrote. The majority of Kipling’s output derives from skilful craft and a facility in writing in all kinds of forms, a kind of impersonality, which many modern readers of poetry don’t find sympathetic.

Kipling is the most elusive of subjects: no writer has been more reticent about himself, or given fewer openings for curiosity.

Many types of literary criticism are essentially biographical in that they set out to show how an author developed, working with changing material and experiences, learning how to shape and deploy them over the course of their career etc. But this entire critical approach doesn’t work for Kipling, who is skilled and adept right from the start, who shows equal and astonishing fluency with whatever he turns his hand to, and whose oeuvre shows next to no personal or biographical content. The opposite.

Ballads This craftsmanship is exemplified in the form most identified with Kipling. Eliot dwells at length on the fact that Kipling wrote ballads – he wrote in more forms than the symmetrical rhyming ballad, but he was always driven by what Eliot calls ‘the ballad motive’. Eliot gives a brief history of the ballad, pointing out that a good ballad can appeal to both the uneducated and the highly educated, and then going on to praise Kipling’s mastery of the form:

  • ‘a consummate gift of word, phrase and rhythm’
  • ‘the variety of form which Kipling manages to devise for his ballads is remarkable: each is distinct, and perfectly fitted to the content and mood which the poem has to convey’

Eliot goes on to make the distinction between poets like himself, whose aim is to make something which will be and, as an evocative object, evoke a range of responses in different readers; and Kipling’s poems which are designed to act – designed to elicit exactly the same response in all its readers.

Poetry or verse? Eliot tackles the tricky subject of whether Kipling’s work is verse or poetry. I think he’s saying that most of it is verse (hence the title of this book), but that ‘poetry’ frequently arises within it.

With Kipling you cannot draw a line beyond which some of the verse becomes ‘poetry’; … the poetry when it comes, owes the gravity of its impact to being something over and above the bargain, something more than the writer undertook to give you.

Possessed Eliot makes the point that, completely contrary to his reputation as a blustering racist imperialist, there are in fact strange, really strange and eerie depths, hints of terrible psychological experiences, found in much of his work. (I’ve commented on this uncanny element in my review of a collection of his ghost and horror stories – Strange Tales – which in fact, far from depicting heroic chaps running a gleamingly efficient Empire, give a consistent sense of very ordinary men stretched to the limit by difficult work in impossible conditions and teetering on the verge of complete nervous and psychological collapse.)

But it isn’t just stress and collapse. Quite regularly something deeper, a sense of strange historical or even mythical depths, stirs in his work.

At times Kipling is not merely possessed of penetration, but also ‘possessed’ of a kind of second sight.

Hence Eliot is able to say that in a hymn-like poem written for a very public occasion, like Recessional:

Something breaks through from a deeper level than that of the mind of the conscious observer of political and social affairs –  something which has the true prophetic inspiration.

Verse or poetry?

Put simply, Kipling was capable of fluently writing verse for all occasions, which generally eschews all psychology, and certainly all autobiographical content, in order to put into objective ballad formats the catchy formulation of popular or common sentiments; but his sheer facility of phrasing and rhythm often lends this ‘verse’ a kind of depth which justifies the name of ‘poetry’.

I have been using the term ‘verse’ with his own authority, because that is what he called it himself. There is poetry in it; but when he writes verse that is not poetry it is not because he has tried to write poetry and failed. He had another purpose, and one to which he adhered with integrity.

Towards the end of the essay Eliot returns to the question.

What fundamentally differentiates his ‘verse’ from ‘poetry’ is the subordination of musical interest… There is a harmonics of poetry which is not merely beyond their range – it would interfere with their intention.

In other words Kipling wasn’t trying to write poetry, he was aiming at verse and he did write a good deal of truly great verse – but from that verse, from time to time, both true deep memorable poetry emerges, and also profound prophetic truths are articulated.

Five sample poems

I’ve selected five Kipling poems designed to give a sense of his variety of style, mood and subject matter: an example of the Ballad-Room Ballads which were such a popular success in the early 1890s demonstrates the young man’s bumptious good humour; one of the many poems which reveals the eerie, science-fiction-ish, visionary side of Kipling’s imagination; his most famous ‘hymn, with its Biblical imagery and refrain; an eerie moving poem about the Great War; and a compressed, bitter epigram from the same conflict.

1. Fuzzy-Wuzzy (1890)

A tribute to the bravery of the Sudanese warriors who the British Army faced in their campaign against the forces of ‘the Mahdi’ in the Sudan in 1884-85, in the Army’s march south to rescue General Gordon and his Egyptian garrison besieged in Khartoum. It includes a list of recent British military defeats, is a tribute to the superior fighting qualities of the black man, all told in high good humour as Kipling enjoys deploying outrageous rhymes and rhythms, an enjoyment which is still infectious.

We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.
We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im:
‘E squatted in the scrub an’ ‘ocked our ‘orses,
‘E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
We gives you your certificate, an’ if you want it signed
We’ll come an’ ‘ave a romp with you whenever you’re inclined.

We took our chanst among the Khyber ‘ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We ‘eld our bloomin’ own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us ‘oller.
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.

‘E ‘asn’t got no papers of ‘is own,
‘E ‘asn’t got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill ‘e’s shown
In usin’ of ‘is long two-‘anded swords:
When ‘e’s ‘oppin’ in an’ out among the bush
With ‘is coffin-‘eaded shield an’ shovel-spear,
An ‘appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an ‘ealthy Tommy for a year.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ your friends which are no more,
If we ‘adn’t lost some messmates we would ‘elp you to deplore.
But give an’ take’s the gospel, an’ we’ll call the bargain fair,
For if you ‘ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!

‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air —
You big black boundin’ beggar — for you broke a British square!

2. The Deep-Sea Cables (1893)

Part of a longer sequence Kipling called A Song of the English which describes various aspects of British naval and maritime supremacy. It describes the advent of cables laid on the ocean beds to carry telegraphic messages. At a stroke the continents of the world were united and messages which used to take months to travel from India or Australia to London could now be sent almost instantaneously. Hence the line ‘they have killed their father Time’. The poem is both an example of Kipling’s obsession with new technology, and his ability to make that technology glamorous and romantic; and at the same time hints at the occasional weirdness of his imagination, broaching on the territory of H.G.Wells or Conan Doyle’s tales of the uncanny.

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar—
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world—here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat—
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth –
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o’er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, ‘Let us be one!’

3. Recessional (1897)

Written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, readers at the time and ever since have been struck by the absence of Pomp and Glory and rejoicing and jubilation. The opposite: the poem is a gloomy pessimistic vision of the way all empires fade and die and so the British Empire will, too. It is a sober call to duty and righteousness. It is on the basis of this solemn incantation that Eliot describes Kipling as ‘a great hymn writer’ – ‘Something breaks through from a deeper level than that of the mind of the conscious observer of political and social affairs – something which has the true prophetic inspiration.’

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

4. Gethsemane (1914-18)

Eliot says he doesn’t understand this poem. I see it as remarkably simple, in fact the simplicity of rhyme scheme, the short lines, the repetitive words all contribute to its haunting limpidity. The soldier going up the line towards the trenches pauses with his troop and officer for a rest, and bitterly prays that the cup – i.e. his death, his doom, his fate – will pass from him i.e. be avoided. But it isn’t. He is gassed. Compare and contrast with the long bouncy rhythms and good humour of Fuzzy Wuzzy, with the grand rolling phrases of Recessional, the eerie visionariness of the Sea Cables, and you begin to see Kipling’s variety and virtuosity. He could write poems for all occasions, for all moods – and they are not just good but brilliant.

The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass—we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane.

The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn’t pass—it didn’t pass –
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

5. Epitaph of War

Eliot writes: ‘Good epigrams in English are very rare; and the great hymn writer is very rare. Both are extremely objective types of verse: they can and should be charged with intense feeling, but it must be a feeling that is completely shared.’ Kipling had the inspired idea during and after the Great War to use the extremely short, abbreviated format of epigrams found in the Green Anthology as models for very short poems commemorating aspects of the conflict. Hence:

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Conclusion

Although not a totally coherent piece of prose (given its occasionally rambling and repetitious structure), Eliot’s 30-page essay on Kipling nonetheless contains more ideas and insights into his verse than anything else I’ve read.


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

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