Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’ but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic, social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism at the end of the Second World War.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s, blah blah blah- but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written, and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead (including nearly 2 million Jews); Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists.

Coventry was devastated as was London, and most German cities were severely damaged – though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless.

Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking. Primo Levi is quoted as saying, as he travelled across postwar Europe back to Italy, that there was something supernatural, superhuman, about the scale of the devastation the Germans had unleashed.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of anecdotes describing the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe.

Some of the thoughts or ideas struck me more than others:

The myth of national unity

After the liberation the whole continent began constructing myths of unity in adversity. (p.196)

After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another.

But the wish to gloss over inconvenient truths wasn’t particularly French. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood

As a reader of modern newspapers, it’s often easy to think that modern 21st century society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice, and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash, it’s time to stop blaming us for everything, the head of Barclays whined. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or unfairly treated.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘We are only civilians. We never shot anyone’ etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would have. And by sacrificing themselves, they managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on.

Thus Lowe points out how right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres of collaborators carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women.

Similarly, modern right-wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000 (in this version of the story, heroic and patriotic) collaborators. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape

On a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe goes further to point out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions, because the cultural gulf between them and European women who they despised. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators

A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166). Well, maybe Sylvia Plath wasn’t being ironic when she reported that ‘Every woman adores a Fascist.’

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos of some of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked, shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’, tarred and painted them with swastikas.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way on appalling behaviour, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, and never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves.

Witnesses report a marked reduction in communal tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint

No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. Very often American or British supervisors gave the victims 2 or 3 days to get it out of their systems, then reimposed order.

The surprising thing (for someone who has such a low opinion of humanity as myself) is the relative restraint. Some victims and camp inmates went made with revenge. But a surprising number didn’t, and even made eloquent speeches saying they refused to lower themselves to the bestial barbarism of the Germans, epitomised by the address of Dr Zalman Grinberg to his fellow inmates of Dachau in May 1945, when he told them not to sink to the level of their German tormentors. Hard not to be moved and impressed.

There’s a fascinating description page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could, and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing

Part three of the book is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers with rifles picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another. One eyewitness said it was like the biggest antheap in history.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes quite clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the Second World War and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror i.e. not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities.

Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism

One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror and the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the utter breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain

Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s.

Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (i.e. killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism

Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’.

It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’.

The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism had taken hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we in the West celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 30 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by nationalism’s ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, in practice against gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, against anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Rassenkrieg

Reading the book made me reimagine the entire Second World War as a Race War to an extent I hadn’t previously realised. At first in Germany and then in all the countries they conquered, the Nazis compelled the entire population to carry identity cards which specified precisely which race they belonged to, and created vast bureaucracies to manage the rights and permissions of every citizen based on the complex hierarchy of racial definitions.

In Poland, for example,

a racial hierarchy was devised which put Reich Germans at the top, ethnic Germans next, then privileged  minorities such as Ukrainians, followed by Poles, gypsies and Jews.

Each group was then sub-categorised, for example Ethnic Germans broken down into Germans racially pure enough to join the Nazi Party, pure enough for Reich membership, those tainted by Polish blood, and finally Poles who could be considered German because of their appearance or way of life (p.188).

In Western Europe this fed into the rounding up of Jews and to a lesser extent gypsies (and socialists, liberals, political opponents and homosexuals). But in Eastern Europe the race basis of the war makes it lunatic. I am still reeling from reading about the Generalplan Ost whose headline intention was to exterminate some 30 million Slavs in Poland and western Russia, laying waste entire regions which could then be occupied by good Aryan farmers, who would use the remaining Slavs as slaves.

This isn’t dealt with directly in Lowe’s book. Instead he deals in detail with the political, psychological and social consequences of this way of thinking. He shows how after the war was over nationalist groups across eastern Europe blamed the Jews for much of the suffering, how anti-semitism rose, how this convinced many Jews to flee to Palestine.

But gives an extended passage describing the ethnic cleansing of Germans in Czechoslovakia but especially from Poland. Poland was also the scene of horrible civil conflict between ethnic Poles and Ukrainians in the disputed south-east part of the country, which led to terrifying, bestial atrocities. And all so Ukrainians could have a ‘Ukraine for the Ukrainians’ and the Poles could have a ‘Poland for the Poles’. Their new communist masters stood back and let them massacre each other.

The real point of Lowe’s book is that the evil of the Nazis’ obsession with Race Identity lived on long after the regime was destroyed.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany, but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European values. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they want to or not. And, in communities which had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem that needed solving. (p.188)

Two years after the end of the war regions of Europe were still being racially cleansed. Thus the Slovak government not only set a bout expelling the 40,000 or so Hungarians who had settled in their country after the Germans invaded, but expelling the entire pre-war Hungarian community of some 600,000 souls in order to have a ‘final solution’ to the Hungarian Problem (p.247).

It took a while, and it happened under post-war nationalist and then communist governments, but the savage irony is that many parts of Europe really did eventually become what the Nazis had worked for – Judenfrei. And the toxin of race identity they had unleashed continued to infect the politics of entire nations for decades to come…

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance.

All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo, or the Hutus slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis and Hwa in Rwanda, or the inter-communal violence in post-war Iraq, or post-Gaddafi Libya, or the sudden genocidal attack of the Myanmar military against the Rohynga Muslims, and so on.

By contrast with the time-honoured clichés about the Nazis and Holocaust Memorial Day and so on, which tend to limit the threat and the lesson to a specific time and place long ago, Lowe’s judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much to teach us about human nature everywhere.

It is a history book but it is also a sort of compendium of the thousand and one ways humans can justify to themselves and their communities, the most inhuman bestial behaviour.

Far more than yet another tome about Krystallnacht or the Wansee Conference, Lowe’s book is a far broader study of the pathological forces at work in each and every one of us, in our communities and nations, which need to be identified and guarded against at all times, if we are to live in something like peace with each other.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

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The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England in 1873, at the age of 20. He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo priasing numerous aspects of English life and London – and contains several rooms full of the English paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I looked at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered.

It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to paint a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison but in his own blocky style, to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job with the art dealing firm Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for the popular prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’.

VanGogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he included their names and his responses to their works, in his many letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not Van Gogh’s last painting! The painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. And so the aim of the display is to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

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Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four of his fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland.

The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged just 28.

This review is divided into three parts: 1. Borowski’s biography 2. Notes on This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, the collection which made him famous 3. A detailed look at one particular story.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was four his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the Jewish ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and his short ‘story’, Auschwitz, Our Home, includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs at Auschwitz – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour, everyone on the train was dead – gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke spiralling up from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army.

From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski a type of ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world.

In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the Communist Party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

Borowski was so in favour with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 he was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. By the time he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed. As a result he became completely disillusioned with the Communist regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by putting his head in a gas oven. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


2. The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from Borowski’s early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies. We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories.

In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time of it as he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day-after-day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

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The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953)

In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit. Man must be made to understand, for then he will accept. (p.191)

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet, essayist and diplomat. He worked for the state radio company before the war and went underground in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. After Poland’s ‘liberation’ by the Red Army in 1944, Miłosz was initially sympathetic to the communist regime and served as Polish cultural attaché in Paris and Washington, D.C. But in 1951 he defected and spent the rest of his life in the West, teaching in American universities and, in 1970, became a U.S. citizen.

He wrote a lot. The Penguin edition of his collected poems runs to 800 pages. And this poetic output ran alongside numerous essays of literary criticism. In 1980 Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Captive Mind

Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind in Paris after his defection, in the years 1951 and 1952. As he explains in the preface, French intellectuals of the post-war period were bitterly resentful of America for liberating them and turned to the Soviet Union as a model for post-war society. He aimed to set them straight on the reality of life under a communist regime.

The result is a long, often circuitous, but in the end comprehensive and compelling description of the mentality, the climate of thought, the experiences and mind-set of intellectuals in Poland and the surrounding countries as they emerged from the ruinous Second World War and found their nations and cultures slowly taken over by Russian communism, forcing them to decide whether to collaborate, acquiesce or – eventually – defect, as Miłosz did.

Literary comparisons

Miłosz is a poet not a political analyst, and the early chapters use some pretty roundabout methods to make their point.

For example, the first chapter takes a detour through Insatiability, an avant-garde novel by pre-war Polish writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz which describes a decadent, faithless, modern society being menaced by an approaching Asiatic army. This army is fortified by the philosophy of Murti-Bing, a Mongolian philosopher who preached acceptance of life and whose beliefs, through the wonders of modern science, can now be replicated by taking Murti-Bing pills.

As the army approaches, an advance guard of peddlers starts hawking the pills of Murti-Bing to the inhabitants of the decadent society and everyone who takes one suddenly forgets all their troubles, all the questions about life which were making them anxious, becoming calm and accepting. Outcome: the Eastern hordes conquer the country and impose Murti-Bingism on the population; everyone takes Murti-Bing pills and becomes happy but, deep down, still feel an unappeasable unease. Miłosz uses this story as an analogy for the way communism invaded and converted his people, and strings the analogy out for an entire chapter.

The third chapter focuses on ‘Ketman’, a concept Miłosz came across in a book written by the French novelist, diplomat and travel writer, Arthur Comte de Gobineau – namely his Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. According to Gobineau, Ketman is a protective attitude of silence and opaqueness adopted by men living in Muslim-dominated lands who are not themselves Muslims, a way of keeping your most personal beliefs to yourself. There are several pages of direct quotation from Gobineau and explications of Ketman, before Miłosz goes on to apply this idea to people living under Soviet rule who conform but don’t believe. Because under a communist regime, everyone is an actor. Everyone acts all the time till it becomes second nature. Everyone lies, deceives, keeps their thoughts to themselves.

As these examples suggest, The Captive Mind is a very literary book, the opposite of a history or sociology or philosophical analysis. It covers numerous issues and ideas around the fatal allure of communist belief, but by way of thoughts and feelings, personal stories, anecdotes and insights, more than structured argument.

Four portraits

The central 100 pages of the book are made up of four portraits of Polish writers who Miłosz knew when they were youths together, and who each capitulated, in different ways, to the demands of the Communist state. They are given abstract names –

  • Alpha, the Moralist
  • Beta, The Disappointed Lover
  • Gamma, the Slave of History
  • Delta, the Troubadour

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, a moment’s search reveals them to be, respectively:

  • the Catholic novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski (b.1909) who, in this telling, is argued round into submission to communism and writes a lengthy self-criticism of his previous objections to the system
  • the poet and short story writer Tadeusz Borowski (b.1922) who experiences two years in Auschwitz and emerges bitter and angry, before throwing his nihilistic flame into the service of the party
  • the poet, novelist and politician Jerzy Putrament (b.1910) of rough peasant stock, whose sojourn in Russia leads him after many tribulations to become a cultural supremo, controller of magazines and publishers, with the fate of scores of other writers in his gift
  • the absurdist poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (b.1905), a wonderfully eccentric-sounding man whose carefree imagination was crushed by the system

I vaguely remember that, when I first read this book in the late 1980s, I was disappointed with the psychological aspect, the literariness of these portraits because I was looking for political argument and debating points. Now, rereading them, I am really impressed by the depth of insight and sympathy he shows for these talismanic members of his generation, and his feel for the terrible things they lived through and the fateful choices they made.

His portrait of Tadeusz Borowski, a scornful young poet who survived two years in Auschwitz and wrote pitilessly accurate stories about it, before deciding to return to Poland and become a journalist writing increasingly hectic and vitriolic articles against the West and its corruption, before committing suicide at the age of 28 – is particularly haunting and terrifying.

Also, because each writer’s biography passes through the same walls of fire – the Russian invasion of 1939, the German invasion of 1941, the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, the Red Army liberation and then the slow strangling of civil life by the New Faith – it is like seeing the same scenes through different windows, or captured by different photographers, retold from different points of view. Taken together – and because each portrait itself references the subject’s other friends and colleagues, wives, lovers or children – the four portraits build up into an insightful and terribly moving portrait of an entire generation.


The appeal of communism

So rather than follow the ‘argument’, it might be better to pick out key points which emerge from the text. Here are some of the key reasons Miłosz describes as explaining the victory of communism in Eastern Europe and its strong appeal to people of all classes.

Revulsion from fascism The pre-war period was dominated by extreme right-wing parties whose main policy was anti-Semitism. Society was visibly unjust with huge discrepancies in wealth. Land ownership, in particular, was flagrantly unfair. Therefore, like many other educated young people, Miłosz thought only leaders true to a socialist programme would be able to rebuild Poland in such a way as to abolish the obvious unfairnesses.

The destruction of liberal values The Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe devastated existing values. Westerners, particularly Americans, simply can’t conceive what it is like to have your city divided into sections, each to be inhabited by different races, one of which is randomly shot in the streets, packed in cattle cars and taken off to be incinerated, while anyone who complains or even makes the wrong facial expression, can be arrested and tortured to death. Streets full of ruined houses, the inhabitants reduced to scrambling for mouldy bread in the ruins. People taking false names, going underground, while neighbours disappear without explanation. The complete abolition of all the fixed points of civil society which those in peaceful societies, or the West, take for granted.

But the New Faith stood the test of this destruction. It encountered and prevailed against the most nihilistic ideology in history. Its true believers organised and survived even the worst atrocities. Communism seemed to be an earthy, practical politics, which taught how to organise and fight back. The Nazis created a devastated environment which went a long way to destroying bourgeois liberal ideals, and preparing the ground for the communist takeover.

Stealthy takeover But, Miłosz says it’s important to realise that, even under these circumstances, the post-war communist takeover didn’t happen all at once, but proceeded by slow steps. Initially, social democrats and peasant parties were allowed to take part in government and everyone thought there would be true democracy.

The wish to fit in Intellectuals and Western commentators underestimate the basis human wish fit in. ‘There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness’ (p.6) in most people. Once the New Faith gains ground, many people go with it in order to conform, to be happy. They’re not particularly afraid, they just don’t want to stand out.

Communism as an alternative religion For centuries, the highest and lowest in the land, intellectuals and peasants, kings and carpenters, shared the same belief system and so felt united, joined, linked, at home, shared a common faith and language of symbols, and rituals. The death of God not only plunges intellectuals into crisis but deprives an entire people of their cultural unity. Communism restores this: everyone in a communist society reads the same books, thinks the same thoughts, reveres the same symbols. Many rebelled from the start and many came to see them as a stupid sham – but many, many people were deeply nostalgic for that ideological unity and wanted to feel part of a movement whose language and beliefs could be understood by illiterate peasants and the most sophisticated intellectuals. The solidarity of belief offered a refuge from the miserable alienation of so many between-the-wars intellectuals, so many of whom fantasised about becoming one with ‘the masses’, throwing in their lot with the workers etc. But it wasn’t just them: communism offered a mental home to everyone.

(This prompts the thought, What unifies us, now, today in 2017, if we don’t have religion or communism? How come we aren’t all stricken with the alienation and angst that the writers of the 30s, 40s and 50s went on about so?  I would hazard a guess that it’s consumerism. From kings to carpenters, peasants to princes, we are all united in our worship of mobile phones, cars, TVs and trainers. Consumerism has been the religion of the West for some time, maybe since the 1950s, and, with the advent of digital devices, shows no sign of going away, in fact is invading every aspect of our lives. What else unites rich and poor, black and white, in such a shared set of values and symbols?)

The importance of writers More than giving them a new sense of meaning and purpose, communism also gave far more respect to writers, artists and composers than the pre-war regimes, which by and large ignored them. That’s because the Soviet programme of re-engineering society requires constant propaganda and it is writers, artists and composers who must perform this propaganda role. Big rewards for those who comply – prison or exile for those who don’t.

Revenge But Miłosz also points out the pleasures of revenge offered by the triumph of communism. Pre-war artists were despised by the bourgeoisie. Under the New Faith these same writers were praised while the bourgeoisie who had once looked down on them, was arrested. Ha ha ha. And of course it goes much wider than artists. All kinds of people who were despised and humiliated in bourgeois society, now triumph – workers and peasants lord it over factory owners and aristocrats. Communism catered to a very human appetite for revenge.

Socialist realism Unfortunately, it took a while for these artists to realise that the doctrine of Socialist Realism runs directly counter to the role of the artist through the ages, at least a Miłosz defines it. Miłosz thinks the role of the artist is ‘to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, and to tell the truth as he sees it’. Many sincerely thought they needed to repress this bourgeois subjectivity in order to join the March of History. The four portraits of Polish communist writers each indicate the price they had to pay for obeising themselves to the new regime’s demand for Socialist Realism.

Significance Tied to the psychological issue of conquering absurdity and finding meaning in life, is the related idea that most artists, writers etc not only want to write and publish, they wish their work to mean something: to have significance. In the communist states they could either soldier on, producing their own individualist ‘visions’ against the increasingly monolithic state culture; or they could join ‘the March of History’ and all their work would, at a stroke, become validated and meaningful.

The West Some Eastern writers and artists looked to the West for inspiration or alternative paths, but most saw – with disgust – that art and culture in the West was carrying on as if nothing had happened, no Holocaust, no extermination of peoples or destruction of cities or undermining of all bourgeois values. They carried on churning out glamorous movies and high fashion and decorative art for the rich. Disgusting! Communist ideology not only supplied objective reasons to justify the disgust of many Easterners for Western ignorance, but had the additional bonus that communism predicted the West would, in due course, also go through the fire and brimstone of revolution. In other words, communist ideology encouraged Eastern writers and artists to feel not only morally superior to their silly bourgeois counterparts in the West, but to consider themselves pioneers, way ahead of the West in experience and social development

Hence, Miłosz laments, the attitude of the Eastern intellectual to the West is that of a disappointed lover. He wishes the West were better. He wishes the West used its freedoms and technological superiority to better purpose. He wishes the West was free for something useful, noble and uplifting, instead of shiny vulgar consumerism.

Snobbery For Eastern communism also offered a simple appeal to snobbery. Eastern intellectuals were encouraged to feel superior to the shocking ‘vulgarity’ of Western culture: Hollywood movies, chewing gum, popcorn, fast cars, jeans, sneakers – what shallow, vulgar materialists! From Paris via Berlin to Moscow, adherents of communist ideology were convinced that the New Society would produce, alongside a superior economy, a superior culture, a culture proclaiming the New Socialist Man and a New Socialist Society of freedom and equality.

This was to be their weakest point. It turns out that, whatever ‘intellectuals’ might say, everyone else in the world does want to wear jeans and shades, to own cars, fridges and televisions which work (unlike the awful, malfunctioning communist products), to own the latest mobile phone.

Informers The ‘new socialist man’ is an informer. Snoops thrive, the more cunning and duplicitous the better, leading to a constant but unspoken war of all against all and ‘the survival of the craftiest’ (p.76). Everyone is watched, or suspects they are being watched. The result is that, in absolutely every social encounter, everyone must act – act a part, act a role, stop yourself saying what you think, run it past your inner censor to see if it could be interpreted as being against the Party, against Russia, against the Leader.

The state which, according to Lenin, was supposed to wither away gradually is now all-powerful. It holds a sword over the head of every citizen; it punishes him for every careless word. (p.219)

The failure of communism

The two long final chapters are devastating indictments of life under Russian communism. The first one gives a searing analysis of how the different classes in Poland have responded to the imposition of Russian-style communism. What came home to me most was the way that any kind of personal initiative whatsoever was not just banned but punished. Sell off a few eggs from your hen – you are a ‘speculator’, 5 years in a labour camp. Organise a strike – ‘bourgeois reactionary’, off to labour camp. Set up a youth group without permission – ‘subversive’, labour camp.

You can at least see the logic, according to their own lights, of punishing the bourgeois and the speculator. But the really unbearable irony of the communist system was that the whole grim repressive set-up was supposed to exist for the sake of ‘the workers’ and yet it was the workers who were most dissatisfied with it. The much-vaunted proletariat ended up having to work in the same factories, having ever-increasing demands for productivity imposed on them, with anyone speaking out of turn being arrested and sent to Siberia. And all for worse pay with which they could no longer buy half the things they needed, products which, under the inefficient communist system, were either no longer available or of shockingly bad quality.

Miłosz shows how this inefficiency was the inevitable result of having to factor into the cost of production – whether of agricultural products or factory outputs – the enormous bureaucracy which now infested every level of the communist economy: the huge number of middle managers who counted and tallied every input and output, measuring it all against the Five Year Plan. And the immense cost of the secret police, the state police and the huge army.

All of this was paid for by the sweat of the workers who found their living standard under communism actually declining. No wonder it was workers who led the spontaneous strikes and demonstrations which broke out all across East Germany in 1953.

Russia

Another reason for discontent was the unavoidable fact that the sort of communism they were being forced to submit to was unmistakably Russian in origin and technique, with all that that implied for East Europeans from Warsaw to Berlin, namely that it was backward, crude, unsophisticated, brutal and stupid. Here are some of Miłosz’s references to the wonderful Motherland.

  • It isn’t pleasant to submit to the hegemony of a nation which is still wild and primitive. (p.19)
  • …the Russian inferiority complex… (p.35)
  • Russia has always hated and despised the West, for its prosperity and decadence. (p.43)
  • Russia’s inferiority complex leads her to demand constant homage and assurances of her unquestionable superiority… (p.45)
  • One has but to read Tolstoy’s What Is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. (p.47)
  • Russians, who do not possess the virtue of moderation… (p.51)
  • … a nation which has never known how to rule itself, and which in all its history has never known prosperity or freedom. (p.52)
  • The chief characteristic of the people who practice National Ketman is an unbounded contempt for Russia as a barbaric country. (p.61)
  • The New Faith is a Russian creation, and the Russian intelligentsia which shaped it had developed the deepest contempt for all art that does not serve social ends directly. (p.74)

Communist crimes The result of a failed system imposed by crude barbarians was:

  • Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups… (p.63)

The Terror And so, the grand result of all these factors, is that an inefficient and unpopular system can only possibly be kept in place by the rigorous suppression of all opposition, indeed of all free thought. Insofar as the slightest deviant thought or the slightest outbreak of selling things for a profit contain the germ of the resurgence of hated capitalism, everyone must be spied on and listened to, no heretical thought or word dare go unpunished. The result?

  • When one considers the matter logically, it becomes obvious that intellectual terror is a principle Leninism-Stalinism can never forsake, eve if it should achieve victory on a world scale. The enemy, in a potential form, will always be there… (p.214)

The Baltic states

The final chapter is an essay on the horrible post-war fate of the Baltic states i.e. complete absorption into communist Russia, the collectivisation of their agriculture, the lowering of living standards, the mass deportations to Siberia, the colonisation by Russian civilians, the imposition of Russian culture and language. Because Miłosz was born in Lithuania and later in life insisted on being thought of as a Lithuanian rather than a Polish writer, he is particularly heart-broken by this devastation of his homeland.

The manifold humiliations of the Balts, and the casual references he makes to living under a state of permanent terror, of the liquidation of entire classes and peoples (e.g. the Crimean Tartars), the falsification of culture, the lies about industrial production, the waves of purges and mass arrests, the way everyone is forced to play act and lie, even to themselves, due to the ubiquity of spies and informers – it all builds up to a horrific vision of life in hell and a hell which, amazingly, many leading intellectuals in the West wanted to import into their countries, too. And here he returns to his stated aim of lifting the scales from the eyes of the idiotic pro-communist sympathisers in the West.

Western communists

  • The writer, in his fury and frustration, turn his thoughts to Western communists. What fools they are. He can forgive their oratory if it is necessary as propaganda. But they believe most of what they proclaim about the sacred Centre, and that is unforgivable. Nothing can compare to the contempt he feels for these sentimental fools. (p.20)

Credit

Zniewolony umysł by Czesław Miłosz was published in Polish in Paris by the Instytut Literacki in 1953. This translation into English by Jane Zielonko was published in 1953 by Secker and Warburg. Page references are to the 1985 King Penguin paperback edition.

The translation is excellent. Having waded through the terrible Penguin translations of Albert Camus into stilted, unidiomatic English, it is a joy to read Zielonko’s graceful, clear and compelling prose.

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Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (2008)

An autobiographical author

Lodge’s novels are strongly autobiographical and, laid end to end, build up to the portrait of a certain type of life and its possibilities – in a quiet way, he has recorded the experience of a generation.

Out of the Shelter describes the boyhood and teenage years of the son of suburban south London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war – as Lodge was. The Picturegoers explores the lives of characters in the fictional south London suburb of Brickley – very similar to the suburb of Brockley where Lodge grew up. Ginger, You’re Barmy describes the experiences of a bright university scholarship boy plunged into the harsh world of National Service – based on the two years the university graduate Lodge spent in the Royal Armoured Corps.

Lodge married young (24) and had three children in quick succession while he worked to establish himself as a university teacher of English literature. The British Museum Is Falling Down describes a day in the life of young English academic, the unhappy Catholic father of three small children. How Far Can You Go steps back from the day-to-day to provide a panoramic overview of the lives and loves of 10 young Catholic men and women, students in the 1950s who mature during the social and theological changes of the 1960s and 1970s – as Lodge and his friends did.

Paradise News and Therapy describe in different ways the familiar subject of male mid-life crisis, the sense of being successful and surrounded by all the material good things of life, and yet feeling something is missing – a malaise which is healed by liberating sex and family reconciliation in Paradise News, and by joining an old flame on her devout Catholic pilgrimage, in Therapy.

Even his classic comic novels, the so-called Campus Trilogy – Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work – are closely based on his own experiences of teaching at a Californian university during the heady 1960s, of attending countless international literary conferences in the 1970s, and of working in a scheme designed to bring university and industry closer together in his adopted city of Birmingham – referred to throughout the trilogy as ‘Rummidge’.

Unexpectedly, at the end of his writing life, Lodge broke this pattern with two long and thoroughly researched ‘historical’ novels – Author, Author (2004) and A Man of Parts (2011) – based around the lives and loves of Henry James and H.G. Wells, respectively.

Slipped in between them is this ‘contemporary’ novel which reverts to the usual pattern and brings the generic Lodge figure into the final stages of life – into retirement, forced to face the indignities of old age, the difficulty of an ageing marriage, the fractiousness of an extended family, and the decline and death of his own parent. There is no escaping the fact that, despite occasional smiles, this is for most of its length quite a depressing novel which, at its very end, I found unbearably moving.

Deaf Sentence

The novel’s 300 pages are told in the first person by Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics living in an unnamed northern city (presumably Lodge avoided the fictional city of Rummidge as too associated with his comic past), who began to go deaf in his 40s and now requires a high-powered hearing aid to hear anything at all.

The events take place over a defined period, from 2 November 2006 through to 8 March 2007. We know this because a lot of the sections are diary entries given a precise date but also because, like a lot of 21st century novels (by Amis, Jacobson, McEwan), it keenly references contemporary events, referring several times to terrorist atrocities, to the 7/7 bombings (7 July 2005), to the war in Iraq, to the hanging of Saddam Hussein (December 30 2006).

Are contemporary novels more weighted down by contemporary events than in the past? Does the news, in all its grimness, bear down more on the present generation than ever before? It sometimes feels like it.

The novel is an amiable, factual record of Desmond’s thoughts and feelings about retirement, the academic life, about deafness and marriage (he is married to the eight-years-younger Winifred, companionably nicknamed ‘Fred’), about his two grown-up children Anne and Richard, and his growing concern for his 89-year-old Dad, displaying evermore symptoms of senility.

Much of the tone is deliberately flat and humdrum to the point of banality:

  • 12th November I phoned Dad, as I always do on a Sunday evening, at about six o’clock.
  • 28th November I went to London yesterday to see Dad…
  • 22nd December I have spent the last two days in bed trying to get over my cold…

There’s not so much a plot as a number of relationships which develop and change over the four and a bit months of the narrative.

  • Desmond visits his old Dad in the shabby south London suburb of Brickley (the fictional setting of Out of the Shelter) and Lodge slowly builds up a portrait of the old boy, once a jazz musician playing in all sorts of bands in and around London, with a wide circle of musician mates – all dead now, like his wife – which is why he’s now living alone in their pokey old terraced house, where he refuses to have a cleaner and so everything is coated in a layer of cooking fat and dust. Brutally honest, the Dad sections were flat and depressing to read; there are no redeeming features to being this old and worn out.
  • Desmond’s family consists of his daughter, Anne, 6 months pregnant, and his son, Richard, a specialist in low-temperature physics at Cambridge, cultivated, clever but distant. Desmond’s first wife – the kids’ mother, Maisie – died of cancer when they were small. In their different ways they were all scarred by this tragedy.
  • After some time alone, Desmond met and began an affair with a mature student at the university where he taught, posh Winifred, who was raised in an upper-middle-class Catholic family. She herself got married young to a complete cad who was unfaithful to her, and it took her a while to summon up the courage to divorce him. Desmond and Winifred’s affair continued, deepened, and they ended up getting married. Desmond moved into her house, big and grandly furnished, and for a while they lived a high lifestyle. But his deafness and his early retirement have estranged them a bit, in addition to which Fred has had a second lease of life since she opened an interior design shop with a good friend, Jakki, and has been exercising, losing weight and even had a breast reduction operation.

Alex Loom

The nearest thing to a ‘plot’ is the intrusion into Desmond’s life of an American woman post-graduate student named Alex Loom. The novel opens with her button-holing him at an art exhibition and then she pops up periodically, displaying ever more psychotic behaviour. Initially she says she wants his advice and help with the thesis she’s writing, a ‘discourse analysis’ of suicide notes. She invites him to her flat, where her manner is odd and, when Desmond gets home, he finds she’s hidden a pair of panties in his overcoat pocket. Next, she sends him an email apologising and saying he is welcome to go round to her flat in a few days time, at precisely 3pm, when she will leave the door ajar, and will be in the study with the curtains drawn, bending over her desk, naked from the waist downwards, and he must say nothing, but roll up his sleeves and spank and spank and spank her until his anger is assuaged, ignoring her cries or pleas – and then rebutton his sleeves, put on his raincoat, and leave without saying a word (p.136).

The email gives Desmond an erection every time he reads it – an arousal he takes out on Winifred in one of their now-rare acts of coition – but Desmond wisely doesn’t keep the appointment. Nonetheless, Alex continues behaving like a bunny-boiler, scaring him by phoning him from outside Fred’s boutique and threatening to go in and tell her ‘everything’. What everything? Nothing has happened. Still, Desmond is now scared of her, and appalled when she turns up at the first night of a play at the local theatre and inveigles herself so successfully with Fred, that the latter merrily invites Alex to the couple’s big Christmas party.

In line with the novel’s realistic depiction of life as one damn thing after another there isn’t a particular climax, but a series of set pieces which bring various relationships and issues to a head.

Christmas First of all there is a long description of the complicated and large family Christmas which involves catering for 13 adults and two children (p.188). It involves Desmond in driving down to London to collect his Dad, to ferry him back to the northern city where the story is set. But Desmond has not made adequate provision for his Dad’s incontinence, which leads to an embarrassing/amusing scene of his Dad wetting himself and needing to have clean trousers and pants brought from the car and handed to him in a toilet cubicle at the next Services – to the entertainment of the horde of motorway toilet-goers. The Christmas itself is the traditional snake pit of frictions, mostly between Fred’s very prim mother, Cecilia, and Desmond’s scruffy, uncouth and deaf Dad. There are some comic moments, but more moments of irritation and fretfulness and family arguments.

Center Parcs It’s called ‘Gladeworld’ in the novel, possibly for legal reasons, because the narrator, in his grumpy old man way, is unremittingly hostile to it. He goes so far as to compare the hot, muggy, chlorine-saturated swimming pool with its piles of human bodies flinging themselves around through flumes and circling in the pointlessly shaped pools, to Dante’s vision of hell. He and Winifred are invited to spend New Year’s Eve there by her business partner, Jakki, and her smooth husband, Lionel, but the trip is not a success, leading to more friction between Desmond and Fred.

Poland To his surprise Desmond is phoned by an old contact at the British Council who asks if he’d be prepared to step in at short notice to cover a small lecture tour of Poland since the academic scheduled to do it has had a bad skiing accident and – to escape worry about his Dad and his increasingly argumentative relationship with Fred – Desmond accepts. The narrator skips the journey there, his lectures, the dinners and receptions, in order to zero in on his pained visit to Auschwitz, close to the final destination of Cracow. Here, at the end of his writing career, Lodge confronts a truth much bigger and all-devouring than anything tackled in his previous fiction. Since this the visit takes place in January it is growing dark as he arrives, and the narrator finds himself walking through the endless rows of barracks of the vast death camp as the light goes and the world descends into total darkness.

(Having recently reread the works of Primo Levi I am familiar with a lot of the factual background. In an odd way, I found the account of the death camp which is at the heart of Robert Harris’s first thriller,  Fatherland, almost as harrowing, because it was more fully crafted and embedded in a text fraught with terror.)

Back at the hotel there is a message saying his daughter has had her baby, prematurely. Panic that she or it might be unwell gives way to joy when he manages to phone England and be reassured that mother and daughter are well. But then another message is left for him saying  his father has had a stroke.

Dad’s death

There follow twenty harrowing pages, as Desmond returns to find his Dad was discovered on the floor of  his house, maybe been there for days, incapacitated and barely conscious. In the hospital he’s moved to, he sinks slowly and steadily, never regaining enough consciousness to talk with his son, who watches his battered bruised body, tortured by catheters and intravenous drips, slowly decay.

This is exactly what happened to my father. I watched the same inexorable decline five years ago. And last year I spent a week in a public ward at a big London hospital, surrounded by senile, demented and distressed old men, myself strapped up to intravenous drips and painkillers, suffering complete incapacity, dazed and helpless, in thrall to the banging rhythms of the noisy hospital and the endless smells of bad food and my neighbours’ excrement.

Reading these pages brought both experiences back much more vividly than I ever want to remember them again.

As if placing a trip to Auschwitz next to a harrowingly realistic description of his Dad’s death weren’t enough, at the core of the sequence Lodge has Desmond confess to Fred that he, Desmond, packed the kids off to stay with relatives during his first wife’s last days because he – with the complicity of their GP – knowing his wife was in the last stages of terminal cancer and in continual pain, helped her take an overdose of brandy and painkillers, curled up on the bed beside her, and held her till she died.

All three scenes, coming one after the other, make for a very harrowing and upsetting read.

Aftermath

He organises  his father’s cremation and the scattering of the ashes. In what now seems quite an anti-climax he decisively and finally turns down Alex Loom’s phone and email requests for him to supervise her thesis. He knows she’ll never finish it. He knows he’ll end up doing most of the work. And he doesn’t trust her. Even so, when he receives an email from her saying he’s right, she’s a useless failure, she always screws up and so that’s why she’s going to kill herself, she’s just taken the pills to kill herself – Desmond still jumps into his car and hurtles across town to her flat, hoping and praying she’s still alive –

But only to find the bailiffs and removal men taking out the furniture. She had fallen behind on her rent and payments for all the furniture so it’s all being repossessed. Alex herself was last seen heading off in a taxi with a few belongings, presumably to return to the States. It was a hoax.

So. With his Dad dead and cremated, Desmond is set to inherit some money, which he’ll give to his own children. The crisis has brought him and Fred together, wiping away the frets and arguments of Christmas. He is a lucky man and he knows it. He has admitted the extent of his deafness to himself and has started attending lip-reading classes – and gets along very well with the old men and women who surround him, and is himself amused by the little quizzes and competitions the class teacher sets them all.

Auschwitz and the experience of his own Dad’s death have made him treasure life, even in the smallest details, every bit of it, every minute.


An information novelist

In my review of its predecessor, Author, author I pointed out how most of Lodge’s books have a strong pedagogic streak: he is a teacher to his marrow. In the early novels you learn a lot about Roman Catholic teaching and practice, especially around the oh-so-taboo subject of sex in the chaste 1950s and suburban 1960s. The Changing Places trilogy is all the funnier for being stuffed with literary references and lit crit ideas. 2001’s Thinks… is packed with information about artificial intelligence and current scientific knowledge about consciousness, and Author, author routinely explains to the reader all kinds of details and aspects of late Victorian life and culture.

Lodge is often categorised as a ‘Catholic novelist’ or a ‘campus novelist’. Reviewing his oeuvre, I think it’s more appropriate to think of him as an information novelist; whatever the ostensible subject matter, Lodge is always calm, sober and, above all – informative. Making the narrator of this novel a professor of linguistics allows Lodge to share with his readers all sorts of diverting factoids about the use and abuse of language, specially as it relates to the central character’s dominating condition of deafness. He sets this pedagogic tone on the first page:

This is known to linguists as the Lombard Reflex, named after Etienne Lombard, who established early in the twentieth century that speakers increase their vocal effort in the presence of noise in the environment in order to resist degradation of the intelligibility of their messages. (p.3)

Desmond explains to us that in his professional life he was an exponent of ‘Discourse Analysis’ and then has, of course, to explain to us what that is and how it differs from linguistics, semiotics or structuralist analyses. And give us a few examples of his expertise:

‘F’ is called a labiodental fricative because you produce it by bringing your top teeth into contact with your bottom lip and allowing some air to escape between them. (p.20)

There is a steady stream of these informative snippets and factoids, which are always clearly explained at a kind of first-year undergraduate level, and are never less than interesting.

In the classic Austin scheme there are three possible types of speech act entailed in any utterance, spoken or written: the locutionary (which is to say what you say, the propositional meaning), the illocutionary (which is the effect the utterance is intended to have on others) and the perlocutionary (which is the effect it actually has). (p.104)

The visit to Auschwitz has plenty of explanatory matter that could have come from a guidebook. His Dads’s medical condition, decline, and the various treatment options are explained to him by the houseman with textbook clarity. In some ways, the world arranges itself around Lodge’s fictional characters like a textbook.

Deafness

The central element of the novel – before it is rather overwhelmed by the dark ending – is, as the title suggests, the severe deafness of the central character. This is based (as might be expected) on Lodge’s own deafness and the book shows a detailed knowledge of the scientific causes of deafness, the latest news about attempts at cures, and shares more than most of us probably want to know about the various hearing aids on the market. Some of this is played for laughs – for example, a sort of comic business is made of the never-ending failure of batteries at just the wrong moment at parties or conversations or holidays. And Lodge/Desmond lament that whereas blindness is perceived as being truly tragic, for the most part deafness – or at least partial deafness – has always been comic.

Desmond/Lodge shares his thoughts about famous ‘deafies’ such as Goya and Beethoven, both of whom might be said to have been made as artists by their affliction. Alex Loom’s macabre PhD about suicide notes allows Lodge to tie in with Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament, written to the composer’s brothers to explain his surly and anti-social behaviour as a protection mechanism for an extremely proud and sensitive man who couldn’t bear not to hear or understand what people were saying to him, and fearful of seeming ridiculous. Better a curmudgeon that a cretin.

There is also a series of bad deaf puns, as the academic narrator refers to the Deaf Instinct (p.126), wishes he were half in love with easeful deaf, (in relation to Alex) thinks about Deaf and the Maiden (p.129), and titles a section of the book Deaf in the Afternoon. Ha ha.

The rest of the ‘plot’ aside, the novel amounts to the most sustained description of the indignities, the embarrassments and the strain on even the most loving marriage which the deafness of one partner creates that I’m aware of.

Experimental novelist

Lodge’s books use various Modernist techniques, the kind of thing he must have discussed countless times in his classes about James Joyce or Virginia Woolf – stream of consciousness, different points of view, parody and pastiche – but in a completely homespun way, somehow emptied of any of their original excitement or threat. Like his popular lit crit books, his novels draw the teeth of those formal innovations, demystify and domesticate them.

Thus the narrative is a little tricksy in the way it alternates between first-person diary accounts and having a third-person objective narrator describe many scenes – and yet you don’t really notice. The first time the text switches to the third person it does so with a laconic sentence, ‘I feel a fit of the third person coming on’ (p.28). Oh, alright. What’s remarkable is how easily the reader assimilates all this – the switching of point of view, the incorporation of diary format with emails, notes, conversations real and reconstructed – without blinking.

Sex

All of Lodge novels feature sex, some are dominated by sex as the main motivating force for the male characters – but I always find the many sexual events which take place are described in an unnervingly graphic and cold way. For me the enduring memory of his oeuvre is the number of erect penises which litter the books and the number of acts of coition described with clinical accuracy.

There’s still a fair amount of sex in this book, though it is now OAP sex i.e. Desmond fails to get an erection, fails to persuade Fred to do anything about it, or just falls asleep before there is any sexual congress. In a sort of funny running joke, whenever Desmond opens his email he is bombarded with adverts for Viagra and other erection-boosting panaceas, in increasing wildness of tone and promise, all of which remind him of the moribundity of his own sex life.

Now his protagonist is nearly 70, sex is no longer the consuming passion it was in the earlier books, but Lodge still describes his characters’ sexual proclivities and histories with unnerving factuality. Desmond contrasts his sex life with his first wife, Maisie (who had ‘an unconquerable aversion to oral sex in any form’, p.76) with the second wife, Fred, who still, from time to time, treats his penis as ‘a particularly delicious stick of seaside rock’ (p.76). Ah. Thanks for that. When Desmond and Lionel unwisely share the small sauna cubicle at Center Parcs, oops Gladeworld, Desmond is close enough to be impressed at the size of Lionel’s manhood, ‘his flaccid organ hanging down like a rubber cosh between his thighs’ (p.236).

What is lowering about all this is the protagonist’s predatory attitude – even towards his own wife, cunningly trying to steer her towards sex, shaping his conversation, the whole rhythms of his day, to manipulate her towards the bedroom. Half the time this has ‘comic’ results i.e. he can’t get it up or just falls asleep. But the unrelentingness of the lechery gets a bit wearisome. Coming to Lodge’s last books after reading the last novels of Kingsley Amis and the first four by Howard Jacobson I think I’ve had more than enough of bookish, middle-aged men who don’t appear to be able to think about anything else except sex sex sex.

Alex Loom’s ‘spanking’ email comes as a bolt from another life, another world, another discourse altogether – a little bit of Fifty Shades of Grey parachuted into the story of an increasingly grumpy old academic. It also has a life and vigour which Desmond’s addled couplings don’t. If you wanted to be provocative, you could ask why the only woman who shows independence and agency in her sex life – i.e. Alex, with her spirited creation and control of the spanking scenario – is described as mad and punished with expulsion from academia and from the country.

Out of touch

Lodge’s narrator describes the mundane realities of contemporary life in soul-sapping detail: the trips to Sainsburys with the marital shopping list, the two-for-the-price-of-one offers, the daytime TV, the traffic jams whenever anyone tries to drive anywhere, the morons shouting into their mobile phones in the ‘quiet carriage’ of trains.

The narrator jokes that he’s a grumpy old grouch, but he puts real feeling into the prolonged passage about why he hates Christmas, and the two-page diatribe against ‘Gladeworld’ is hilariously mean-spirited. But there are many smaller details which reveal the narrator as an old man. In fact, in these peripheral ways, the book is interesting for showing how even someone who has clearly made an effort to keep up with changing society – as Lodge clearly has – eventually lacks the feel for it, for the current conversations and experiences.

As a small example, Desmond notes the graffiti covering everything in South London but bemoans its lack of semantic content. He shares with us the only piece of graffiti which has ever amused him. Underneath the official notice ‘Bill stickers will be prosecuted’ someone had scrawled Bill Stickers is innocent. Ha ha. The internet says this joke goes back to the 1960s – that’s 50 years old.

In another passage Lodge writes the rather dull cliché that we live in an ‘age of communication’ and goes on to list the channels of communication as books, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the internet – and the way he places the internet last after all the others, makes you realise that this book, recent though it is (2008), was still written before the tsunami of comms which burst with the arrival of smart phones, tablets, iPads and the social media platforms Facebook, twitter, Youtube, Instagram and so on, which have revolutionised communication, especially between the young.

The novel won’t ‘die’ – indeed more novels are published every year than ever before. But it will be interesting to see how the tsunami of simplified and simple-minded digital discourse affects the rhetoric and strategies of longer fictions.

Conclusion

For most of its length it would be easy to dismiss this as a rather boring book – some but not many laughs, long stretches about car journeys, or the food in the cafés in Sainsburys, or the hassle of getting hearing aid batteries – in which not much happens.

But I think that would be to underestimate it. In his quiet, undramatic way, Lodge introduces us to quite a large cast of characters and slowly, through prolonged exposure to Desmond, Winifred and his Dad, we not only situate them in their web of relationships, but come to care for them.

You could argue that Lodge often treats his characters with the same kind of clear, logical, factual style as he treats his technical explanations of Discourse Theory or Speech Acts, in the flat factual tone set by the ageing academic narrator himself, a lucid, logical kind of fellow. There is little or no passion in his accounts of anything. When he describes how his first wife died of cancer nobody is moved. When he gets aroused and wants sex with his wife, the reader is not aroused, but feels like a zoologist observing the mating rituals of a peculiar species.

It is this calm, even tenor of Lodge’s prose which makes the final passages all the more upsetting. When the bad things happen – in Auschwitz, his father’s slow death and then the revelation of how he helped his first wife to die – it is precisely because they are occurring to such a sensible, rational, logical and inoffensive chap which makes them feel so terrible.


Credit

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge was published by Harvill Secker in 2008. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and extended family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, which  moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Drowned and The Saved by Primo Levi (1986)

This book means to contribute to the clarification of some aspects of the Lager phenomenon which still appear obscure. It also sets for itself a more ambitious goal: it will try to answer the most urgent question, the question which torments all those who happened to read our accounts. How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the duelling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this threat will be nullified? (p.9)

The four books of Levi’s I’ve read so far concern themselves overwhelmingly with named individuals and specific events. This, Levi’s final book, is the opposite. It is an attempt to deliver his thoughts and conclusions on the issues raised by the Holocaust in general form. It is made up of ruminations and meditations and speculations, touching on the function of memory, on group and individual psychology, on sociology and anthropology, as they relate to ‘the Offence’.

The paradoxical enjoyment to be got from The Truce or Moments of Reprieve is the way they record the life-enhancing varieties of human behaviour in the inferno – the endless scams of the scheming Cesare or the unexpected moment of generosity when the Hungarian inmate Bandi shares with Levi his only vegetable, a radish.

By contrast, there are hardly any moments of reprieve or tall stories in The Drowned and The Saved. Instead you can see how Levi has ordered decades’ worth of thoughts and reflections under seven general topic headings and then, within them, tried to arrange his thoughts into a logical order.

However, the rather padded prose style, often embellished with literary references, which suits the creation of fictional characters – which allows him to circle and describe them from numerous angles – is less suited to logical argument. I frequently found myself having to read pages twice to understand what he was trying to say. And then realising that a lot of his conclusions aren’t that earth-shattering. A feature of the book is the repetition of thoughts and ideas he’s mentioned elsewhere previously.

1. The Memory of the Offence

Memory isn’t perfect, it decays. Many Nazis brought to trial denied they knew the full extent of the Holocaust, showing how some people create self-serving lies which they end up believing. People who’ve been through traumatic events often block them out, both victims and perpetrators. You can prevent undesirable memories from even being formed by not even letting events enter your consciousness – thus the Nazis laid on plenty of booze for their death squads, who often killed in a drunken haze. And they gave all the techniques of murder harmless euphemisms, ‘relocation’ = transfer to death, ‘labour centre’ = death camps, ’emergency units’ = death squads. At a macro level, the entire Nazi regime was an Orwellian exercise in forgetting, terrorising the population into not even being able to speak about events they had witnessed or learned about. And of course, at the end the Nazis tried to blot out memories of the death camps by a) dismantling and obliterating them b) killing all the inmates – the real purpose of the long, pointless forced marches west.

Thus memory was attacked at every level by the genocidal Nazi regime and thus the vital importance, to the survivors, of bearing witness. Well aware that all these psychological frailties apply to his own memories, Levi has checked them against the external facts, documentary evidence, other people’s accounts, in order to validate them.

2. The Grey Zone

The young want there to be heroes and villains in black and white. But the point of the complex regimes in the camp (or Lager as Levi calls it, using its German name) was that everyone was compromised. The system was designed and to degrade everyone, to imbrue everyone with the fathomless evil of the National Socialist system. The arrival ritual was precisely that: from word go arrivals were confused, stripped naked, shaved, given a cold bath, tattooed and shouted at, beaten and kicked. Where they hoped for some solidarity, from fellow wearers of the striped pyjamas, there was often the most violent abuse and betrayal, as the Jewish Kapos or overseers were the most vicious of all. Any attempt to stand up to power and privilege was immediately decimated, witness the sturdy Jew who returned the blow of a Kapo who casually hit him at the first meal break; all the nearby Kapos swooped across, enraged at t his show of insubordination, and together they drowned him in the soup cauldron. Levi considers the nature of the Sonderkommando, the work units selected to shovel gassed corpses into the ovens, and then to empty out the ashes, going through them for gold teeth or any other valuables. These were made of selected Jews – so that at one level Jews were doing it to themselves – just one of the many ways the SS devoted fiendish calculation to making sure that everyone was implicated, no-one could feel free or aloof from the system’s evil.

It is sometimes a little hard to follow the argument in this section, but then, abruptly, Levi ends it by cutting and pasting in the ten-page account from Moments of Reprieve of the strange fate of Chaim Rumkowski, a word-for-word copy of the earlier account. Unintentionally, this allows the reader to directly contrast Levi’s style when trying to write purely factual prose – full of insights but a little tortuous and hard to follow – with one of his person-based anecdotes, which is strange, luminous, haunting, powerful.

The mere fact that he is cutting and pasting a whole sequence from an earlier book suggests the struggle Levi himself had in ‘thinking through’ this imponderable subject matter. And makes it crystal clear to this reader, at least, which Levi he prefers, given the choice between factual Levi and story-telling Levi.

3. Shame

Literature, poetry and the movies all think that the moment of liberation is one of unspeakable joy. That’s not how it was for the prisoners of Auschwitz. Levi retells the moment he described at the start of The Truce in which four Russian horsemen ride into Auschwitz, the day after the Germans abruptly abandoned it. They sit silently on their horses, mute with shame, the same shame felt by the prisoners who stand dumb, empty, exhausted, their heads downcast. It is the shame, Levi explains, which the just man feels when confronted by a crime committed by another. Nobody cheered.

This shame of liberation had diverse elements which he tries to analyse. Shame to have been part of such a crime against humanity. Shame not to have resisted, no matter how futile resistance would have been (every attempt to escape or rise up was completely destroyed by the Nazis, all participants exterminated and others killed in reprisals). Shame to have survived and the gnawing nagging feeling which only grows with time that other, better, nobler colleagues and comrades died instead of you; that you are surviving in their place. The shame of standing by and watching others be beaten, kicked to the ground, drowned, kicked to death. The shame of not having found the time or energy to help the newcomers, those weaker than yourself.

Lots of forms of shame which go to explain why there was a rash of suicides after the Liberation, when everything should have been well. Because only with food, and energy, and the return of ‘civilised’ morality, did all these shames and humiliations return to plague the survivors, many of whom were overcome by the burden of bearing the guilt, day by day, minute by minute.

Why did Chaim the watchmaker and Szabo the Hungarian and Robert the Sorbonne professor and Baruch the docker all die and Primo the chemist survive? Why?

It gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; it is not seen from the outside but it gnaws and rasps. (p.62)

4. Communicating

‘We are biologically and socially predisposed to communication’ (p.69) but communication was deliberately stifled in the Lager. The arrival ritual involved not only being stripped bare, forced to stand in a freezing barracks for hours, tattooed and beaten and kicked: it involved being shouted at by red-faced Germans who refused to speak any other language. Within days those of Levi’s Italian companions who didn’t understand this barracks German began to die, from failing to understand the countless petty regulations, and from failing to be able to talk to the existing old lags who gave advice about storing food, skipping some rules, which Kapo to avoid and so on, in Polish, Yiddish or French. For two or three pages Levi gives examples of the Lager-German which has, in fact, been identified by linguists as forming almost a distinct dialect of German – crude, brutal and deformed, designed to be shouted at Untermänner. (It is interesting how throughout this book, alongside references to other survivors’ accounts, he quotes from his own texts, almost as if they were by someone else.)

Like good health, the ability to communicate freely is something you only notice when it is taken away. As he told us in Moments of Reprieve, he was by a small miracle and via a chain of intermediaries, able to send and receive a letter from his mother, and this little fragment of communication with the outside world, the world of speech and affection and love, was one of the things that kept him alive.

5. Useless Violence

This section is more about the Nazis’ excess cruelty than violence: Levi uses as structure the novice’s journey to and induction into the camp. Thus, to start with, the inhuman callousness of stuffing human beings into unheated cattle tracks, packed beyond endurance. Thus the complete lack of facilities for journeys which sometimes took weeks. Those who didn’t go mad, were forced to poo and pee in front of everyone else as the start of their deliberate degradation. This open defecation continued in the camps as part of a process of dehumanisation. Ditto the frequent requirement for mass nudity – forced stripping upon arrival and in all subsequent cold shower or delousing procedures. Then the insane regulations like the compulsory making of beds in the morning (Bettenbauen), the standing in line for hours in the evening roll call, regardless of rain or snow. This and the mad system of tattoos – all designed, as Levi sees it, to be ‘gratuitous, an end in itself, pure offence’ (p.95).

One is truly led to think that, in the Third Reich, the best choice, the choice imposed from above, was the one that entailed the greatest amount of affliction, the greatest amount of waste, of physical and moral suffering. The enemy must not only die, but must die in torment. (p.96)

There is mention of the endless beatings, and a paragraph about the grisly ‘experiments’ some Germans carried out on live patients, but in general ‘violence’, in this section, is used in a psychological or moral, not a literal, sense.

6. The Intellectual in Auschwitz

Starts with a meditation on Hans Meyer, from an assimilated German Jewish family, who suffered under Germany’s anti-Semitic laws and so emigrated to Belgium where he fully espoused his ancestral Judaism until the Germans invaded, whereupon he was repatriated to Germany and thence deported to a series of concentration camps. Amazingly, he survived. Settling back in Belgium after the war Meyer changed his name to Jean Améry and, at the bidding of friends, finally wrote his searing camp memoir, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (‘Beyond Guilt and Atonement), translated into as At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.

I was expecting there to be an investigation of Améry’s ideas or theories about the camps, but this biographical sketch leads into a series of fairly straightforward memories of how being a weedy intellectual was no preparation for the brutal life of the camp. Levi recalls being beaten up and forced to do manual labour with a shovel, an object he’d never even touched before. In other words the section amounts to anecdotes showing that being too scholarly was a definite disadvantage to survival in the Lager – it was the uneducated working men who survived the days and weeks.

This section makes clearer than ever that Levi is not an intellectual – i.e. he is not the exponent of a thought-out intellectual system: there is no consideration of the schools of thought prevailing in the Europe of the time, either Fascism, or communism or early existentialism or the Catholic movements of the 1930s. The opposite: Levi is an imaginative writer haunted by what he has endured and, instead of rational, consecutive thought, the laying out of a plan or theory – the text instead revisits stories and situations he’s already told us once or twice before in previous books, adding new details or aspects to already harrowing events, and proceeding by analogy with literary or cultural references, Dante, Homer, Leopardi.

This is a lowering and depressing book not just because of the subject matter but because the compulsive picking over of psychic injuries, the obsessive revisiting of the scene of the trauma (in this section he tells us again about Steinlauf the accountant, about strong Lorenzo the bricklayer, about the moment he, Levi, a lifelong agnostic, nearly prayed to God just before his ‘selection’). The obsessive repetition of these stories begins to convey the sense of a deeply damaged, unhappy man – maybe not in his public persona, but here, in the heart of his writing.

7. Stereotypes

In this section emerges one of the strongest themes of the book which, surprisingly, is ‘young people nowadays’. According to Levi, young people nowadays move in an atmosphere of complete freedom, healthy, wealthy, heirs to a cornucopia of consumerism. If they ever hear of ‘dictatorships’ it’s in far off countries which nobody has to visit if they don’t want to. Also they watch lots of movies, which – it goes without saying – reduce all human behaviour to the crudest stereotypes. He specifically mentions Papillon and The Bridge On The River Kwai. This superficiality explains why, at the schools and colleges which Levi visits to lecture, he always gets asked the same questions:

  1. Why didn’t you escape?
  2. Why didn’t you rebel?

The answers are:

  1. Because we were too weak, too demoralised, because escape was impossible (guards, dogs, machine guns) and escape where, exactly? All of Europe was occupied, all family had themselves been rounded up and imprisoned.
  2. For the above reasons but also, some did rebel. There were rebellions, notably at Birkenau, but they were quickly put down and everyone involved tortured and killed.

The thing about Levi’s answers is that we’ve read them before. The portmanteau edition of If This Is A Man/The Truce contains a 20-page afterword in which he lists eight Frequently Asked Questions, and these two – and the lengthy replies – top the list. He phrases them differently here, adds different emphases, new details – but the basic answers are the same.

8. Letters from Germans

The longest and least engaging article in this collection of articles. In the first pages it repeats the simple story of how If This Is A Man was initially brought out by a small publishing house which went out of business and so the book made little impression, before being taken up ten years later by a bigger firm in 1958. It tells how a German publisher approached Levi for permission to make a German translation; how Levi was full of trepidation about what to say to a German readership, but then was convinced when he received a long letter from the translator, giving details of his resistance to the Nazi regime. How the page or so which Levi wrote back to the translator explaining what he intended the book to do for its German audience was turned, with his permission, into the preface to the German edition. So much for the book’s publishing history.

Then Levi turns to the main purpose of this final section, which is to give excerpts from some of the 40 or so letters he received in the following years from his German readers. Some seemed to him cowardly evasions, some forthright admissions of guilt, and from the younger generation comes incomprehension at what their parents did. Levi prints lengthy excerpts from these letters alongside his thoughts and replies (where he entered into correspondence with them).

This dusty correspondence is, frankly, boring. It is an effort, for example, to read what a 20-something, German, evangelical Christian writing in 1965 thought her nation should do to ‘expiate’ the ‘sin’ of the Holocaust – and then reading Levi’s puzzled thoughts about her puzzling sentiments. History, our understanding of the context, subsequent events, and a comprehensive change in the way we discuss moral issues (i.e. with a lot less heavy Christian rhetoric) make almost all of these exchanges very dated, like reading dusty old Penguin paperbacks about the new theory of comprehensive education or how we must nationalise industry to create a better society. The tone and phraseology of the German letters and Levi’s replies, more than anything else in the book, make you realise how very long ago all this was.

It’s all a long way from the imaginative (and, therefore, for me, moral) immediacy of the characters in If Not Now, When? or the searing, awe-inspiring portraits captured in Moments of Reprieve.

9. Conclusion

A very short attempt to tie up issues which Levi has spent the whole book struggling to really get to grips with. He is painfully aware that it is all slipping into the past, that he is talking to the children or even grandchildren of victims and perpetrators and that, meanwhile, ‘the Offence’ is being overtaken by others – the Khmer Rouge, revelations about the Gulag – as well as all the pressing problems of the environment, the population explosion, the threat of nuclear extinction. In the face of all this, he makes the rather wan summary:

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. (p.167)


Reflections

Dated When Levi wrote If This Is a Man in (1947 it was white-hot with the power (and slight incoherence) of the survivor struggling to marshal his memories into some kind of order. The controlled text of The Truce, begun at the same time (as he tells us in this book, p.54), was – when published 15 or so years later – still fresh and urgent, an early part of the great re-examination of the Holocaust which began in the 1960s.

However, by the 1980s when The Drowned and The Saved was published, there was a well-established and fast-growing body of work documenting the Holocaust – trials and depositions, books, research papers, institutes, museums, TV documentaries, movies – a corpus which has continued to grow at a steady rate.

And that was thirty years ago. Since then Holocaust studies have become a profitable industry, with historians, film-makers, curators and artists making a healthy living from it. The UK now has a National Holocaust Day. Many cities have Holocaust Museums. Both my children studied the Holocaust as part of their History GCSE. A review of a recent volume on The Historiography of the Holocaust indicates the breadth and scale of the modern Holocaust industry, which is discovering ever-new ramifications of the horror in order to define and write about and forge academic careers out of it. Levi’s book suffers by entering a field which was growing when it appeared and whose proleferation has long since dwarfed it.

Crowded out Unlike in his crucial memoirs (If This Is A Man and The Truce) or in his fiction (the brilliant If Not Now, When?), in this factual book you can feel Levi struggling against the pressure of other texts, other accounts, other studies and books and witness statements and interviews and documents. By 1986 his was far from being a unique voice. The text continually has to refer to other work which has been done on all the areas he mentions. And since he is not a professional historian, psychologist, economist, sociologist, lawyer and so on, the book sometimes suffers because you feel he is trying to say something authoritative in areas where he himself admits he is not an authority.

Empty It is possible that the Holocaust will eventually become such an everyday reference point that it becomes emptied of all content, ending up a cliché or cartoon. The most famous of all internet laws is Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer any discussion in an online forum or comments section goes on, the more likely it is that someone will insult someone else by comparing them to Hitler or the Nazis, and this is because it is seen as the ultimate, can’t get any lower, insult. But it has also devalued it as an insult.

This process has tended to empty references to the Nazis of any kind of historical context or complexity. And this steady process of emptying-out has rendered the term and reference, in my opinion, problematic as a tool for thinking about actual prejudice in the contemporary world, about the discrimination, the demonising and the blaming of minorities which is where the genocidal urge begins.

Its uniqueness makes it ineffectual as a warning In my opinion, asserting the uniqueness of the Nazis’ rise to power and the enormity of the Holocaust – the one-off nature of the attempt to exterminate an entire race on an industrial scale – has come to obscure the countless other ways in which such genocidal impulses can grow and be enacted.

All the Holocaust books and documentaries and school trips in the world didn’t prevent the Bosnian Serb Army rounding up 8,000 men from the town of Srebrenica, machine gunning them and burying them in a mass grave, in July 1995. It didn’t prevent up to a million ethnic Tutsi being hacked to death in the systematic genocide in the summer of 1994. Because we were looking for people with SS uniforms and Hitler moustaches, instead of being aware of the general conditions and pressures which foster the genocidal impulse.

As warnings, as explanations of the genocidal urge, I found Tom Snyder’s book Bloodlands and Keith Lowe’s book Savage Continent much more powerful. They:

a) are definitive historical overviews by professional historians, which
b) put the mass murder of the Jews into the context of the extremely complex tangle of politics and economics, the clash of ideologies and nationalisms, which tore Europe apart for a generation
c) and, crucially, give a bewildering range of examples of the lust to demonise and then kill ‘the other’ which occurred in almost all European societies, in all social groups, throughout the period

These two books, with the wealth of horrifying examples they give, are much more effective at highlighting the myriad ways in which the temptations to blame others, and especially the outcast, the poor and vulnerable, minorities, the ethnically different, for all our problems – the first step towards making active persecution thinkable and therefore possible – are there tempting all people in all societies which come under stress or pressure, not just the Germany of the 1930s.

Literature not logic In my first job, on an international affairs TV programme, the series editor – ex-BBC World Service – said, ‘Never read any factual books by literary authors; they always get it wrong.’ I did a Literature degree so I was affronted by this cavalier dismissal, but in the years afterwards quickly came to realise he was right. I remembered all this as I read The Drowned and The Saved. Levi is, of course, an indisputable and priceless witness to one of the greatest atrocities in world history.

His testimony, his witness, his recording of the facts and of the individuals he met who were obliterated and incinerated are a lasting memorial and achievement. But this book amounts to a series of articles. And the articles themselves are built by literary quotation and analogy and anecdote rather than by statistical or rigorous evidence.

Thus the first page of ‘Stereotypes’ asserts that people who are imprisoned have two responses afterwards: those who want to tell everything and those who remain silent. Really? His evidence for this is a Yiddish proverb – ‘It is good to talk about sorrows overcome’ (which he has already quoted in a previous book) – and two examples from literature: when Paolo tells Francesca in Dante’s Inferno that there is nothing so sad as recalling happy times in misery, Levi asserts that the opposite can also be true; and the urge to tell all is exemplified by the moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus feels the need to tell the whole story of his escape from Troy as soon as he is sat at the feasting table in the palace of the Phaeacians. For those of us who had the kind of education which included reading Dante and Homer, these references are warm and comforting: they create the sense that we are in a ‘civilised’, European culture. But they aren’t really evidence or proof of the initial assertion.

Similarly, at one of the many schools he’s visited, a little boy asks Levi to draw a sketch map of the camp on the blackboard, including location of the barbed wire, guardhouse, watchtowers and machine guns – he then patiently explains to Levi how he could have created an explosion in the guardroom, neutralised the patrolling dogs, disarmed the machine gun towers while colleagues cut a way through the wire with cutters they’d stolen from a workshop. Levi takes this endearing story as proof of the general assertion that the younger generation don’t understand what life was like in a concentration camp, and have an increasingly simplified, stereotypical view of history as a whole.

A slender example to hang such a sweeping conclusion on.

When he divides the questions he’s asked into the main three – ‘why didn’t you escape? why didn’t you rebel? why didn’t you flee Europe before it all happened?’ – he’s on more solid, not to say, well-trodden ground. And when he subdivides the answers to the three, you go along with the sub-divisions: these are questions he’s been answering for forty years and he structures the replies logically and effectively.

But then, suddenly, he devotes two pages to the historical figure of Mala Zimetbaum, a woman inmate who actually did manage to escape from a camp – Birkenau – and made it all the way to Czechoslovakia before being arrested at a border crossing, returned to the camp, and who, on the gallows, tried to slash her own wrists before she was hanged, and so was kicked and bludgeoned to death by the assembled Kapos and SS men.

These two pages (pp.126-127) leap out of the text with infinitely more power that the question-and-answer sections or the cosy literary analogies. The structuring generally works (in a rather obvious sort of way); the literary references are nice to pick up for those who like that kind of thing – but Mala Zimetbaum’s story is vital. It is these pen portraits from hell that Levi does so well, for which is books will endure.

Conclusion

Levi’s final book is a noble attempt to gather his thoughts about ‘the Offence’ into a systematic exposition, but it is competing in a very crowded field. It tends to work best when it sticks closest to the harrowing details of his own experiences and the stories of inmates he knew and, to a lesser extent, where it uses literary references and analogies to add dignity and depth to the psychological feel of suffering and immiseration, to the memories of abasement which ‘gnaw and rasp’ the text.

Densely written, sometimes confusingly laid out, The Drowned and The Saved gives the unhappy sense of a man struggling to understand the incomprehensible, repeatedly returning to the harrowing events, the tormented victims, the pointless rules, the excessive cruelty, worrying away at the evil which has infected his soul and which no amount of books or lectures can ever exorcise.


Credit

I sommersi e i salvati by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1986. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal was published by Michael Joseph in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi (1986)

After Levi had written and published If This Is A Man and The Truce in the late 1950s/early 60s, he thought he’d done his duty – in them he had borne public witness to the misery and evil of Auschwitz concentration camp (where he was incarcerated from February 1944 to January 1945) and exorcised his own demons. But as the years passed, he discovered he was one of that group of people who can’t forget, whose memory of atrocity follows them everywhere.

These are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read. (p.88)

And so he set down further memories in short anecdotes or vignettes which, when he came to review them, he realised each focused on one individual, and one particular moment, a ‘moment of reprieve’ from the general fate of immiseration and dehumanisation.

There are fifteen powerful ‘moments’ in this short book:

Rappoport’s Testament Little mud man Valerio and Levi are sheltering in a cellar during an air raid on the camp when they are joined by the giant, virile, healthy Pole Rappaport. As the bombs fall he tells them if either of them survive they can take his message to the outside world: he, cunning, manly Rappaport spent  his life drinking and eating and swiving and, if he meets Hitler in the next life, he’ll spit in his face because…’he didn’t get the better of me.’ With this text, Levi fulfils that debt.

The Juggler Working in another cellar, piling up cardboard tubes, Levi finds time to begin writing on a scrap of paper, a message to his mother. He is struggling to find the words when he is interrupted by ‘Eddy’, a Grüne Spitze, a Green triangle or German criminal, who is appointed Kapo of this work detail. Eddy slaps him a bit for doing something so illegal they could both be hanged if caught, then confiscates the scrap of paper and gets two independent Italian speakers to translate its contents. A few hours later he returns and give it back, apparently satisfied that it contained nothing subversive, and Levi wonders about the humanity hidden behind the Green Triangle

Lilith It starts raining and Levi takes shelter inside one of a pile of big metal pipes, bumping into the Tischler or carpenter. They watch a woman in a pipe opposite for a bit and this sparks off in the Tischler a colourful sequence of stories about the legendary Biblical figure of Lilith, second wife to Adam and, in the Tischler’s blasphemous version, of God himself!

A Disciple Amazingly, Levi manages to smuggle a letter out to a civilian who posts it to his mother – in hiding in Italy – who sends a reply via the same route. He shares this burning secret with a new arrival, one of the Hungarians, a happy healthy boy named Bandi who, in a radiant moment, crowns Levi’s happiness by making him the gift of… a radish.

Our Seal ‘Our seal’ is the nickname given to the enormous nose of a Berlin pharmacist named Wolf who is fond of humming the classics, even doing impersonations of different instruments. In the central scene he is persecuted by an inmate named Elias – ‘a Herculean dwarf’ (p.155) – for having scabies but trying to hide it, which ends with Elias attacking Wolf and tearing his short and trousers open for everyone to see the rash. Days later, on one of the rare Sunday afternoons off work, they all hear a strange haunting sound and go to discover Wolf has somehow acquired a violin and is playing a haunting solo and, lying on the ground spellbound and listening, is Elias.

The Gypsy An announcement is made that prisoners may write letters home (on certain, typically Teutonic precise conditions). Levi is pestered by fresh-faced young Grigo, the Gypsy, who is illiterate but begs him to write a long letter to his young fiancée, which proves tricky as Grigo only speaks Spanish (which Levi doesn’t understand) and the letter must be written in German (of which Levi only knows prison slang).

The Cantor and The Barracks Thief the new barracks chief is Otto, fifty, tall, corpulent, shouty like all Germans, but he surprises them with the tenderness he shows when he personally strips and washes down big, dumb Vladek, a Polish political prisoner, using warm water, a brush and then rags to clean him. This favourable impression is confirmed when Ezra, a watchmaker and cantor from a remote Lithuanian village, very politely asks if Otto can hold back his soup ration for a day, as it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews are not meant to eat or work. To everyone’s amazement, Otto is drawn into the maze of law and tradition which Ezra explains to him in great detail, so that he eventually agrees, gives him a generous soup portion and carefully stores it in his personal lock-up overnight. For Ezra, as Levi comments:

was heir to an ancient, sorrowful, and strange tradition, whose core consists in holding evil in opprobrium and in ‘hedging about the law’ so that evil may not flood through the gaps in the hedge and submerge the law itself. In the course of the millennia, around this core has become encrusted a gigantic proliferation of comments, deductions, almost maniacally subtle distinctions, and further precepts and prohibitions. And in the course of the millennia many had behaved like Ezra throughout migrations and slaughters without number. That is why the history of the Jewish people is so ancient, sorrowful, and strange. (p.82)

Last Christmas of the War Two stories: Levi is approached by one of the secretaries in the chemistry lab where he worked, who asks him to fix a puncture on her bicycle, a risky thing to do as he might be accused of stealing it, sabotaging it, or shirking his lab responsibilities. He does it and she rewards him with a hard-boiled egg and some sugar and a whispered comment that Christmas was coming. Was this a German… actually being sympathetic? In a separate development he is amazed to receive a small food parcel smuggled in from his mother and sister but then he and his partner, Alberto, are faced with the tragi-comic dilemma of hiding a surplus of food in an environment with absolutely no secrecy.

The Quiet City The grimmest story, this is a profile of a young chemist, Levi’s mirror image, Mertens – except he was a German and a Catholic who, after some hesitation, took a pay increase for moving to the unhealthy region of Upper Silesia with his young wife and working at a new chemicals factory there (the Buna factory at Auschwitz). Levi pieces together evidence about Mertens’ behaviour during this period from scattered friends and witnesses, which was assembled when he was questioned years later by a Jewish historian of the camps years later. Like most Germans, he parrots the usual lies: he knew nothing, he tried to help prisoners whenever he could, he didn’t know about the gas chambers, the crematorium etc etc. This is a rare case when Levi devotes an anecdote, a story, to a specific German – Mertens. (In If This is a Man the cold Nazi supervisor of the lab, Dr Pannwitz, is almost the only other Nazi to get this kind of treatment).

Small Causes Levi steals some pipettes from the lab and smuggles them back into the camp where he tries to sell them to the unimpressed Polish head of the infirmary who, in turn, gives him half a bowl of soup. Half? Yes, probably abandoned by a patient too sick to finish it. Too hungry to quibble Levi takes it back to his barrack and shares it with his bosom friend, Alberto. Sure enough Levi comes down with scarlet fever within a few days and ends up being moved to the infirmary. Here he remains during the crucial days when the Germans abruptly evacuate the camp to escape the advancing Russians, forcing all the ‘healthy’ inmates onto a long march west in which almost all of them die. His friend, Alberto, had scarlet fever as a child and so is immunised, and so is rounded up and goes on the march, disappearing forever. Levi never had scarlet fever, is sick, and survives. Such is the randomness of the universe.

The Story of Avrom Avrom was aged 13 in 1939, when his parents in Lvov were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis. Levi gives a potted history of how the boy survived in the criminal underworld, inveigles his way into the barracks of the Italian Army in Russia, returns with them to Italy, but is then rounded up with them by the Germans, jumps off the moving train taking them to the Fatherland with a letter of recommendation to the family of one of his fellow deportees who live in a remote Italian village. This family kindly put Avrom up and he finds himself, incongruously, becoming an assistant to the parish priest, until he helps a group of Czechs who’ve defected from the Germans head up into the mountains to become partisans, travels all over the mountains with them, becoming their trusted radio contact with the Allies, before returning to the cities in triumph at the Liberation. Now he lives modestly in Israel and is drafting notes about his life for his children and grandchildren. Quite simply, what a life story.

Tired of Imposture A summary of the adventures of Joel König (in fact told in his own memoir Escape From The Nazi Dragnets) in which young Jewish Joel manages to adopt numerous identities, eventually masquerading as a blonde Hitler Youth, smuggling himself from Berlin to Vienna, then into Hungary and Romania.

Cesare’s Last Adventure Levi has obviously kept in touch with Cesare, the rogue who accompanied him on his long bizarre journey east into Russia after their liberation from Auschwitz, as described in The Truce. Eventually, fed up with sitting in an endlessly delayed train in the Romanian mud, Cesare left his colleagues determined to fly back to Italy. He begged for a while, got together semi-smart clothes and set out to seduce a woman. Eventually he found one willing to be seduced, and conned her and her father into thinking he would marry her. He asked the father for an advance to find a job and then went straight to the airport and bought a ticket to Italy. On arrival he was arrested – turned out the father had given him counterfeit dollars, whether as a shrewd guess that Cesare was about to run out on him, or by accident, we don’t know to this day.

Lorenzo’s Return Lorenzo is a strong, silent Italian mason, working on the ‘outside’ of the camp, who gets to know Levi and brings him and his buddy, Alberto, a mess tin of soup hidden in a secret place every day. It is this extra soup which helps Levi survive through to the Liberation in January. He sets off to walk home and has an epic four-month trek, stopping to work as a mason on the way to earn money. He finally makes it back to his home village near Turin and works for a while, but he has seen too much of life and begins to fade. He gives up his lifelong trade of mason and lives by trading farmers’ produce, then becomes a complete nomad sleeping rough. Finally he stops wanting to live and although Levi has, by this stage tracked him down, and arranges for him to go into hospital, they won’t give him wine so he leaves and dies rough. The tremendous Biblical nobility of strong, good Lorenzo and his eventual demolition, is taken as a slow-burning consequence of the evil he has seen. This story made me cry.

Story of a Coin Levi finds a coin in the ruins of bombed Auschwitz just before he is evacuated, slips it into his pocket without thinking and carries it round in his purse as a good luck charm. Years later he realises it was minted at the order of Chaim Rumkowski, a 60-year-old businessman who made himself into the ‘Emperor’ of the Lodz ghetto, one of the longest lasting of all the Polish-Jewish enclaves. Appointed by the Nazis as a useful puppet, he oversaw the working on starvation rations of over 100,000 imprisoned Jews while creating a court of lickspittles and toadies, and riding round his ’empire’ on a sledge pulled by a knackered horse. When the ghetto was finally wound up ie all the Jews were transported to death camps, Rumkowski secured his own carriage to ride in style to Auschwitz – but here he met the fate of all the other Jews. Levi is left pondering the story of this ridiculous and tragic figure, reminding us that:

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting. (p.172)

Thoughts

Taken together, and especially the last few tales, prompt the question – Can the characters Levi describes really be the noble, upstanding heroes they appear in these stories? From time to time he makes comparisons with characters from classic literature, from Dante, the Bible and the prophets, from Homer. I think it’s impossible not to feel that Levi’s imagination, like theirs, has shaped and moulded what were once real people and real events into patterns which have a greater depth and resonance than normal life allows.

This activity, this deepening and widening and ennobling, is Levi’s characteristic achievement.


Credit

Lilìt e altri racconti (literally Lilith and other stories) by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1981. The English translation by Ruth Feldman was published by Michael Joseph in 1986. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

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