Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

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

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

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of totalitarian society

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

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

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

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

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

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

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

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

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

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

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

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

Coda

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

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

Albert Camus on Franz Kafka (1942)

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

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

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

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

Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The translation

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

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

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

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


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of other books by Camus

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Dates are dates of composition.

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.)

In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on.

One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers.

There’s a copy of the letter of protest Sassoon wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. This exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued for an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000.

The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011).

There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition also features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

This uncomfortable question is addressed in the final room (more accurately an alcove or bay) where a large TV screen shows a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War).

From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade another foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what?

And the protests didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

So none of the interviewees can give any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any mass protest of the past 100 years.

3. Community

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause.

For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon.

But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled for domestic consumption i.e very carefully. Wars in future:

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost them the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result was that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

From the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they always have been.

The video


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Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings

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

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

Wars

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

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

Personal life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photography

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

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

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

Learnings

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

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

The point or purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

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