Wednesday 18 December 2013

The limitations of manliness in Dracula

The following was to be part of the postscript for That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I instead decided to insert a Coda which examined the  appeal of the Gothic in our times. In retrospect, I think the right decision was made. The original postscript works best as a series of blogs. This short piece concludes that series.

Bram Stoker
If Stoker conceived of Dracula as a critique of scientific positivism, he also challenges the assumption that mental health can be best achieved through self-control notwithstanding his expository writing wherein he explicitly champions the need for self-censorship. One reading of Stoker argues that his novels and other writings endorsed the need for restraint and the restoration of firm boundaries, and from what we know about his life we can assert that fear of disclosure and incitement of raw passions were overriding values. But his ability to write in the Gothic genre allowed him to explore more subversive ideas. For all his conservative values, there is evidence in this nuanced novel of his tongue-in-cheek spirit to question the healthy male model of self-control that was so esteemed in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps this penchant reflected his Irish sensibilities and a wickedly perverse impulse to turn an Anglo stereotype of the Irish back on its perpetrators. For years the Anglo-Saxons had embodied masculine, virile qualities whereas the Celts were condemned as emotionally incontinent, with a sensibility that exuded a soft feminine quality with its “nervous exaltation.” This stereotype of the Irish fits the description of female hysteria that Mina experiences, but as I tried to demonstrate in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Stoker’s portrait of Mina is much more complex.

The male characters equal, if not surpass, Mina in fretting about breaking down as the spectre of madness looms large for them. Renfield is the only one that is certified a lunatic but he has more insight into the dangers that Dracula poses not only for him, but also for Mina, than the healthy men do. Jonathan Harker experiences “brain fever” as a result of his forcible confinement and traumatic encounter with the three female vampires while in Dracula’s Castle that leaves him feeling weak and diminished. His somnolent ravings, his amnesia on waking, the resolution gone out of his eyes, the relapse and subsequent amnesia one month after his wedding on seeing Dracula ogling a pretty girl, are symptoms that Jean–Martin Charcot would have diagnosed as male hysteria. Indeed, his hysteria was more acute than that experienced by Mina. He does, however, acknowledge the support of Van Helsing, who has read his journal and written to Mina, affirming the reality of what he experienced in the castle even if it lies outside the boundaries of conventional science and religion. John Seward, often depressed and even suicidal, constantly frets about breaking down and going mad from which he protects himself through worka defence that inhibits his professional development but possibly saves his sanity. He often consumes drugs to sleep and worries about becoming addicted. Since powerful emotions, especially in men, need to be contained and sanitized, the act of writing permitted both expression of the words and the restraint of feelings that would otherwise appear unmanly. To the embarrassment and incomprehension of Seward, Van Helsing breaks into a fit of uncontrollable giggles and tears after the death of Lucy. Manliness is not what defeats Dracula; Mina’s hybrid of feminine compassion and masculine ingenuity and tough mindedness are more germane. Stoker intuitively understood that the manly model of emotional self-restraint and the constant exercise of will power by themselves were inadequate tools to confront vampirism or the undead.
Male hysteria vividly captured in Stanley Kubrick's 1957 Paths of Glory

Had Stoker lived three years more, he would have witnessed the powerful currents of World War Ι in which thousands of men enlisted in a war that would severely test their manhood in ways that were almost unprecedented and where the forces symbolized by vampirism re-emerged: xenophobia, the blood lust and men trapped between life and death as the casualties of severe war wounds or post-traumatic stress. In this tragedy, reason and self-restraint were helpless before the maws of a technological war devoured young men. In a small way, Dracula portends what happens to healthy men when confronted by a powerful enemy when terror and horror can reduce these men to a shadow of their former lives when they suffered from shell-shock.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Stoker’s endorsement of the New Liberalism and Modernity

The following was to be part of the postscript for That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I instead decided to insert a Coda which examined the  appeal of the Gothic in our times. In retrospect, I think the right decision was made. The original postscript works best as a series of blogs.

The changing nature of the British society with its need for technical expertise is reflected in Dracula even though the agents of the statejudges, police, the armed forces and public officialsdo not appear except in a most peripheral way. Indeed, the novel on one level repudiates the idea of the state as it is the efforts of individuals who analyze and resolve the problem of destroying Dracula. 

Yet it is only when these allies combine to combat the individualist Dracula with a sort of supra–nationalist Western team, can they succeed against a cunning, violent but primitive force. As Van Helsing remarks, “we have on our side power of combination—a power denied to the vampire kind.” It is possible that this combination, mainly professionals, was symptomatic of the modernist experts, from psychologists to eugenicists that were needed to oversee the relations between the new relations and the state as the state’s role expanded to provide more social services. The lodestar of the group was Van Helsing recognized by all as “the great specialist.”

This alliance loosely mirrored the British cartel alliances that the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain believed were necessary to reverse a trend that the industrial pre-eminence of Great Britain was slipping away owing to the threat of foreign economic competition from Germany and the United States. After basking in the commercial warmth of free trade for over a half a century as the undisputed economic giant, foreign investment and free trade represented a threat. Chamberlain vigorously challenged his own Conservative government to end free trade and introduce tariffs and an imperial preference for the Empire. Only if they integrated more with the Empire could they successfully compete with the new rising powers. (Chamberlain’s failure to convince the government to change its policy resulted in his resignation from the cabinet.) I said loosely because Van Helsing’s hunters were out to destroy not a Western power, but the undead from an alien culture (read Eastern European) whose blood imperiled Western women and threatened to conquer the West itself.

Joseph Chamberlain

Monday 16 December 2013

The Dreyfus Affair For Our Times: Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large on December 14. I include it in these blogs because, although the Dreyfus Affair is not included in the final product of That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012), I originally conceived of comparing the anti-Semitism in France with the homophobia during the Wilde trials in England. Instead I have previously published two blogs on The Affair. The following review is my third.

“The most frightful judicial error that has ever been made.”
                                                                 —Alfred Dreyfus

Robert Harris is both prolific and versatile. A former journalist, best known for his 1986 account of the hoax surrounding Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries turned to penning novels that generally fall within three categories: alternative history such as t is contemplating a détente with America, and Archipelago (1998) that plays with the conceit that a diary purporting to be that of Stalin chronicles his relationship with a young woman who shortly before his death provided him with a son, one that is alive and in the 1990s is being groomed to seize power; thrillers such as The Ghost (2007) that takes as its premise the story of a professional ghost writer who is hired to replace a predecessor who drowned under mysterious circumstances, and then is assigned the task of completing the memoirs of a recently resigned Prime Minister that will counter the suspicions of war crimes he committed during the Iraq war, and Fear Index (2012) inspired by the global financial meltdown and with a nod to the Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, about a hedge fund operator who has designed computer software which uses artificial intelligence to trade on fear that for a time makes huge profits for its investors until the computer begins to operate on its own independent of human control; historical novels on ancient Rome, Pompeii (2003) and the first two novels of the trilogy that focuses on the orator and politician, Cicero, Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009). His most recent offering, An Officer and a Spy (Random House, 2013), about the notorious injustice visited upon Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer in fin de siècle France, fits within the last genre.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Bram Stoker's Critique of Scientific Positivism: Part Two

The following was to be part of the postscript for That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I instead decided to conclude with a Coda which examined the  appeal of the Gothic in our times. In retrospect, I think the right decision was made. The original postscript works best as a series of blogs. Some of the material on Mina and hypnosis is close to what emerged from the published book.

The introduction of Jean–Martin Charcot (1825–1893) into Dracula enables Stoker to connect the science of Seward with eclectic Van Helsing and validate the hypnosis that is incorporated into the novel. Charcot from the late 1870s to his death in 1893 was a celebrated psychiatrist, renowned for his neurological work, which in turn gave cachet to his explorations in hypnosis. He believed that only hysterics, whose condition was in part a result of hereditary degeneration, were susceptible to hypnosis and that the painful symptoms (as real as any organic condition) of traumatic hysteria could be reproduced under hypnosis.

Charcot at La Saltpetrière performing a demonstration
His clinic in Paris at La Saltpetrière became a pilgrimage for many doctors to attend his public performances on Tuesday. There he publicly diagnosed men and women, albeit mostly the latter, patients he had not seen before. On Friday morning he gave a prepared lecture–demonstration often involving hysterical patients. Whether as a medical treatment or a theatrical spectacle, his ability to hypnotize patients, often with dramatic results, did much to restore hypnosis as a sanctioned and persuasive scientific tool. Perhaps most significantly, he did not attach any moral stigma to the patients’ condition as the origin of their symptoms resided in their unconscious psyche.

A one-time student of Charcot, the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe (The Story of San Michele, New York: E P Dutton &Co., 1930), recalled that one woman “would crawl on all fours on the floor, barking furiously when told she was a dog. Another would walk with a top hat in her arms rocking to and fro and kissing it tenderly when she was told it was her baby. But Munthe also discloses that the spectacles were “a hopeless muddle of truth and cheating.” One disturbing incident that lead to his expulsion from Charcot’s clinic involved his unsuccessful attempt to assist two elderly peasants in removing their daughter from the clinic. She had once worked in the kitchen but now was on public display as the “prima donna of the Tuesday stage performance.” Munthe tried to hypnotize her to indicate her desire to return home to her family in Normandy. It appeared to have succeeded when a nurse took her back, but later she appeared outside the clinic and nurses forced her in the building. Her resistance was overcome by Charcot when she confessed Munthe’s role. He was then informed he must leave. Munthe angrily informed Charcot that he and his staff had ruined a young girl “who had entered the hospital as a strong girl and would leave it as a lunatic if she remained much longer.”

Unsurprisingly, Charcot provoked other critics. A Dr. Bernheim challenged Charcot’s premise that only hysterics could be hypnotized arguing that anyone could be vulnerable to hypnosis because it relied on the power of suggestion, and he stressed the therapeutic applications of hypnosis. Other contemporaries were unsparing in their criticism castigating Charcot’s circus-like atmosphere “as a ‘true witches Sabbath’ that rendered victims helpless against the will of the hypnotist.’’

The dark side of hypnotism circulated in the popular culture. In 1895 Conan Doyle published his novella, The Parasite that demonstrates how an eminent professor who succumbs to being mesmerized by a sexually rapacious woman from the West Indies becomes an instrument of her will. When he rebuffs her advances, her influence over him causes him to completely lose control over his life. After a series of bizarre incidents, he finds himself in his fiancée’s room threatening her by holding a vial of vitriol when he suddenly comes out of the trance. Stoker was cognizant of this shadow side of hypnosis; when he depicts the captivity of Jonathan Harker, he shows him “struggling to awake to some call of his instincts; nay my very soul was struggling…I was becoming hypnotized.” More recently, the demonic power of hypnotism is conveyed in actor Frank Langella's interpretation of Dracula from the 1979 film when he is cast as a Byronic hero intent on rescuing women from overbearing, incompetent and corrupt vampire hunters.

Seward could accept hypnosis, he could not accept telepathy or what Van Helsing calls thought reading. That put him at a distinct disadvantage as an effective participant in the hunt because Dracula’s initial contacts with Lucy and Renfield were telepathic. Yet the Society for Psychical Research that had been founded in 1882 contained a number of reputable scientists who took psychic research seriously. For example, F. W. M. Myers, (who was also a spellbinding speaker on the rostrum as a purity advocate,) was at the time working to legitimatize telepathy, and would have found that kind of psychic exchange between Mina and Dracula plausible. In his writings, he strongly linked hypnosis with telepathic receptivity, and suggested that telepathy might be considered as the next stage in evolution. It is Mina’s revelations under hypnosis that provide Van Helsing’s  vampire hunters with the knowledge that Dracula has left England by water, and it is telepathy that enables Dracula to psychically communicate with her. At one point, she consciously boycotts a meeting so that she will not be able to pass on valuable knowledge to him. At the same time, Seward has learned something about the need to be open from Van Helsing because he is able to correctly intuit that Mina’s “tongue is tied.” Even though “she forms conclusions of her own,” she “will not or cannot give the utterance” because of Dracula’s telepathic control over her. 

Frederic Myers
Van Helsing incorporates an eclectic blend of traditional folklore: staking, garlic and sacred circles, as well as the Catholic symbolsthe crucifix and communion wafersalong with the latest scientific research in the struggle to hunt down and destroy Dracula. What Stoker is conveying here is that the power of evil, and Dracula is its potent avatar, requires every tool in one’s panoply, and that traditional medical science has its limitations. Van Helsing’s willingness to use Catholic paraphernalia presents a contrast with Jonathan Harker’s initial reaction early in the novel when given a crucifix before arriving at the Count’s castle, “as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard as in some measure idolatrous.” Possibly Stoker is poking a little fun at the rigidity of English Protestants discomfort around Catholic rituals and symbols. Seward, its representative, becomes increasingly marginalized by the time the group arrives in Transylvania, itself awash in the primitive.
Stoker not only derides psychiatric positivism but also glimpses the possibility of a new exploration of the unconscious. He did attend F.W. H. Myers talk on Freud’s experiments at a London meeting of the Society for Psychical Research. Stoker may have anticipated both Freud’s concept of the id , that cauldron of seething sexuality and aggression personified by Dracula, and the father of psychoanalysis’ ability to cut through the web of self-deception and rationalization that Victorians encouraged by their belief in self-control. If a man puts his mind to it, he could by sheer determination accomplish what he set out to do. He may be subject to deplorable spells of irrationality, but a man could control those impulses through his conscious willpower. But Freud wrote: “The deeply rooted belief in psychic freedom and choice…is quite unscientific and must give ground before a determinism which governs mental life.” In other words, unconscious, irrational powers govern our mental life, and until we have access to those primitive feelings, terror, rage and guilt, they will either disable or diminish the possibilities in life.

But Stoker’s Van Helsing expends his energy more upon a return to earlier knowledge and its pagan and Catholic symbols. Notwithstanding the attention given to the medieval trappings, Stoker astutely recognizes the power of the unconscious. Sleep, hypnosis, dreams (or what may be dreams because at times the boundary between them and external reality are fuzzy) and trance propel the novel. The somnambulistic seductions of both Lucy and Mina while asleep or in a trance-like state, Lucy’s blood transfusions, Mina’s hypnosis and telepathy, and Jonathan’s nightmares provide a sharp counterpoint to the quotidian expressionsjournals, letters, memorandums, newspaper clippings, shipping logs, telegramsthat provide the structure of the novel.
Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dracula (Gary Oldman)
What could not be verbalized, the act of writing, for both Jonathan and Mina, was an essential vehicle for struggling against unconscious desires that invade their consciousness threatening not only their sanity but also their lives. Stoker may be suggesting that the powerful fears and urges in the unconscious require conscious accessing if their verbal expression is too overwhelming and violates what Stoker calls in his expository essays restraint then writing may be the means to manly self-control. When he is in Dracula’s ancestral castle, Jonathan recognizes that he must record his prosaic thoughts to prevent his imagination from careening out of control. Unlike Lucy whose silence dooms her, Jonathan and Mina write in order to gain control over and tame their primitive fears. Unlike Seward, Van Helsing really wants to hear Renfield speak when the latter has been brutally attacked by Dracula, “tell us your dream.”

Even Van Helsing, with his intuitions and insight becomes almost paralyzed as if he were in a trance when he observes the three female vampires sleeping in their lair. One of them has such a seductive hold over him that he almost falters in his gruesome task to cut off their heads. Like Jonathan earlier, he is enraptured by the Anglo-Saxon ideal of beauty: “She was so fair to look upon, so radiantly beautiful, so exquisitely voluptuous, that the very instincts of man in me, which calls some of my sex to love and protect one of hers, made my head whirl with new emotion.” It is only the banshee “the soul–wail,” from the unconscious of Mina that arouses him from his reverie so that he can complete his grisly ordeal. Stoker seems to be suggesting that powerful unconscious seductive forces have the potential to undermine the best of conscious intentions and erode our will power. Yet he is also suggesting that the unconscious voice from another can assist one in executing difficult tasks. 

Jonathan Harker (Keenu Reeves) and Dracula (Gary Oldman) in Bram Stoker's Dracula
The transformation of Jonathan Harker is indicative, however, of Stoker’s ambivalence. For all Jonathan’s conscious hatred of Dracula, he has unconsciously merged with him. (Director Werner Herzog understood this interpretation in his 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre when Klaus Kinsky as Harker rides into the realm of the undead at the conclusion of the film.) Moreover, in the scene when Jonathan looks in the mirror and does not see the reflection of Dracula, his fright comes from the absence of Dracula not from seeing his own image. Finding himself face to face with the possibility that there is within him an unconscious that is embodied in the Count is something from which he, the reader, and his creator recoil in horror. It is not surprising he cannot see his mirror image. Stoker, therefore, was divided about how far he could explore this alternative to psychiatric positivism. His intellectual curiosity was intrigued by the possibilities, but his need for professional and personal restraint prevented him from pursuing the implications of this new science.

Friday 13 December 2013

Bram Stoker’s Critique of Scientific Positivism: Part One

The following was to be part of the postscript for That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I instead decided to insert a Coda which examined the  appeal of the Gothic in our times. In retrospect, I think the right decision was made. The original postscript works best as a series of blogs.

The intensity of hatred and the representation of the monstrous that was present in the trials of Oscar Wilde trials raises the issue whether the philosophy of positivism with its stress on reason and the observable could match the seductive power of the irrational and the primitive that was gaining in strength. It is arguable that constructions of the normal, manly and feminine were desperate efforts to keep the irrational and the ambiguous caged in the safe classifications of the criminal mind, diseased foreigner, hysterical female and aesthetic male as a way of ignoring larger realities. The Victorian beliefs in the inviolability of will power, self-control and the sanctity of reason were becoming unhinged. The scientific and medico-psychiatric experts, who had confidently asserted that individual and collective manifestations of aberrant behavior were evidence of evolutionary regression or degeneration, did find a receptive audience, but behind the sophistry lodged general misgivings about self-control and reason itself.

Anxieties about self–identity, the preservation of individuality and the fear of disintegration were rooted in the fear that reason and will power were insufficient to protect individuals and the collective against the dangerous classes and from a slippage in muscular heterosexuality and female subservience. When Wilde wrote in prison about how he had made a terrible mistake by allowing himself to be goaded into the calamitous decision to sue Queensberry, he did not know it, but he was voicing a much more pervasive fear. The particular circumstances were personal, but his state of mind conveyed sentiments about self-control that epitomized the meaning of manhood for late Victorian men regardless of their sexual orientation:

Between you both I lost my head. My judgement forsook men. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles. I had made a gigantic psychological error. I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could reassert my will power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great moment my will–power completely failed me.

The Doll's House Part Two: The Reception

I originally conceived of a chapter on Ibsen's The Doll's House in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I deleted it because it was a naturalistic drama and not enough of the Gothic in it. This two-part piece substantially rewrites that chapter in large part because I have benefited from the insights of Toril Moi's,  Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 2006).

The first performance of The Doll's House was in Copenhagen December 21, 1879 and the reviews were polarized. Religious conservatives who believed art should be uplifting were scathing in their responses. There was no reconciliation or forgiveness rendering the play “profoundly ugly.” Realism was the antithesis of real art and aligned itself with the forces of scepticism and secularism. Feminists and political radicals, however, praised the drama as a political tract, a slice of life onstage and a radical challenge to the social order. But they too did Ibsen a disservice by failing to appreciate its aesthetic qualities, its pro-theatrical use of theatre, that the central characters were not individuals but role playing. 

When The Doll's House opened in London a decade later, the responses were similar. Several critics viewed the play as a war between the sexes or (what was probably accurate) as a repudiation of the angel in the house. Appalled by a woman abandoning her children, one critic lamented, “It is all self, self, self! This is the ideal woman of the new creed; not the pattern woman we have admired in our mothers and our sisters.” When Nora left the compression chamber of her “play room” to discover who she was, she was labeled psychologically aberrant, a neurotic or hysterical personality.

Thursday 12 December 2013

The Doll's House: Part One

I originally conceived of a chapter on Ibsen's The Doll's House in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but I deleted it because it was a naturalistic drama and not enough of the Gothic in it. This two-part piece substantially rewrites that chapter in large part because I have benefited from the insights of Toril Moi's  Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 2006).
I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house.
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865

I believe that I am first and foremost a human beinglike youor anyway that I must try to become one.
Nora in The Doll’s House
Henrik Ibsen
The relationship between Nora and Torvald Helmer foundered because they were playing their expected Victorian roles of a married man and woman rather than being individuals. Contrary to what contemporary supporters and detractors, as well as many modern audiences believe, The Doll’s House is not a drama about the rights of women. Ibsen made that clear on more than one occasion. He even asserted:I am not even very sure what Women's Rights really are." Nora's story was inspired by what actually happened to a woman Ibsen knew and whose secret was remarkably similar to that of his heroine except that when the husband found out he divorced her and committed her to an asylum. The pleadings of their children prompted him to have her released and marry her again. Ibsen mused on that experience and embarked upon of  what turned to out to be a searching exploration of the female at the turn of the century. 

To accomplish that feat, Ibsen sets out to challenge two current beliefs: a kind of moral utopianism that the purpose of art is to uplift and that husbands and wives, and mothers, sisters, daughters must conduct their lives according to the prescribed "ideals" of love, fidelity, self-sacrifice. The result is that they live constricted and deformed lives not only diminishing their lives and family relationships; they can also cast a pall on others since their comments and actions are only weighed in terms of how they affect their immediate family not on how they would harm or show appalling insensitivity to others. At the beginning of the play, Nora is flighty and irresponsible caring only about her family’s interest and has no understanding of society or the law. By the end all that is changed, as their marriage unravels. Her evolution from a doll-woman towards a nascent self-knowledge, together with knowledge about others, by leaving the comforts of her velvet prison-home to purse an uncertain life is why The Doll’s House is a seminal drama and why audiences continue to watch performances. 

For eight years, Nora and Torvald Helmer believe they are happily married and on the brink of a blissful new phase of life: Torvald has been promoted to bank manager and their money worries are over. Nora has been apparently content to masquerade as the “spendthrift,” the “featherbrain,” the ‘little squirrel’, in short the flighty, cosseted child–wife–mother in contrast to her doting husband Torvald who poses as the wise, benevolent protector. Nora displays a silliness and insensitivity that are also part of her downfall. At the beginning she is lying to Torvald about the macaroons he has forbidden and she has concealed. This could be comic if it were not part of a tissue of lies and evasions that make up her life. 

Tuesday 10 December 2013

POW status during the Great War

The following selection was deleted from the chapter The Illusions and Realities of Total War in That Line of Darkness:The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) for reasons of space.

Depending on their status, the prisoners-of-war experienced both material deprivation and psychological trauma. Because the belligerents generally abided by the rules of the Hague Convention, they generally treated POWs better than what a later generation received in the Second World War. Officers, who were not even required to work, were treated considerably better than enlistees. Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterly antiwar film, La Grande Illusion, conveys class distinctions, but in the end national allegiance trumps class. Although all the French prisoners-of-war are officers, a French enlisted soldier, Maréchal, who has worked his way through the ranks, is sent into solitary confinement for leading the singing of the Marseillaise during a theatrical review, a punishment that would not have been visited upon the French aristocrat. The German officer in charge of the medieval castle, Count von Rauffenstein, still clings to the notion of an international brotherhood of class that transcends nationalism which he and his immaculately dressed French counterpart, the aristocratic and fellow professional officer, Boeldieu, belong. Although he displays a haughty disdain for his fellow prisoners in the first part of the film, by heroically setting himself up as a decoy to allow Maréchal, the man of the people, and the Jew, Rosenthal, to escape, Boeldieu aligns himself with an inclusive civic French nationalism that embraces all classes and ethnic groups. But the film for all its memorable moments sanitizes the physical conditions of the men. In the real camps that vastly varied in quality even those that housed officers, hunger remained an urgent rendered it difficult for the Germans to feed their prisoners. It was only through the efforts of the Red Cross that food parcels from France generally arrived saving the prisoners from starvation. Still, about 20,000 British servicemen died in German prisoner-of-war camps from ill-treatment, starvation and disease, mostly from dysentery.  It was much worse for POWs on the eastern front where malnourishment and disease claimed a much larger number of lives.
Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Count von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim)

Thursday 5 December 2013

Soviet Economic and Social Life Under NEP

I originally wrote a chapter on the 1920s that was to be included in the Soviet section in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) but for reasons of space it was excluded from the published book. I have used this space to disclose several of its vignettes. The following is one of them.

The New Economic Policy known as NEP was conceived not only to pacify the peasantry but also to resuscitate a prostrate economy in the cities. Lenin realized legalization of private trading in the countryside would be ineffective and the peasantry would not part with their extra surplus unless they could buy (or more likely barter for) the boots, nails and hand ploughs available in the cities. Since the Civil War largely precluded the state’s manufacture and distribution of basic consumer goods, Lenin turned to material incentives to encourage individuals to re-establish workshops and small firms that would manufacture and sell products. NEP was an attempt to unclog the economic circuits between urban and rural areas through a combination of state socialism and private market forces that allowed the peasantry freedom to sell to the state, cooperatives or individuals. The key industriesfuel, foreign trade, banking, and war industriesremained under centralized control. As other state industries became decentralized, they were not only required to operate commercially and sell to the highest bidder but they also did not need to meet a state production quota. 

 In this mixed economy, the space available for private initiative was filled by the so-called Nepmen, those large-scale urban traders, financiers, manufacturers, merchants, artisans and petty vendors, who flooded the market with formerly scarce goods like butter, cheese and fruit. The population of Moscow doubled during the period of the NEP. Cafes, restaurants and even nightclubs opened after having been boarded up during the bleak, lean years of War Communism. The most quintessential form of economic activity during the 1920s were the entrepreneurial private traders (bagmen) from the cities that fanned out by rail into the countryside to barter for vegetables, ceramic pots and knitted scarves. As the bagmen expanded their activities, they sold to urban shops while purchasing chairs, nails and hand tools and turned the War Communism greyness and austerity of cities like Moscow into bustling beehives of vibrancy. By 1928, when Stalin repudiated the NEP with its uneasy hybrid of market forces and state controls, the economy may not have recovered to a 1913 level, but it was impressive enough to demonstrate solid growth. 

Wednesday 4 December 2013

The Photomontages of Gustav Klutsis

Gustav Klutsis  (1895-1938) was a Latvian-born Soviet poster designer who started out as an avant-garde artist whose goal was to radically transform the spectator's viewing habits and then mutated into a agitprop supporter of the Bolshevik regime after participating in the October 1917 assault on the Winter Palace. He believed that the role of the artist was to communicate an unambiguous political message. His all-out endorsement of Lenin and Stalin did not however prevent his arrest and execution during the Great Terror of 1938. Below is a sampling of his output some of which might have been included in the chapter The Spirit of  Socialism in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) had space permitted.

Gustav Klutsis

Electrification of the Entire Country

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Peasant Resistance to Collectivization

The following piece was not included in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) for reasons of space. It should be noted that it was much easier to acquire images for this piece that supported collectivization than those who opposed it. Hence most of the images will serve as counterpoint to the ideas presented.

Go to the collective farm: a poster to challenge the peasants who resisted collectivization
Faced with the superior fire power of state-sponsored terror by outside invaders who confiscated their grain and closed their churches, peasants fought back with their own insurgency. Their resistance was not motivated by class conflict (as the Soviets perceived it) but as acts of desperation in a civil war against those that sought to destroy not only their way of life, but also their very existence. It led to an intra-village conflict because it was not only directed toward the shock troops of collectivization, but also with specific venom against local village activists who had broken ranks. The portrayal of “kulak terrorists” in newspapers as creatures who stalked their victims with a sawed-off shotgun was not entirely misplaced. Intimidation, murder and arson, the latter known as the “Red Rooster,” constituted the main weapons against the “bloodsuckers” that were destroying them. A letter to a local activist, threatening to kill him “like a cockroach” was designed to deter anyone who collaborated with the authorities. In 1930, more than 1100 people mostly peasants who were assisting in collectivization were murdered. Ultimately it proved counterproductive because it only served to escalate and to justify the state violence towards them.  
Among the peasantry, this paroxysm of terror inspired apocalyptic fears stemming from memories of their brutal past. The end of the world was near and the Soviet State, with its collective farms and its collectivizers, was the Antichrist harbinger of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. This apocalyptic tradition had existed among the peasantry at least since the Revolution and the Civil War, and was fuelled by uncertainty and anxiety, oppression and the breakdown of social order. Even during the relatively benign NEP (New Economic Policy) years of the twenties, when a quasi-market economy was allowed, there was never peace between the peasantry and the state; it was more like a truce that both sides knew would end one day. The intense hostility between anti-religious activists, who consisted of former Red Army soldiers and unemployed workers who fled to the countryside in the twenties, and the peasantry traditionalists, had never been resolved. Peasants perceived the former as an alien culture of atheists and hooligans, in part because they challenged the village hierarchy. This conflict was a harbinger of what would occur in 1928.