Wednesday 26 June 2013

Lore: Breaking Down the Ideological Barrier

“The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.”
― Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, 1976

“A vast army of ghosts, cripples and monsters inhabited my dream landscapes, where cities were burned and forests were mowed down by a hail of bombs.”
―Melita Maschmann, Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self, 1964.

In 1933 when Melita Maschmann was fifteen years old, she secretly joined the girls’ division of the Hitler Youth in a protest against her wealthy conservative parents. Her goal was to escape from her “childish narrow life,” and attach herself “to something that was great and fundamental.” For almost twenty years, she remained a committed, avowed Nazi supporter experiencing at times “overwhelming joy” as she worked in the press and propaganda sections during the 1930s and supervised the evictions of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms during the war years. By the end of the war, she exposed herself to danger expecting to die since she was unable to imagine “an existence robbed of the possibility an inner life.” Even after she spent three years in prison and underwent the compulsory de-Nazification program, she remained an unrepentant Nazi. Then over the next twelve years she underwent a profound transformation that culminated in her mea culpa memoir, Account Rendered, which attempted to understand not excuse “the wrong and even the evil steps I took.” It was likely the first time a former National Socialist publicly acknowledged that she had served “an inhuman political system,” and admitted that she had never thought for herself. The vast majority, like the parents in the novella and film adaptation Lore, burned any incriminating documents. They regarded Maschmann’s memoir as a form of betrayal and never forgave her.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Four Feathers: The Novel and the Films

 This selection was originally designed to be included in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2002 in the chapter on manliness and imperialism but was excluded for reasons of space.

The British Empire was not only the playground for boys’ adventure stories, it provided the backdrop for the A.E.W. Mason novel, The Four Feathers, a nuanced exploration of male redemption, one that remained immensely popular from its 1902 publication through to the Second World War. It charts the risks and the dangers to which a young man exposes himself in order to atone for his loss of honour. Unlike the adolescent adventure novels of George Henty, among others, Mason’s heroes define themselves less by acts of derring-do than through their quiet, anonymous, patient endurance in the service of others. The novel has spawned seven films – two made during the Great War spoke to current concerns – but the most memorable were the 1939 version produced by Alexander Korda on the eve of another war and a 2002 version by Shekhar Kapur. What I will argue is that the celebrated Korda film is more in keeping with the jingoism of the time it was made rather than the spirit of Mason’s tale while Kapur’s adaptation is more faithful to the spirit and intent of the novel.  

Monday 17 June 2013

The Sublime and the Grotesque: Stephen Fry’s Wagner & Me

Sunday, June 16, 2013

This review originally appeared in  Critics at Large

Stephen Fry in front of Festspeilhaus in Bayreuth
                                     "Wagner’s music is better and greater than Hitler ever imagined."    
                                                –Wagner & Me

Full disclosure: I have an abiding passion for the art of Richard Wagner. It was not always so. Like many others, I believed that his personal anti-Semitism and the Nazi appropriation of his art had sullied his work. That preconception collapsed as I researched and wrote a substantial chapter on Wagner in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013. Perhaps more important was my privilege of attending performances over four nights of the complete sixteen hour Ring Cycle on four occasions, experiences that I can only describe as transportive, even transcendental. It is easy to see why I eagerly anticipated director Patrick McGrady’s documentary Wagner & Me, with the actor (Wilde, 1997), writer (Making History, 1996, an alternative history novel about the Third Reich), and television host Stephen Fry serving as our genial guide. Except for a few blemishes, it was not a disappointment. I was in fact thrilled by it.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

The Humanism of Gorky

 Most of  my discussion about Maxim Gorky in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013 is critical of his obsequious behaviour toward Stalin. In the following selection that did not survive the editing process, I applaud his courage to protect art and save artists during the revolutionary era.                                                    

Maxim Gorky

With the outbreak of Civil War and the closure of his newspaper,  Maxim Gorky no longer possessed a venue for articulating his opposition to the Bolsheviks. At this point, he decided to shift tactics and try to influence or mitigate the harshness of their regime from within. Whether his motivation derived from an acceptance of Lenin’s requirement that he work with them “inside history,” Gorky recognized that any other alternative would consign him to impotence. Moreover, as much as he had reviled the Bolsheviks and would continue to do so, they were infinitely preferable to a White dictatorship. His rapprochement with Lenin allowed him to become patron of the intelligentsia which provided him with access to material aid and the power to preserve the artifacts of Russian culture. In this new order, one’s usefulness and political loyalties were criteria for determining one’s rations. In the chaotic and brutal years of the Civil War and famine, even the newly proclaimed elite – working men, soldiers and Communist officials – had to cope with hunger and lack of fuel. For the non-political intellectuals and artists, obtaining the basic subsistence for life was far more difficult, and without Gorky’s importunate efforts for shelter, increased rations, medicine, light and heat, few of the intelligentsia would have survived even though about a hundred scientists died of hunger and hardship. His herculean attempts to secure work and dignity for translators of world literature, laboratory space for scientists, dormitories and reading rooms for scholars, poets and dramatists were extraordinary considering the extreme material deprivation of these years and the Bolshevik disdain for the intelligentsia reviled by Lenin as “shit.” His accomplishments, as great as they were, would not have occurred without Lenin’s benevolence towards him, particularly his efforts to secure rations for those in need. Lenin instructed officials to cooperate with Gorky when he besieged them with requests.

Monday 3 June 2013

Remaking oneself under Stalin

People are more familiar with the conditioning of ordinary Germans than the psychological self-examination undertaken by Soviet citizens, particularly of those individuals who were the children of  enemies of the people. The following, that could not be included in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013 is not about propaganda from above but conditioning from below in which individuals attempted to erase the detritus from their former lives by cleansing themselves so that they could become worthy Soviet citizens. 

When Stalin embarked on five-year plans to transform the Soviet Union into an industrial fortress he operated on the premise that collectivization would underpin his plan for rapid industrialization and consolidate the state’s control over the agricultural and industrial economy. Subsequently, with the nationalization of the entire urban economy, the Nepmen (a term applied to businessmen during the NEP of the 1920s) were driven out of business by confiscatory taxes. Many were arrested and tortured to reveal where they had hidden alleged valuables that could be used for foreign exchange. Along with kulaks, priests and technical specialists, they were the chosen class enemies and victims of the early thirties joining the bourgeoisie and nobility of the revolutionary era. Since class was the key component of one’s identity, if an individual came from the wrong class, he would be stereotyped as an enemy of the regime. Accordingly, stigmatized Nepmen could not vote, and disenfranchisement meant they encountered social discrimination in acquiring work, ration cards and accommodation.

The stain of the parents’ kulak (so-called wealthier peasants) status was bequeathed to their children. Like the progeny of other class enemies, the offspring of the déclassé faced prejudice and hostility denying them entry to university and the opportunity to join the Komsomol. At school they were bullied by teachers and fellow students; one kulak daughter remembers a particularly nasty incident in which one of her teachers referred to “her sort” as enemies of the people who deserved to be “exterminated.” Often the only option available for these children, along with mothers who were not arrested, was to flee to another part of the country and “mask” their “tainted” past by acquiring new identity documents, often through bribery, and by changing their appearance to look more proletarian. This process also involved the creation of a double life: an invented public life that encompassed a name change, a fabricated biography that required lying to both the authorities and their families for years, lies that if exposed, could result in ruin for themselves and damage the career opportunities for their own children. There was, however, a psychic cost to this duality. As one man later said, “I began to feel that I was the man I had pretended to be.” A woman recalls that she lived with the fear for fifty years that she would say something that would make people suspicious.  Or, in an effort to protect their new identity, some individuals remained haunted by guilt for betraying their sullied parents. 

Sunday 2 June 2013

Climate of Fear: Two Post-9/11 Crime Novels

This piece appeared in Critics at Large

“I didn’t know what frightened me more, radical Muslims or radical Americans.”
       —Sara Paretsky, Blacklist

“‘Welcome to the police state,’ Rebus added. ‘They pulled that…stunt…because they could.’
‘You say “they” as if we are not on the same side.’
‘Remains to be seen, Siobhan.’”

       —Ian Rankin, The Naming of the Dead

When national security issues and protection of the privileged and powerful override constitutional protections and the rule of law, is that society in danger of becoming a proto-police state? This is the question raised in two excellent political crime novels by the Chicago writer Sara Paretsky and her Edinburgh counterpart Ian Rankin. Blacklist (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003), Paretsky’s eleventh outing of her feisty private investigator, Vicky Warshawski (V. I.), is set against the backdrop of post-9/11 America, when the Patriot Act provided overzealous officials with powers from Homeland Security that threatened civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Paretsky’s story spans over fifty years going back to the blacklist period of the 1950s, a broad tapestry which enables her to draw a direct line between the fear generated by the politics of McCarthyism and the politics of fear in an America traumatized by a major terrorist attack. One common link between the historical eras is race, and whether racial minorities – in this case, blacks and Muslims – receive justice in America. Rankin’s sixteenth John Rebus novel, The Naming of the Dead (Orion Books, 2006), is set in 2005, during the week of the G8 Gleneagles summit outside of Edinburgh and the London Tube bombings. The protection of the politically powerful meant that vast numbers of security forces invaded Edinburgh and were empowered to suspend the normal rule of law, which resulted in the flouting of their power and the intimidation of citizens, including, in Rankin’s novel, the truculent Rebus. Both novels question the balance between freedom and safety when the perpetrators of violent crimes are apparently able to elude justice by exploiting their privileged status and the fear of the time.