Friday 26 July 2013

The Bolsheviks Wage War on Private Life

I originally conceived that this selection would be part of a separate chapter in the Soviet selection of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013 but for reasons of space it was excised. Note how the Bolshevik war on the family and privacy deployed Gothic imagery and rhetoric.

The best book on private life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Stalin
Bolsheviks believed that their goals could only be realized if they declared war on the past and on the institutions that fostered “egotistical” attitudes. One young journalist wrote in 1920 that because bourgeois manners and ways of thinking still existed, “we have to do away with this. We have to chop off the past from the future, to forget yesterday once and for all, and to make the human world truly communist.” Similar to Gothic novels in late nineteenth-century England that registered the fear of the atavistic past intruding on the present, cultural futurists during the 1920s repeated their visceral hatred of history referring to the “vampire past” as a spirit that might take possession of a Bolshevik and cause him to commit atrocious deeds. To avert that oppressive hand from reaching out and strangling their moral purity, the Party zealots sought to destroy the patriarchal family that they believed was exploitative and based on prejudice, along with its attendant private life that fostered individualistic instincts and material acquisitiveness. In its place the “selfless revolutionary” would emerge jettisoning all the old commandments and substituting service to the Party committed to the utopian goals of achieving international Bolshevism, the transformation of man and rendering money unnecessary. 

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Comparison between the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair and the homophobia of the Wilde Trials

Emile Zola
This piece was to be included in a large chapter on Wilde and Dreyfus in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2013 but was excluded for reasons of space.
There has been little comparative historical analysis about the connections and insights that could be derived from the responses to the two cases even though the arrest of Wilde occurred three weeks after Dreyfus reached Devil’s Island to begin his incarceration for four and one-half years. Part of the reason for this relative neglect has been that the Dreyfus Affair only became that when in 1897 the Dreyfus family named Commandant Ferdinand Esterhazy as the spy and when Zola in early 1898 wrote J’ Accuse. By that time, Wilde was out of prison, penniless and broken in health and spirit and, coincidentally, living in Paris when Zola wrote his missive. One of Wilde’s friends attempted without success to facilitate a renewal of his acquaintance with Zola, but Wilde balked because Zola, like several other French writers, had earlier refused to sign a petition that sought a mitigation of his sentence. 

Wilde further antagonized Zola by consorting with Esterhazy, a man who perjured himself to keep Dreyfus incarcerated. Wilde behaved badly during this period when he betrayed the confidence of a longtime friend, Carlos Blacker, who had stood by him during his trials, his time in prison and his exile in Paris. Blacker knew that Dreyfus was innocent because his friend, the Italian military attaché to Paris was the lover of the German military attaché, and Esterhazy had revealed to this man his secrets. When Wilde in turn revealed this information to Esterhazy and anti-Dreyfusard journalists, Blacker's reputation was sullied because of Wilde's duplicity. The only positive result was that Zola also acquired this information, wrote an article about it  that contributed to the release of Dreyfus. But Wilde and Zola refused to meet.     

 Beyond personal relationships, philosophically no two writers could have possessed such radically antithetical credos: Wilde’s belief that art should be an honest expression of the artist and have no utilitarian motives was anathema to Zola who passionately contended that art should be an instrument for the pursuit of social justice. Wilde claimed that art should be aesthetically pleasing and divorced from nature; Zola, the naturalist, argued that art be faithful to the texture and grit of ordinary life by capturing the details and vocabulary of the particular milieu he was describing. Yet philosophical differences can only partially explain the fundamental cleavage between the two writers.  

Monday 22 July 2013

Wilde's An Ideal Husband

This selection was originally to be included in my discussion of the trials of Oscar Wilde in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War Encompass Editions, 2012 but was excluded in an effort to tighten the chapter. I think it works better as a standalone piece.

Cast members from Oliver Parker's 1999 film adaptation
Wilde addressed the complexities around social purity in his most personal, and ironically titled, drama, An Ideal Husband, which had opened in January 1895 and closed in April at the time of his arrest. Again life and art intersect in the play when a successful public man’s career is threatened by the exposure of a messy private secret. Underpinning its frothy comedy of manners is a disturbing critique of the veneer of morality whereby the wife of an ambitious Member of Parliament expected all people, especially her flawless husband, to be always above reproach. When Gertrude learns that Robert reneged on a commitment he had made to denounce a canal scheme that he considers a financial scam, she upbraids him. “Other men” she says may have treated “life as a sordid speculation,” but he is different:

All your life you have stood apart from others. You have never let the world soil you. To the world, as to myself, you have been an ideal always. Oh! be that ideal still…men can love what is beneath them —things unworthy, stained, dishonoured. We women worship when we love; and when we lose our worship, we lose everything, Oh! don’t kill my love for you, don’t kill that.

Saturday 20 July 2013

The Godfather of National Socialism: Part Two

Houston Stewart  Chamberlain in his library
The rabid anti-Semitism in Houston Stewart Chamberlain's Foundations of the Nineteenth Century was reassuring to German readers, but it alone cannot explain its appeal. It does not account for the intense devotion of Kaiser Wilhelm who could write: “It was God who sent your book to the German people and you to me.” Emboldened by Chamberlain’s scientific and historical convictions, particularly that Christ was an Aryan the blustering Kaiser was convinced that his special destiny was the racial regeneration of his German subjects. Chamberlain nourished his paranoid fantasies, characterizing him as a man of action “like Siegfried who slew the dragon,” an image from which Wilhelm understood that “the tribe of Judah must be eradicated from German soil once and for all.” This process could be facilitated when Germany which would “rule the world” under the hierarchical direction of an absolute monarch and an aristocratic military elite. In a speech delivered at Bonn University in 1901, the Kaiser revealed how much he was intellectually indebted to Chamberlain when he stressed exclusive nationalism and racial purity. He postulated that the “essence of a nation is that it sets itself apart from the outside world.” Since “the personality of the Reich” was defined “by its particular racial characteristics, its full expression could not occur as long as Germans wasted energy in ‘cosmopolitan reveries.’”  

Friday 19 July 2013

The Godfather of National Socialism: Part One

This selection was originally designed to begin the chapter, "Blood Treason" in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2011 but was deleted for reasons of space.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain

Through his highly influential Foundations of the Nineteenth Century that interpreted the history of the West as a racial struggle, the expatriate Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain provided an ideological blueprint that inspired both Kaiser Wilhelm ΙΙ and Adolf Hitler. By selectively recasting Wagner’s prose to give it a more xenophobic and racist appearance, the “prophet of race” elevated the cachet of the Bayreuth cult. Chamberlain formulated a Germanic worldview without the master’s art and ambiguities, and most surprisingly, without a role for music drama. His writings, the product of descent into the miasma of Volkisch politics—that potent and seductive stew of rural nostalgia, anti-urbanism, racism, anti-intellectualism, ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and Teutonic Christianity with an Aryan Christ—provided an ideological bridge between the Second Empire under Wilhelm ΙΙ and National Socialism of the Third Reich. They also unconsciously reveal how Chamberlain resorted to Gothic tropes and conventions, notably the demonization of the other and the doppelganger, as a mechanism for externalizing his inner tumult by projecting it onto an external enemy—the Jews—and by weaving it into a phantasmagorical history.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Lenin wages war against dissidents

Lenin, for all his fanatical revolutionary zeal, was, however, a sinuous, pragmatic politician, who realized that the survival of the revolution was at stake when a majority of the population was so alienated. At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, he grimly informed the delegates of the danger threatening their Revolution: the war in the countryside posed a far greater threat than all the White generals combined. What made their situation particularly ominous was the accretion of a tidal wave of dissatisfaction in the urban areas among their former most devout supporters. Workers were increasingly deprived of food rations owing to the war in the countryside and the transport difficulty during winter snows. Fuel was in such short supply that inhabitants of Petrograd had to rip boards and timbers from barges sunk in the Neva River or wood from condemned houses. The water supply was completely contaminated so that all water had to be boiled. Families lived in one room, the water pipes cracked, water and filth leaked from faulty plumbing through the ceilings. Given the misery, the inhabitants described themselves as “The Troglodytes.” 

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Alexander Blok: The Poet and the Russian Revolution

Alexander Blok

 Originally designed as part of the chapter on the Russian Revolution,  in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013, this selection was deleted for reasons of  space.

The symbolist poet, Alexander Blok, whose own estate had been vandalized and later burned, initially embraced the October Revolution because he was interested in “the soul of the revolution.” But he believed it resided in the barbaric masses. From the destruction of the bourgeois mentality, with its focus on material comfort, status, and individual and family well-being, he believed a spiritual rebirth was possible. As Blok walked the streets, he would “listen to the music of the revolution” with all its stupidity, hooliganism and horror.

Beneath its outwardly unattractive surface, he detected a hopeful ambivalence that he expressed in the 1918 controversial poem “The Twelve.” He captured the strutting machismo of marauding young soldiers of the Red Guard, drunk on bravado as if on alcohol edging toward criminality as they shoot, loot and threaten to slit the throats of the bourgeoisie with: “Cap tilted, fag dripping, everyone/ Looks like a jailbird on the run!”
When one of the twelve young men kills his prostitute girlfriend in a jealous rage and begins to feel remorse, his companions berate him, equating emotional expression with unmanliness: 
                                         ‘Hey, Petey, shut your trap!
                                          Are you a woman?’
                                          ‘Are you a man, to pour
                                          Your heart out like a tap?’
                                          ‘Hold your head up!’
                                          ‘And take a grip!’

Sunday 14 July 2013

Manliness in late Victorian and Edwardian England

This selection was originally designed for my chapter on The Imperialist Impulse and its Costs in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2012 but was excluded for reasons of space.

Victorian rugby
The social construction of masculinity underwent a kaleidoscopic shift in the late nineteenth century. Where formerly power was based on respect rather than fear, and learning and sensitivity were valued (a la David Copperfield), after 1870 manliness was grounded in athletic prowess, physical courage and good form. To be manly was to be wary of any sign of emotional tenderness, cultivated affectation, or overdeveloped intellect in another man. The Greek body was still valued but in lieu of “the soul of a Christian knight,” there emerged an aggressive, muscular ethos that reflected a Darwinian assumption that life was intensely competitive among both one’s peers and between Britain and the rest of the world. Personal and imperial strength cohered as a result of struggle and the acquisition of a physical and mental toughness. Character took priority over intellect: grit and pluck could tackle any problem. Its resolution must above all avoid a pause for self-reflection because it suggested "morbid" soul searching and dithery inaction. Instead, team sports such as football and rugby were valued because they fostered fair play and sportsmanship, de rigueur for building character, the paramount goal of the public schools. Robert Baden–Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, wrote that football was “a grand game for developing a lad physically and morally, for he learns how to play with good temper and unselfishness, to play in his place and “play the game,” and these are best training for any game of life.”

Friday 12 July 2013

Zola and the Perils of Degeneration

Originally when I conceived of what turned out to be the first volume, That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2012 my intent was to compare the British discourse on degeneration with the French scientific community and its literary figures, but it was excised for reasons of space. The following selection is part of that discourse.

B. A. Morel (1809-73)
The work of certain medical practitioners, notably the French physician, Benedict Augustin Morel refracted the anxieties that beset Europe from the 1840s to the end of the First World War. Morel was convinced that "bad heredity" could have catastrophic effects for the future. As the chief medical officer at a lunatic asylum near Rouen, he was alarmed by the apparent increase in the number of cretins, alcoholics, and unfit military recruits. Appalled by the high infant mortality rate and the horrible living and working conditions of the dye workers in Rouen, which included work with noxious substances, he posited the idea of modern society being the source of certain poisons, exposure to which could result in lesions on the brain. The toxins included diseases, such as tuberculosis and syphilis; illnesses due to environmental industrial wastes and tainted food; injuries, such as accidental blows to the head; and substance abuse from tobacco, alcohol or drugs. He published a medical treatise on degeneration that connected heredity, environment and racial decline and believed that the origin of degeneration was rooted in defects acquired by one set of parents that were transmissible to succeeding generations. The symptoms of the first generation of the tainted family could be relatively mild but it was inevitable that it should pass through this “seed” to the next generation. Given his daily clinical contact with individuals suffering from alcohol abuse, the hereditary predisposition for Morel was compelling: “I receive insane patients daily [at the hospital], in whom I can trace back the origin of their malady to nothing else but the habitual intoxication of their parents.” With each set of new offspring, the dose of pathology promised to be magnified so that the extinction of families was guaranteed: within four generations of the original taint to madness, sterility or the guillotine was the inevitable end. 

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Hannah Arendt

 I highly recommend this article by Roger Berkowitz from The New York Times
 Berkowitz reviews the controversy surrounding the publication of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, the recent literature over it, including the recent film, Hannah Arendt and concludes that Arendt basically got it right but that she has been largely misunderstood. He writes, "The insight of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is not that Eichmann was just following orders, but that Eichmann was a “joiner.” In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” Eichmann was also a fanatical Nazi and anti-Semite: She emphasized that Eichmann took enormous pride in his initiative in deporting Jews and also in his willingness to disobey orders to do so, especially Himmler’s clear orders—offered in 1944 in the hope of leniency amid impending defeat—to “take good care of the Jews, act as their nursemaid.” In direct disobedience, Eichmann organized death marches of Hungarian Jews; as Arendt writes, he “sabotaged” Himmler’s orders. As the war ground to an end, as Arendt saw, Eichmann, against Himmler, remained loyal to Hitler’s idea of the Nazi movement and did “his best to make the Final Solution final.”

Another incisive commentary on the insights of Hanna Arendt appeared in The Globe and Mail on August 5th, 2013 by historian John Sainsbury. He reminds us that "evil can spread like a fungus [her metaphor] to smother national communities." She warns us against succumbing to ideologies—any ideology—because of its false claims to rational certainty." Furthermore, there is "no greater evil than the confident presumption of evil in others." The only effective antidote against evil is "individual thinking" and the willingness of individuals to speak out against it.

Interview with The Borgo Post, the Newsletter of the Canadian Chapter, Transylvanian Society of Dracula,

My thanks to Anne-Marie Finn at The Borgo Post, the Newsletter of the Canadian Chapter, Transylvanian Society of Dracula, for allowing me to reproduce this interview on my website.

On June 22, 2013, TSD Member Robert Douglas was at Chapters at Bay and Bloor, Toronto signing copies of his latest book That Line of Darkness Vol. II: The Gothic from Lenin to Bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013. I spoke to Bob via email and discussed the book signing and his two works:

Bob, I know you have interests in both history and the Gothic, but was there anything specific that inspired you to write Volume I?

When I was exploring the social responses to evolution, or to be more precise, devolution in Victorian England, I noted there was a plethora of academic and popular press material but little in naturalistic literature, apart from the highly contentious Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Rather it was the Gothic fictiona genre that examined the transgression of boundariesthat did speak to the issues that I was interested in: criminality, the dangerous foreigner, anti-Semitism, fear of the underclass, manliness, the changing role of women, miscegenation. But Gothic writers escaped public censure because they displaced these anxieties, their fiction not being “realistic.” For example, Stoker addressed several of these fears in Dracula; it could be read as an exploration of eugenics and the fear that British women would be tainted by foreign blood.

Monday 8 July 2013

The Perils of Writing about the Contemporary Middle East

To keep current with the tumultuous events in Egypt, I am providing at the conclusion of my article a number of  links to authors that offer perceptive views.

Mohammed Morsi

In the last few pages of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013, I expressed a few cautious statements about the 2012 Egyptian Presidential election of Mohamed Morsi and the Parliamentary victory of the Muslim Brotherhood that I thought would hold true for a few years. I thought they would attempt to govern and win support by being pragmatic. I was wrong. Inexperience, the seduction of power and ideology, and failure to grapple with the issues that the public regarded as urgent led to his downfall. By early July, 2013 the military deposed Morsi, arrested Brotherhood leaders, shutdown Islamist broadcasters and have installed an interim President, Adly Mansour, a Supreme Court judge (who could turn out to be little more than a footnote) with little political experience. In the largest demonstrations in the county's history, tens of thousands bayed for the removal and cheered the downfall of a freely-elected President. The military brokered a deal with representatives from a wide cross section of the population that included secularist liberals, Shiite Muslims,  the Christian Coptic pope, and perhaps most surprising, members of the al-Nour Party that consisted of the ultra-conservative Salafists who believe that a strict interpretation of Sharia law should apply to everyone. How did this coup come about and what are its implications not only for Egypt, the most populous and powerful country in the Middle East but for Islamists and democracy in there region?

Thursday 4 July 2013

The Dreyfus Affair

This selection was excluded from That Line of Darkness: Dracula's Shadow and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2012 because I decided to limit for reasons of space my discussion to Oscar Wilde. The original intent was to compare anti-Semitism in France during the Dreyfus Affair with homophobia in England during the Oscar Wilde trials.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew, an officer on the French General Staff, was arrested in October 1894 for treason as a German spy after the cleaner who emptied waste baskets at the German embassy in Paris found a bordereau or memorandum unsigned in which a French officer was willing to betray military secrets to the Germans and the official in charge of counter-espionage determined that the handwriting was that of Dreyfus. When news of his arrest and ethnic origin became public, it set off an angry tirade of anti-Semitic invective in the press. After a secret court–martial, the judges convicted on the basis of flimsy evidence. It consisted of the questionable document, dubious because the handwriting experts could not agree the purloined testimony of an officer who indicated that a “secret informer” had identified Dreyfus as the spy, and a secret dossier of “incriminating” evidence provided by the Minister of War. Having already publicly pronounced Dreyfus guilty before the trial, the Minister submitted these documents on the trial’s last day claiming they were so sensitive that a war would ensue if they were made public and therefore disallowed their release to the defence. Recognizing that these procedures constituted blatant violation of due process, the judges justified them on the grounds of national security. Because no details of the evidence for his conviction for high treason were available to the public, and the unanimous vote to court-martial him was undertaken by some of the country’s most respected military leaders, there was no reason at the time for the public or his later defenders to doubt his guilt. Dreyfus was subsequently publicly degraded and cashiered out of the army in the inner courtyard of the War College in a drum-head ceremony that involved breaking his sabre in front of him. The humiliation turned him into a “walking cadaver,” while a baying mob outside its gates howled for his physical extinction. For journalists who witnessed this “monster of evil,” his return to prison was “greeted by an immense relief. The air seemed purer, we breathed easier.” Within six weeks he was dispatched to serve a living death life sentence on the site of a former leper colony on Devil’s Island that was a remote tropical rocky strip of land off the coast of French Guiana in South America. The sole prisoner on the island, Dreyfus, who was forbidden to speak and constantly watched, was shackled, a punishment that lacerated his ankles when he was forced to sleep in an unchanging position. His only respite, and one that probably prevented him from going mad, was that he was allowed books to read and paper to write on.
The site where Dreyfus was confined on Devils Island

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Barrie’s Curse

This piece is an expanded version from what was to merely an endnote to my discussion about Peter Pan in the context of  the Great War in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War, Encompass Editions, 2012. I decided to focus entirely on the drama and not allude to Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family. That subject deserved an essay of its own. This piece appeared in Critics at Large June 10, 2013.

"May God blast anyone who writes a biography of me.”
– J. M. Barrie
James Barrie, 1910
Whatever celestial space James Barrie (1860-1937) currently occupies, the sprite would likely look kindly on Marc Forster’s 2004 film, Finding Neverland, a gauzy semi-biopic about himself that is based on the drama The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. After all, it is a celebratory idyll of innocent play and that began from his first meeting in Kensington Park in 1898 when Barrie captivated the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies with his gift for adventurous story telling. Time is telescoped in the film. As a short, hyperactive man with a thick mustache, sad eyes and a pipe-smoker’s cough, he certainly would have been pleased with the handsome, clean-shaven and boyish Johnny Depp who portrays him as a charming defender of the (four not five) boys and a gallant protector of their mother. Set circa 1904 when his imaginative games with the boys inspired him to stage his most famous production, Peter Pan, Barrie would have also endorsed the film’s sweet, sentimental tone as it skims across a bright Edwardian surface while ignoring the darker undercurrents and psychological perplexities that pervaded his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.