Monday 30 September 2013

The Retreat from Domesticity in Late Victorian Britain

This piece was originally to be part of the chapter on manliness  in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War Encompass Editions, 2012 but was  omitted  for reasons of space.

A shift in the wider social and imperial matrix contributed to a new construction of manliness in late Victorian England. Trends influencing the transformation of what it meant to be a ‘man’ included the middle class man’s rejection of domesticity, the backlash against feminism, and the adventurous opportunities provided by the empire that were reinforced by the institutions of the public school, the male club and the Boy Scouts. For most of the century, men enjoyed the power, material comforts and emotional satisfactions of being the paterfamilias. Indeed, a man’s masculine identity was tied not merely to his public or political role, but also to his place in the home where he could be fully human as he engaged in tending the hearth and his children. But after 1870 an increasing number of middle-class males questioned whether these latter dividends had made them less robust and perhaps even a little effete. If the home was his sanctuary, with his wife firmly ensconced and exalted in the domestic sphere, it could also be stifling, unfulfilling and dull as he submitted to the “tyranny of the five-o’clock tea.”

Domesticity for some men became dissociated from manliness and assumed a feminized character. The generation that grew up in the last quarter of the century increasingly disparaged everything feminine including the tender emotions.  Many men refused or postponed marriage because they considered it a straitjacket. Those, who outgrew the torrid, romantic, often unconsummated, relationships with other young men of their youth, often opted for celibacy and bachelorhood with its pleasures of intense homosocial contacts. Some gravitated to an emotional bonding with a younger man that was erotic in character; an increasing number chose same-sex relationships. For those that relented and did marry, family gatherings were secondary to the man’s retreat to his study or the ‘the smoking room’; home became a place to visit. After marriage, many continued to live a bachelor lifestyle, spending considerable time at their clubs enjoying the camaraderie of an all-male haven while denying their wives companionship and financial means. As fathers, they became more formal figures with stiff upper lips where “sentiment and self-examination were dismissed as “morbid”; to reveal inner pain, whether through tears or depression was a sign of weakness.”  At the same time, on occasion when he embodied “Father Christmas,” the generally remote dad could afford to be generous and indulgent and the fount of material largess. Despite these forays, marriage and domesticity, that had been the destiny of early Victorian men, became one option among several alternatives for men in the last third of the century.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Whistle Blowers: John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large 28 September 2013

“What the gods and all reasonable human beings fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”

—Toby Bell in A Delicate Truth

After publishing two murder mysteries under a pseudonym, John Le Carré wrote his acknowledged masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), set during the height of the Cold War only a few months after the Wall was erected, in which he constructed a bleak landscape of the shifting sands of counter-espionage in the secret intelligence world. What was so startling at the time was his challenge to the pasteboard heroes and villains exemplified in the James Bond highly romanticized espionage thrillers by Ian Fleming: that its agents did not stoop to amoral duplicity but promoted democratic values. In The Spy, loyalty was something transient while betrayal became more deeply entrenched. Even though preventing the spread of communism and the acquisition of its secrets were worthy goals, the murky double-dealings of British security increasingly resembled those of their Soviet enemy. Unsparing in its cynicism, the spymaster, Control, explains to the dispirited protagonist Alec Leamas: “We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive….We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night….Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.” The worst treachery in The Spy comes, not from the enemy, but from the British side. Leamas is sent, he believes, on an under-cover mission to avenge the death of his agents and to eliminate his East German counterpart, who is responsible for those deaths. But in fact Leamas is the unwitting tool of Control, who shows little more regard for human lives than the KGB in executing his machinations to recruit a ruthlessly efficient, anti-Semitic, ex-Nazi killer as a double agent. In the introduction to the fifth anniversary release of The Spy, Le Carré, aka David Cornwell, remembers with revulsion these unsavoury characters: “former Nazis with attractive qualifications weren't just tolerated by the Allies; they were positively mollycoddled for their anti-communist credentials.” In the end, the Circus (le Carré’s nickname for MI6) betrays Leamas and Liz, his lover, an idealistic member of the British Communist Party, who is also brutally and pitilessly used by both sides. Yet given the repressive nature of the Communist system, Le Carré seems to accept the view that collateral damage of the innocent was permitted so that British people can “sleep safely in their beds at night,” a worldview that is repeated more ruefully in the subsequent George Smiley espionage novels.
From the film The Spy Who Came into the Cold

Wednesday 25 September 2013

"Becoming Cultured" and Rewarding Competence in the Stalinist era

This selection could not be included in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) mostly for reasons of space and because it did not fit into the overarching thesis.

Becoming Cultured
During the Second Five Year Plan (1933-37) the government retreated ideologically from the previous plan by increasing the state budget for consumer goods, stressing pleasure and the importance of appearance. The concept of “becoming cultured” was an important component of acquiring a new identity. In contrast to the marginal strata that were deemed incorrigible, the goal of acquiring culture was designed to appeal to the new class composed of those originally working class and peasant men and women who were the beneficiaries of spectacular promotions. Stalin legitimized this trend with the motto in 1935 that “life has become better comrades. Life has become better.” But if people were entitled to a higher standard of living, they needed to undergo an external and internal transformation. Because peasants, the detritus of the atavistic past, were unhygienic, it was believed that they could not be cultured New Soviet Persons unless they kept their body clean and wore fresh underwear. To facilitate this process, the traditional public bathhouse evolved into partitioned public space equipped with showers. Beards were cut off and men were encouraged to regularly shave and wear clean shirts and creased trousers. Women were encouraged to wear makeup and both men and women were encouraged to dress smartly. Repudiating the puritan ethos of the revolutionary era, the state declaimed it was no longer decadent to wear silk stockings, jewelry and evening gowns. Although Stalin could always be seen wearing a field jacket and boots, the old military attire was giving way to civilian dress among ordinary citizens. The gifts and access to comfortable apartments awarded to model or shock workers was a tacit acknowledgment that the acquisition of material goods was an integral component of becoming civilized. The growing attention to personal hygiene was related to the impulse in the workplace to eliminate inefficiencies and carelessness and become a model worker; the assumption was that conduct in private life was connected to how the individual performed in his public and work life.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Stations: The Espionage Novels of David Downing

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large 
Novelist and historian, David Downing, offers a powerful evocation of Berlin from 1939 to 1948 in six engrossing novels (each title the name of a continental train station) from the last year of peace before the outbreak of war to when the city became a flashpoint for the Cold War. Zoo Station, (Soho Crime, 2007) introduces John Russell, a British citizen, who’s been living and working in Berlin for fifteen years as a freelance journalist. His life as a foreigner with strong German connections presents personal dilemmas. His son, Paul, by his German ex-wife (who went on to marry a Nazi), is an active member of the Hitler Youth, and his lover, Effi Koenen, is a talented young actress making a comfortable living appearing in state-sanctioned plays and films under the auspices of Joseph Goebbels which serve as a cover for her anti-Nazi beliefs.

Another conundrum that Russell faces is how to respond to Soviet overtures. While in Danzig (today’s Gdansk, Poland), Russell is approached by a mysterious Soviet agent, Shchepkin, who asks if Russell would be willing to write some pro-Nazi feature stories for the leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda since the Soviet leadership is interested in pursuing a non-aggression pact with the Führer, and these articles could help to prepare the Soviet citizenry for such an about-face alliance. This proposal is just one of the moral quandaries facing Russell given his awareness of the kindertransport of Jewish children, and the intimidation of Jewish citizens, the pillaging of their homes and the fatal beatings of their relatives in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Campas a journalist he visits the camp to briefly interview a badly beaten inmateby Nazi thugs. Conflicted with being a well-paid propagandist for the Sovietshe was once a communist, and though he still retains his vision of a humane and more equitable world, he has long shed his illusions about the capacity of the Soviet Union to deliver itand what he sees around him in Germany, Russell questions how he can maintain his integrity, keep his family safe from harm and provide humanitarian assistance to Jewish friends. His decision to work for the Soviets is a Faustian bargain that unfolds throughout the subsequent novels. A journalist, whose work can provide the cover for a spook, and his linguistic skillshe is fluent in German and Russianrender Russell an attractive recruiting target for the different national spy agencies. His response to these myriad pressures, that tests his courage, survival skills and his humanity, is a thick thread woven throughout the series.

Monday 23 September 2013

Khrushchev as protégé of Stalin

 The following selection was deleted from That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions 2013) because it  did not fit in the overarching thesis of the book and for reasons of space. 

The decision of the Party to create its own worker and peasant intelligentsia resulted in a wave of panic among the “bourgeois” intellectual elite. Workers and peasants, who fled the holocaust of the countryside, before passports were reintroduced, took advantage of the Party’s affirmative action program that gave preferential treatment to students from their respective backgrounds. As a professor of classical studies, Olga Freidenberg, relates how she was pressured by Stalinist dolts at the University of St. Petersburg to raise the grades of children of blue-collar students while lowering the grades of the offspring of white-collar students, an imposition she refused. As a woman of uncommon intelligence and cultivated sensibility, she smarted when faced with the uncouth young men who came from the countryside and towns to the city. Once they mastered “Party slogans, newspaper jargon [and] the bare bones of Marxism,” they could “assume the role of bosses and dictators,” who then “with untroubled consciences…could teach scholars what to think.”

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Why the Shoah Happened

The following piece was originally intended to be included in the epilogue of  That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013). A few paragraphs survived in a slightly different form in the concluding part of the German section and in the epilogue. But for reasons of space, most of it did not survive the editing process.

The unfolding of these monstrously criminal actions that killed more than ten million civilians, about half of them Jews, emanated from a delusional ideology about blood purity and Nordic superiority that was born in the late nineteenth century, became a mainstream worldview in Germany after the Great War, and was harnessed by the homicidal fantasies of Hitler and his paladins during the Third Reich. In January 1939, speaking at the Reichstag, Hitler threatened the annihilation of the Jewish race as the just punishment if they should ever start a war against Germany. His engineering of the outbreak of war six months later, and particularly in its most virulent form in the East when he ordered in June 1941 the attack on the Soviet Union, signalled his decision to initiate the redemptive battle for salvation of Aryan humanity against “Jewish-Bolshevism.” Although one recent study suggests that once America entered the war in early December, Hitler resolved to “make a clean sweep” of the Jews,  but most historians argue that he made the decision to order the Final Solution sometime earlier in the fall of 1941. Unlike the other enemies, therefore, in this existential crusade, he ordered that all members of every family be eliminated not for what they did but because of who they were. 

With the willing participation of both zealous Nazis, inculcated with a hatred for an alien ideology, and unremarkable men who killed for a variety of reasons, Hitler justified the struggle as a scientific racist crusade to exterminate World Jewry. One of its most reviled manifestations was the menacing presence of the Soviet Union. Support for the Germans from enthusiastic local contingents, particularly systematic mass murder. In Lithuania alone, between one-half and two-thirds of its Jews, about 140,000, were murdered by indigenous Lithuanian forces. 
the Shoah in Lithuania

If the police battalions and civilians who collaborated or were allies, by seizing Jews from their hiding, clubbing them to death in a frenzied pogrom-like manner or burning them alive, believed they would ingratiate themselves with their overseers, they were rudely mistaken. When Hans Frank, the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland was interviewed by an Italian war correspondent, who was distressed by the massacre of seven thousand Jews by Romanians, Frank fabricated a veneer of sympathy: “The Romanians are not a civilized people.” The Germans, however, Frank smugly noted were a civilized people “who are guided by reason and method and not by bestial instincts; [they] always act scientifically.” The occupiers believed that the Baltic peoples, particularly Latvians, possessed Slavic blood, rationalized their economic exploitation and social segregation so that they would not contaminate Germans. Likewise, Ukrainians, especially in the cities, were reduced to near starvation while food was shipped to German troops. The Germans did not dispel fears that once the Jews were exterminated Slavic peoples would be next. 

Saturday 14 September 2013

The Maggie Hope Mysteries: A British Spy During World War Two

This review originally appeared in Critics At Large 


Whenever historical and fictional characters interact, the reader must suspend judgement about the truthfulness of the novel. Dialogue will largely be invented as novelists engage their imagination to explore beyond what is in the historical record without violating that record. The reader is looking for authenticity and plausibility. Does the novel, regardless of how compelling the plot and interesting the characters, accurately convey the spirit of the times? These musings came to mind after reading Susan Elia MacNeal’s, absorbing Maggie Hope trilogy (with at least two more in the works) especially the first, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (Bantam Books 2012), and the second, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy (2012).

Maggie is a very engaging character: smarter than almost all the men around her, spirited, and strong willed, if a tad naïve, with a determination to succeed “in a man’s world.” She is a math prodigy and saddled with an unusual family pedigree. Believing that both of her British parents died in a car accident when she was very small, Maggie was raised in America by her aunt Edith who works as a scientist for Wellesley College where Maggie has graduated with top marks in math. She delays her doctoral studies at MIT to go to London in 1940 to sell a house that she had recently inherited. Unable to sell it, she takes in roommates to defray the expenses, a decision that will have momentous significance as the plot unfolds. Since these novels fall within the mystery genre, it should not be a surprise that her parents are very much alive, and one of the pleasures of these books is to discover with Maggie their current identity and the pivotal role they will play in her life.

Sunday 8 September 2013

J. M. Barrie as polemicist

This selection was originally to be included in my discussion of J. M Barrie and Peter Pan in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) but was excluded for reasons of space.

J . M. Barrie

Barrie’s celebrated evocation of Edwardian childhood, Peter Pan, completely overshadows his underwhelming play Der Tag. Written without passion but with a sense of duty once war had been declared, this one-act morality play is basically a dialogue between the German Emperor and the Spirit of Culture (“a noble figure in white robes”) in which the latter attempts to dissuade the former from provoking a war. When she exits, the chastened Emperor tears up the declaration of war and falls into a dream in which Reims is bombarded and the centers of learning are destroyed. But this was the reality: the dream was his noble refusal to go to war. Culture re-enters and rebukes him for his crime reminding him that England had “grown degenerate, but you have made her great again.” She hands him a dagger and leaves. The curtain falls leaving the Emperor alone in the shadows.

Friday 6 September 2013

The British Declare War on Germany

The following selection was excised from That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) for reasons of space.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
That Britain declared war at all was not a foregone conclusion until August 4th. Unknown to the Foreign Office, momentous decisions were transpiring behind closed doors in Vienna and Berlin that would draw Britain into the vortex of war. Austria, who had been increasingly roiled by Serbian nationalism, started drafting a memorandum to destroy Serbia two weeks before the murder of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo on June 28. The assassination was a fortuitous occasion for Austria because it now possessed a pretext for the invasion of Serbia that it had craved and, equally important, the Austrian high military command received a blank check from Kaiser Wilhelm, meaning that Germany would unconditionally support Austria in whatever measures it took to punish Serbia. 

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Cholera as a Disease and a Gothic Metaphor

Edwin Chadwick
The following selection was intended to be part of the chapter "Fear and Loathing" in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) but was excised for reasons of space.

Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 The Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain was published in response to a devastating cholera epidemic, a ghastly disease that through convulsive vomiting and diarrhea could consume the body within twelve hours. Although by the 1870s it was known that cholera was transmitted from the germs of diseased people and the ingestion of contaminated water, the dominant theory of the time, tenaciously ascribed to by Chadwick and other luminaries such as Florence Nightingale, was that miasma (the effluvium from putrefying matter) was the source of the disease. His anti-contagion hypothesis postulated that the stench redolent of “poisonous exhalations,” emanating from decaying open cesspools, garbage, twelve feet dung heaps, rotting dead rats, and the filth floating in the river could be dissipated with the removal of the animal, vegetable and human filth. Combine the ventilation of homes with the fixing of the drains and disease would ‘almost entirely disappear’ and destitution along with it. Chadwick warned that unless this faith was adopted, England would be confronted with “natives of an unknown country,” a large section of the working population inhabiting this abysmal environment. A magistrate substantiated his words by musing that if empty caskets were placed on the streets, they would soon be occupied “by a race lower than any yet known.” Chadwick particularly singled out the racially alien Irish for their intractable dirtiness and associated them with disease, criminality and political subversion. According to one historian, the cumulative effect of these sentiments was the dehumanization of a section of the population. Since “the condition was so much worse than the reader could presumed to have witnessedhence the unknown country metaphorthe report had the effect of reducing the natives of that unknown country to the status of foreigners or worse savage’ and animals.

Monday 2 September 2013

Henry Mayhew's Non-Fiction Foray into the Gothic

In the following,  I compare the journalist Henry Mayhew's mid-nineteenth century anthropological account of  the costermongers or food hawkers to Bram Stoker's description of his vampires in Dracula. The selection was not included in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) for reasons of space. The concluding paragraph was added for this piece.

In 1851 Henry Mayhew, journalist, satirist and occasional actor published his compilation of articles gathered during the 1840s for his social survey report that he titled London Labour and the London Poor. Motivated by yet another cholera epidemic, Mayhew accented the parasitical nature of the street people. Based upon open-ended questionnaires, his report combined a genuine sympathy for the outcast poor and vivid degenerationist language. When he compared the street folk of London to “wandering tribes” of Africa, he employed a proto-Lombrosian emphasis on physiognomy. He distinguished the "broad lozenge–shaped faces” and “organs subservient to sensation and the animal faculties,” of the nomad with the civilized man’s oval-shaped head signifying those who “depend mainly on their knowledge…for the necessities and comforts of life.” The wanderer in contrast to the civilized man was characterized by his “repugnance to regular and continuous work…his extraordinary powers of enduring privationhis comparative insensibility to pain…[his] disregard of female honour[his] love of cruelty.”  

Sunday 1 September 2013

The Unrepentant Leni Riefenstahl

Posted: 31 Aug 2013 10:13 AM PDT This review originally appeared in Critics at Large
“The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.”

– George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”

In 1974 Susan Sontag wrote a two-part widely read and controversial essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” that was prompted by the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic book about the Nubian people in the Sudan. Although acknowledging that the images were “ravishing,” Sontag was disturbed about the “disquieting lies” Riefenstahl was peddling about her life – some were included in the book’s dust jacket – at a time when her cinematic output was being de-contextualized at film festivals and museum retrospectives. The former Nazi propagandist was celebrated by some feminists – especially problematic since Riefenstahl had never been concerned about the condition of women, only her own career – and celebrities from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol who admired her creativity. Sontag set out to rebuke Riefenstahl’s rewriting of her personal history, and to define and condemn what she called “fascist aesthetics” arguing that her early mountain films, her documentaries made during the Third Reich, which Sontag acknowledged as “superb films,” and the Nuba photographs constituted a “triptych of fascist visuals.” My purpose is to critique what Sontag got right and to demonstrate that Ray Müller’s highly praised 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, rather than clarifying Riefenstahl’s misrepresentations, ends up largely affirming them.