Thursday 31 October 2013

The racism of Arthur de Gobineau

The following piece was originally designed to be included in the chapter on Wagner in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) but was excluded because we felt the chapter would be too long and that the material, although interesting, was more of a byway than essential for understanding Richard Wagner. I think this profile works better on its own.

Arthur de Gobineau

Among the thinkers influencing Richard Wagner was a failed dramatist and poet turned French diplomat, Arthur de Gobineau, whose writings underscored the cultural pessimism that characterized so much of nineteenth-century polemics. Already bitter about the loss of prestige of the nobility, the rise of the “philistine” bourgeoisie with its power of money and the influence of the “mob” since the French Revolution of 1789, Gobineau’s worst fears were confirmed by the Revolutions of 1848 that originated in France and spread their tentacles throughout Europe. These convulsive upheavals destroyed the old aristocratic order with its reverence for political elites, hierarchical social orders and family lineage. Doubts about his own aristocratic background drove Gobineau to idealize the Aryan nobility as a surrogate for his own origins. 

Turning to history, he argued in his four-volume magnum opus Essay on the Inequality of Races, that race or blood was the decisive factor in determining the vitality of a civilization. He accepted the existing racial hierarchy of blacks at the bottom who possessed animal passion but had limited intellectual and moral faculties, yellows who sought material satisfactions but otherwise were mediocre, and whites with “an energetic intelligence” that sustained their love of freedom and order and honour. He further distinguished within the white category the super-elite of Aryans with superior blood. The Aryan, that originally poured down from the Hindu Kush, “by virtue of his intelligence and his energy” was superior to other men, and for a time was uncontaminated by other races and debased Whites. His survey of ten civilizations purportedly demonstrated that a white Aryan race, originating in Central Asia, was responsible for the creation of civilizations culminating in Charlemagne’s Europe with its Teutonic and Frankish warriors. History, he said, “shows us that all civilizations derive from the white race, which none can exist without its help,” and “a society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble group that created it.” But this Aryan race, too, found itself abutted to the conquered peoples and inevitably succumbed to miscegenation. Gobineau wrote that over the centuries, promiscuous interbreeding with inferior races led to the slow debilitation of the noble race, and Europe was in decline because “the blood of the civilizing race is gradually drained away.” 

Wednesday 30 October 2013

A Deadly War Waged Between Flesh and Spirit: Part Two

The following was originally designed as a complete chapter in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great (Encompass Editions, 2012) but was deleted for reasons of space. This piece has been slightly revised and hopefully enriched owing to the insights offered by Bernard J. Paris A General Drama of Pain: Character and Fate in Hardy's Major Novels, ( New Brunswick [U.S.A.] Transaction Publishers, 2012).

Whether sexuality per se was the decisive factor that was responsible for her downward spiral into a tormented self-destructiveness is problematic. There is some truth that her intellectual development runs parallel to her emotional involvement with the undergraduate student, the older Phillotson and Jude, but that “sexuality is a destructive, divisive force wrecking the relationship and threatening the precarious balance in her life between her intellectual adventurousness and her sexual reserve.” Hardy’s contemporary, Sarah Grand expressed similar sentiments when asked her opinion of Jude: “As for Sue, it would have been a good thing if someone had explained to her that she was not of the right constitution to marry. She was one of "Nature’s Nuns," a morbid type that is being developed among us.” As long as sexuality was defined by its obligations to marriage and motherhood, these views are completely understandable. Yet it only becomes a destructive force through its association with maternity. With the undergraduate student, she did not want a sexual relationship with him because she did not love him. Although she blames herself for his death, his suicide can hardly be attributed to sexuality being a “destructive, divisive force.” With the stolid Phillotson, she feels revulsion about a relationship with him; what she wants is a paternal protector to re-establish something with her father that had been damaged. Despite her sexual reserve and resistance with Jude, she does experience the occasional of intimacy with him before she is required to cope with the pressures of raising children and contend with a chilling social climate. Whereas in the Gothic genre sexuality usually connotes depredation or disease, in Jude until the tragedy occurs, the sexual dimension is but one facet of the struggle between Jude and Sue as they attempt to develop an adult relationship.

Sue’s difficulties are flagged early in the novel not because she flaunts her unconventional opinions and critical faculties: the problem lies more in her inability to integrate an ideological worldview into the core of her being. True, she appears as a militant critic of the institution of marriage itself when Sue says to Jude that marriage is “based on material convenience in house holding, rating and taxing, and inheritance of land and money by children.” Like the few feminists in the real world of the 1890s would have done who were mainly seeking civic and legal rights and greater economic opportunities. But the reason for this outburst must be placed in context of the particular occasion. She has just been recently married to Phillotson, a rash decision she makes to punish Jude for his admission that years ago, he imprudently married Arabella, and her political critique is her way of expressing her current personal unhappiness and her deep-seated fears. What this accurate but emotionally charged feminist analysis provides for her is a necessary rationalization and defense against powerful chaotic feelings that seethed within, including her ambivalent feelings about sexuality. In a moment of astonishing self-revelation and insight, she tells Jude that “I am not really Mrs. Richard Phillotson but a woman tossed about, all alone, with aberrant passions, and unaccountable antipathies.” Though formidably articulate and skeptical, rather than a representative of the New Woman, she is very much more an emotionally young, brittle woman, apprehensive of the consequences of sexuality and incapable of appreciating at times the feelings of others.

Monday 28 October 2013

A Deadly War Waged Between Flesh and Spirit: Part One

The following was originally designed as a complete chapter in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great (Encompass Editions, 2012) but was deleted for reasons of space. This piece has been slightly revised and hopefully enriched because of the insights offered by Bernard J. Paris A General Drama of Pain: Character and Fate in Hardy's Major Novels, ( New Brunswick [U.S.A.] Transaction Publishers, 2012).

                       I lock the door upon myself.
                       And bar them out; but who shall wall
                       Self from myself, most loathed of all?
                       Christina Rossetti, 1891
When Hardy published Jude the Obscure in 1895, reviewers roundly reviled it for its sexual explicitness, and for his portrayal of Sue Bridehead as a “poor maimed degenerate, ignorant of herself and of the perversions of her instincts.” The New York Bookman regarded it as “one of the most objectionable books that we have ever read in any language whatsoever.” Hardy, who was so stung by the criticism, did not write another novel in the last thirty years of his life. Few books could compare with the firestorm ignited by Jude

That year did mark the beginning of a more conservative, indeed repressive climate. The hysteria generated by the Oscar Wilde trials contributed to the backlash for reasserting conventional attitudes toward sex and marriage. Hardy’s ostensible attack on the institution of marriage and social mores was bound to elicit visceral, pejorative responses, particularly since he does not pathologize Sue. In a multi-layered portrait, she is by turns intellectually ambitious and socially unconventional, brittle and captious, vulnerable and almost childlike, a woman who found it easy to stress the faults of others. What most disturbed contemporary readers was the horrific murder of two young children by a child who subsequently commits suicide. This “phantasmagoric eruption” occurs in what is ostensibly a naturalistic novel. Perhaps had Hardy written his tale in the Gothic genre, even though there are incipient elements of that genre present, the horror could have been accepted with a little more equanimity. Moreover, it was published at a time when the eugenics movement was urging intelligent women to bear children and the purity movement was stressing the general “promotion of public morals” and discouraging birth control and abortion. But external forces are secondary to his exploration of the damaged personalities of both Sue and her first cousin, Jude Fawley, which has far more to do with the ensuing tragedy. 

Thursday 24 October 2013

Concentric Circles in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels

I include the following review that was posted in Critics at Large, which I wrote on the novels of Sara Paretsky,  is relevant to this website because her latest, Critical Mass, links the present to the prewar years in Vienna and the early Cold War, subjects that are explored in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, (Encompass Editions, 2013).
Posted: 23 Oct 2013 12:46 PM PDT
“No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest.”

P. D. James, Talking about Crime Fiction

Anyone primarily interested in a whodunit crime novel may not find it in the writer Sara Paretsky. In her long-standing series that made its debut in 1982 with Indemnity Only introducing the female protagonist V. I. Warshawski, dead bodies do appear regularly but the identity of the perpetrator is rarely the novels’ most compelling feature.When a murder does occur early, for example in Body Work (2010) and the accused is an Iraqi veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress after the rest of his unit was killed in a firefight, Warshawski is also hired by the young man’s parents to prove his innocence. The tough, sharp-tongued but compassionate private sleuth is frequently engaged by clients to investigate a person’s disappearance. 

The impression from reading these novels is that the resolution of the mystery constitutes the most inner circle, one that is surrounded by a series of other circles including Warshawski’s personal life and her commitment to address social injustices. Finally, and, most interestingly, is the historical circle in which she connects the present to the past, which is found in a number of Paretsky’s later novels, especially her most recent, Critical Mass (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013). The historical arc, which provides greater depth and resonance, should not surprise since she has a PhD in history from the University of Chicago.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Deprivation, crime and repression in the Stalinist era

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.

For those workers, who were not Stakhanovites,(highly productive workers who exceeded their quotas) resentment toward the regime festered as the pressures in their work lives increased. Since 1928, the labour unions had lost all bargaining power; instead they became enforcers of labour discipline in the fight against loafing and absenteeism. This translated into a focus on speed ups in production, over-strain on the machinery, ignoring the dangerous conditions of work and bypassing safety precautions in order to achieve target quotas. Macho managers acting like “little Stalins” would bark orders, bully, intimidate and hurl obscenities, anything it would take to satisfy their superiors in the hierarchical structure of a command economy. According to one of Stalin’s closest associates in the Politburo, the sycophantic Lazar Kaganovich, “the earth should tremble when the director is entering the factory.” Often alienated by their managers, workers also experienced a deepening sense of betrayal as punitive worker codes were introduced in the late 1930s to punish any lateness, drunkenness and absenteeism with dismissal (and the removal of ration cards). In 1940 these offences were criminalized and thousands of offenders, including Communist party members, were sent to work camps. A rash of suicides followed some leaving suicide notes behind expressing their distress at being sent to a work camp for being late often because of queuing for essentials or being drunk.  But as trying as life was at work, even if the worker did not violate the labor codes, it was exacerbated by his difficulty in securing the basic necessities of life.

Monday 21 October 2013

Charles Booth: Victorian sociologist

The following selection was not included in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) for reasons of space and because it did not fit into the overarching thesis

Charles Booth
In contrast to the imprecision and shock-horror “Africanizing” of the East End that marred William Booth’s In Darkest England was the dispassionate East London, the first volume of the Life and Labour of the People in London, published in 1889 by the CEO and sociologist Charles Booth.  Completed in seventeen volumes over a thirty-year period, he was preoccupied more with a scientific diagnosis “a getting at the facts” than with remedies. Considered to be the father of social science, he commissioned, with the precision of a military operation, detailed street maps. A team of investigators coloured every street to denote the degree of poverty and the existence of a criminal element. They combined statistics with observation, sometimes indirectly, by relying more on the impressions of school officials than their own. Since the depression of the previous decade had lifted and with it the fear of insurrection, he and his workers were able to walk about freely in the East End, often accompanied by the bobby of the local beat.

One of the strengths of Charles Booth’s work was that it challenged the exaggerations and misconceptions of his namesake’s account. He presented evidence that in only fourteen percent of the “very poor,” drink, thriftlessness, and neglect of children were primary causes of poverty. He found these problems more a consequence of poverty than a cause. He also demonstrated that drunkenness ceased to be a major social problem given the licensing laws and the influence of the temperance movement. He did confirm that poverty was a major social problem, more serious than his original perception, with thirty-five percent of Londoners living on or below the poverty line, but that many gradations existed within the poor. According to Booth, Class A was the lowest class and included loafers and semi-criminals; Class B included the very poor living on casual labour; Class E and F included artisans and shopkeepers who lived above the poverty line. He revealed a complex constellation of the urban poor.

Saturday 19 October 2013

The blood libel

The following piece was omitted from That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) for reasons of space.

The blood libelthe totally irrational and groundless belief that Jews murdered Christian children and mixed their fresh blood into the matzoh and/or wine for magical and redemptive purposes to celebrate the Passoverhas a long history in England. It originated in a pogrom in 1144 after a Jew was charged with the ritual murder of a child. About one hundred and fifty years later it was prominently featured in the Prioress’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales even though Jews had been expelled from England for generations. The Prioress passionately recounts the tale of a heinous crime: a child’s throat is cut and the body thrown into a cesspit used by Jews to purge their bowels. Because the "damnable race" is cursed, and justice demanded "the blood cries upon your fiendish crime," the Jewish perpetrators were torn apart by horses and hanged according to law. Later, during the Renaissance, when it was widely held that Jewish males menstruated, the blood libel ritual was touted as providing Christian blood to replenish that lost in menstruation. The Jews, therefore, shared with the Irish the stigma of being classified as ‘essentially feminine’ and bearing the taint for being a physically degenerative influence.

Later in 1840, after a friar Father Tomaso and his servant disappeared without a trace in Damascus, the blood libel charge resurfaced, leading to an inquisitorial de facto trial of prominent members of the Jewish community including rabbis. Under brutal torture four men died: reportedly, one of them as a result of five thousand lashes. Other confessions extracted under torture were offered as evidence, and ten of the accused awaited execution after being declared guilty by the Islamic viceroy of Egypt who controlled Greater Syria.  The physical threat to Jews in Damascus, and the temporary seizure of sixty-three Jewish children as hostages, so as to pressure their parents to reveal the location of the stored blood, transformed a local matter into an international cause celebre. What drove the months of interrogation was the support of most members in the European consular community in Syria. The French consul in particular remained convinced of the Jews’ guilt, both that they were murderers and that human sacrifice was an integral part of Judaism. The English consul reported to his superior, foreign secretary, Palmerston, that the Jews were unquestionably guilty. Notwithstanding power struggles in the region and his support of the Sultan in Constantinople over his subordinate in Alexandria, Palmerston, repelled by the accusation and the tenor of irrationality surrounding the case, officially denounced the blood libel allegation.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

The Opening Stages of the War

The following selection was not included in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) because it did not fit into the overarching thesis and for reasons of space.

Schlieffen Plan
The war in the west began when Moltke, with certain variations, put into operation a decade-old memorandum, the Schlieffen Plan in order to achieve a quick and overwhelming victory over France. It would be an all-enveloping attack that would involve the mobilization of three armies constituting the right wing that would sweep through Belgium and across northwestern France outflanking the enemy and turning around Paris from the west and pinning the French forces from behind against their eastern fortresses. A weaker left wing of two armies would be deployed to the east in order to resist an expected offensive from France that would attempt to liberate the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost in 1870. Within six weeks, his plan was that the British, whom he assumed would intervene, and a French contingent could be bottled up in Belgium while the main French force would be crushed in Lorraine by a German pincer that would result in knocking the French out of the war.

In this way, Germany could avoid a two-front war as most of its army could be transported east to reinforce the two divisions that had been in a defensive position against the Russians whom they believed would be slow to mobilize because of the logistics of poor transportation and the vast distances within its Empire. Although the German army marched within thirty miles of Paris, the city did not collapse despite the panic retreat of 700,000 civilians that included its government and entire civil service to Bordeaux.  One reason was that, contrary to all expectations, the Russians attacked East Prussia driving the Germans forces temporarily back and occupying briefly two-thirds of the province while driving refugees westward as they plundered and burned villages. Moltke, who would himself become a casualty of the Schlieffen failure when Wilhelm sacked him, panicked and shipped 60,000 men from his right flank to the Eastern Front. His decision was a pivotal one because it might have prevented the Germans from successfully defeating the French. It was not even welcomed by the new commander of the First Army in the East, General Ludendorff. Ironically, the Russians, who were forced to retreat from East Prussia after the German First Army regrouped, profitably served German propaganda as it could claim that Germany was fighting a defensive war against a barbaric Slavic invasion.