Wednesday 31 December 2014

Two Historical Novels (Part Two): Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large  December 28. I include on this site because in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) I wrote briefly in the first of my concluding epilogues about the terrible effects of how the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union affected the Soviet citizens already bludgeoned by the horrors of Stalinism.

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1941. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

The first part of this piece which begins with Bob's review of Sean Michaels' Us Conductors, a novel about Leon Theremin was published here on Critics at Large on December 14. The piece continues here with a look at Sarah Quigley's 2011 novel, The Conductor.

While Leon Theremin was working in the relative safety of a sharashka (a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system), the Nazis surrounded Leningrad and cut its links with the outside world. The goal was to erase the city, in Hitler’s words, “from the face of the earth." The epic of the Nazis’ 900-day encirclement was a time of unimaginable horror: air-strikes raining down; bodies, often dismembered, frozen in the snow; neighbour distrusting neighbour; and people feeding on glue, sawdust, leather, dogs and cats, while others resorted to cannibalism. Most people attempted to subsist on less than one slice of purloined bread a day. Hunger alone killed 800,000 people by the time the Germans retreated.

Conductor Karl Eliasberg (standing, right) in Leningrad in 1942
In a move that pays testament to art’s power to serve as a weapon and lift the human spirit, Dmitri Shostakovich was charged with composing a piece to represent a defiant Leningrad. But since the Soviet authorities considered the composer too important and known in the West to be killed, he and his family were transported out of the city after having completed only two movements of what became known as the "Leningrad Symphony." Likewise, the city's Philharmonic Orchestra had already been evacuated; it was left to the smaller Leningrad Radio Orchestra, conducted by Karl Eliasberg, to perform Shostakovich's powerful response to the German invasion (a copy of the completed score had been dropped into the besieged city from a light aircraft). And, on 9 August 1942, his new Seventh Symphony was performed by an emaciated makeshift orchestra in a concert hall within the besieged city. The accompanying photograph shows the players wearing layers and gloves cut off at the fingers in a concert hall where the temperature was 75 degrees F. The cold bodies were a symptom of starvation. Loudspeakers relayed the music to the frontline, to be heard by both Russian and German soldiers. In the 1997 documentary, The War Symphonies: Shostakovich against Stalin, survivors who attended that performance spoke movingly about how the music demonstrated the power of the spirit over matter, that despite their starvation, their spirits were nourished. The galvanizing performance and the wider context of the siege and the Eastern Front are brilliantly explored by Brian Moynahan in Leningrad: Siege and Symphony (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). He quotes Eliasberg at the end of the performance: “The whole city had found its humanity. And in that moment we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.” Moynahan adds, “The performance in the martyred city is perhaps the most magnificent, and certainly the most moving, moment ever to be found in music.”

Monday 15 December 2014

Two Historical Novels (Part One): Sean Michaels' Us Conductors

This piece was originally published on Critics At Large and I reproduce it on this website because the subject of this novel was a Russian scientist who was not only an inventor but a spy who passed on corporate secrets to the Soviet intelligence services yet ended up in the Gulag, a subject I dealt with at length in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013.)

Leon Theremin poses with one of his inventions.

There are two schools of thought regarding the writing of historical novels. The first and the most widespread belief is that the novelist should not knowingly violate the historical record but should use his or her imagination to consider what might have happened when no documentary evidence exists. This might include the invention of fictional characters that are in a position to observe and recount the expressed feelings of historical actors; a writer can enter into their minds or flesh out the personalities and biographies of individuals when there is little historical documentation. The novelist in short can enter a domain from which the historian is excluded. Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (HarperCollins, 2011), the story of the preparation for the first Leningrad performance in 1942 of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the besieged city, exemplifies this literary tradition and will be discussed in a subsequent review.

A second perspective is that the novelist has every right to pick and discard from the historical record whenever it suits his purposes. Sean Michaels, a Montreal-based author who founded the music blog, Said the Gramophone, and the 2014 winner of the Giller prize for fiction for his debut novel, Us Conductors (Random House Canada), illustrates this iconoclastic approach. In his Author’s Note, Michaels explicitly acknowledges that his novel about the Russian engineer, physicist and inventor, Leon Theremin is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies,” making it difficult for the reader to know where the truth ends and the lies and omissions begin unless one reads Albert Glinsky’s Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (which Michaels recommends for anyone who wants an accurate rendering of the life of Leon Theremin). Theremin is most famous for the invention that bears his name: an electrical musical instrument played by moving one's hands in the space between two antennae, one hand controlling the pitch, the other the volume. The theremin, forerunner of the synthesizer, was often used in soundtracks for science fiction films because of its other worldly sound, and an advanced version was used in the Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations.” I would recommend Steven M. Martin’s documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey and the CBC radio documentary “Out of Thin Air." The former highlights the theremin’s cultural applications and provides archival and the then-current 1993 footage of Theremin himself. The latter explains how the theremin operates and we hear some wonderful offerings by Clara Rockmore in YouTube performances and from a modern theremist. Most readers are unlikely to read the biography, or watch the film which does contain historical inaccuracies and omissions – or may not even care about Us Conductors' historical shortcomings because, it is, after all a novel. But I do and that is why I am motivated to write this review.

Saturday 29 November 2014

The Heart of Darkness in the Novels of Louise Penny

I do not usually put on a review of mystery novels written for Critics at Large on this blog unless they are related to the content of That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions, 2012 and 2013). Since these novels are thematically related to the main thesis of both volumes, I am posting it.

Louise Penny has legions of fans. I once saw a packed house at the Toronto Reference Library enthusiastically waving the latest installment of her Inspector Gamache series in the air so that Penny could photograph the crowd and send it to her publisher. However, I have met a few naysayers who believe her fictional creation of the bucolic rural hamlet of Three Pines in the Quebec Eastern townships, populated by eccentric but kind-hearted residents, iqs too cozy and tidy a la the television series, Morris, Lewis, or PD James’ Inspector Dalgliesh. They contend that Penny’s novels are not sufficiently gritty or cynical in the manner of the television series, Prime Suspect, with Jane Tennison not only under pressure to solve serial murders but forced to contend with sexist hostility from her male underlings, the Ian Rankin novels featuring the anti-social John Rebus, or Michael Connelly’s loner Harry Bosch surrounded by police maleficence or incompetence. In his 2013 Globe and Mail review of the CBC’s production of Still Life, John Doyle dismissed not only the program as “bland” (in which he is spot-on) but Penny’s work as “entertaining yet lacking in complexity and genuine darkness.” He speaks for those who believe that the cerebral but compassionate Armand Gamache, the chief inspector of homicide for the Quebec Sûreté, is too sympathetic or heroic and not as complex and flawed as his counterparts mentioned above. I see their point. But if her critics were to look to the edges of the mystery and the red thread that flows throughout all of the novels, they would recognize the emotional depth and that darkness does envelopor at least threatensthe tranquil village and especially the province of Quebec where police corruption (a term that seems too mild) is deeply entrenched.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Week Eight: Contemporary Challenges: From Putinism to the Middle East

  In Putin's Kiss Lisa Birk "Pedersen frames her film as a profile of Masha Drokova, who was only 16 when she joined Nashi in 2005 but whose smarts and enthusiasm catapulted her to the top echelon of the organization. A tireless Nashi activist who once collected a kiss from Vladimir himself on TV, Drokova was awarded a medal of honor from the president in 2007, attended a top university, and even had her own TV show, a real credential in a nation where the airwaves are strictly policed by the ruling party. But her growing friendships with liberal journalists—particularly the muckraking Oleg Kashin, who appeared as a guest on her show—pulled her from the far right toward the center and alienated her from Nashi's charismatic founder, Vasily Yakemenko. This isn't quite the human drama Pedersen might wish, but it's compelling enough, and more important, it gives us a look at conservative Russian politics at their most ruthless and vindictive. portrays contemporary life in Russia through the story of Masha, a 19 year-old girl who is a member of Nashi, a political youth organization connected with the Kremlin. Extremely ambitious, the young Masha quickly rises to the top of Nashi, but begins to question her involvement when a dissident journalist whom she has befriended is savagely attacked."
  From a review by J. R. Jones from Chicago Reader

  Maajid Nawazis is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn and co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. He spoke about his journey from being a true believer of being a militant jihad to his repudiation of those fundamentalist beliefs on Sixty Minutes.

"This Frontline documentary, "The Wounded Platoon," accurately portrays how war's corrosive insanity, the very ingredient that can help one survive it, continues to inexorably gnaw away one's humanity until the only thing left is the insanity it instilled. Truly haunting.
A link to an article that compares brain injury  of veterans to football players 

For an excellent review of a new book on suicide in the military see

The TVO program The Agenda  on November 12 had a full program on veterans making the transition from combat to civilian life. You can listen to it on a podcast or watch it though iTunes for free. Highly recommended. For a different perspective on a returning soldier see

How War has Affected the Artist

Although this piece that first appeared in Critics at Large November 11 is not directly related to either volume of  That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions, 2012 and 2013), I include on this website because I did address in the first volume how filmmakers were affected by the Great War .

Main Street (1979) by Alex Colville

“I have an inherently dark view of the world and human affairs.”

“I think if anything I am perhaps more inclined than most people are to be polite and considerate because I am aware that human relationships are innately fragile and kind of dangerous."
– Alex Colville
For centuries, artists have depicted the horrors and savagery of war. With his miniature engravings, Jacques Callot catalogued torture, execution and the destruction of buildings during the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. In his eighty etchings of the Disasters of War and iconic canvasses, May 2, 1808 and May 3, 1808, the acclaimed Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, portrayed with scorching realism the mutilations and terror during the Peninsular War (1808-1814) with France. In the twentieth century, the British government commissioned artists to provide a visual record of the Great War; among the most distinguished were Paul Nash and Christopher R. W. Nevinson. Of the German artists – Franz Marc, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – only Dix spent four years in the trenches serving up unflinching engravings of that terrible time. Subsequently, he, along with other German artists, evoked the war and its painful costs in vivid paintings and drawings.

What were personal repercussions for these artists? We know nothing about Callot, whose graphic works were executed near the end of his life. The hatred in Goya’s repulsiveness of war can be seen in his Black Paintings that he hung on the walls of his last house in Spain before going into exile in France. The despair and disillusionment in these paintings stem in part from the depression he experienced in 1792 when he suffered a serious physical illness and went deaf, so that it is unclear whether the bleakness of his final work was influenced by the gruesome war or more by his general state of mind. Some of the artists of the Great War suffered serious injuries; Beckmann, Grosz and Kirchner had suffered breakdowns. The evidence for their bitterness or misanthropic worldview can be found more in their visual artistry than in their biographies. Similarly, commissioned artists who served in World War Two were deeply affected, but the form it took can largely be found in their artistic expression not in obviously damaged psyches.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Week Seven: Personal and Collective Historical Challenges

A screen shot from Repentance
The day after the funeral of Varlam Aravidze, the mayor of a small Georgian town, his corpse turns up in his son's garden and is secretly reburied. But the corpse keeps returning, and the police eventually capture a local woman, who is accused of digging it up. She says that Varlam should never be laid to rest because he was responsible for a Stalin-like reign of terror that led to the disappearance of many of her friends. Although the film may appear to be slowing moving for North American reviewers, it is worth your patience as there are some very powerful surrealistic images that convey the horror of Stalinism. Also worth noting is how the son of Varlam justifies his father's activities while the grandson is furious.

Hitler’s Children "is a unique documentary film that reveals, for the first time, the ways in which family members of high rank senior Nazi officers from Hitler’s inner circle struggle with the burden of carrying a terror-inducing surname. During detailed interviews, families such as Goering, Himmler, Hoess amongst others, share the feelings of guilt and responsibility that accompany them in their daily lives.

During his detailed and intensive research, director and producer, Chanoch Ze’evi, third generation of Holocaust survivors, was able to convince direct descendants’ of members of the Nazi regime to speak with him, thereby creating a in-depth and mesmerizing dialogue that tells the story of the Holocaust from a new and original vantage point. "

I have commented on this film in my review of Lore

Sunday 2 November 2014

True Believers: Two Novels Inspired by Historical Actors

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large November 2. I include on this website because I wrote a chapter on the Cold War in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden  (Encompass Editions, 2013).

Canadian diplomat Herbert Norman and his wife, Irene, in 1956 (Photo courtesy of UBC Library archives)

In April 1957 the distinguished Canadian scholar and diplomat, Herbert Norman, committed suicide by jumping from a roof in Cairo. Canadian-born to missionaries working in Japan, he joined External Affairs in 1939, and during the crazed atmosphere of the early 1950s, he was subjected to a thorough security inquiry by the RCMP, largely because of his left-wing sympathies when he attended Cambridge University during the 1930s. Even though he was vindicated, the Mounties passed on his file to the FBI. His name came up in testimony before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) and again he was given a clean billing. His boss at External Affairs, Lester Pearson, appointed him as Ambassador to Egypt to serve as a conduit between Gamal Abdel Nasser and the West during the Suez Crisis. SISS revived the Norman “case” and to avoid another humiliating security inquiry, Norman took his own life setting off a firestorm of anti-American feelings in Canada.

In 1986 two purportedly scholarly books were published that were diametrically opposed in approach and conclusions: Innocence Is Not Enough: The Life and Death of Herbert Norman by Roger Bowen and No Sense of Evil: Espionage, The Case of Herbert Norman by James Barros. The titles tell us much about the perspective of the authors. Reviewers generally praised Bowen’s offering as a defence of Norman’s integrity and explained his death as a response to the slanders that he had to endure that left him with “no refuge but suicide.” Barros’ thesis that Norman was an agent of the Soviet state “planted in the Canadian diplomatic service” was largely excoriated. In the Canadian Forum, Reg Whittaker reviled No Sense of Evil as a “disgrace to the best tradition of scholarly inquiry” because Barros was not able to present a single piece of evidence to prove that Norman engaged in espionage, was guilty of disloyalty or treason. Yet the Norman controversy did not end here. Barros and MPs supportive of his polemic put such pressure on the government to pursue an independent inquiry that Joe Clark, then Minister for External Affairs, appointed Peyton Lynn, a former diplomat and retired academic, to conduct an investigation in which he was given access to all relevant documents. His report completely exonerated Norman of any wrong doing and proclaimed him a loyal Canadian public servant.

This preamble is by way of introducing the absorbing Mr. Jones (Goose Lane, 2014), the most recent offering by the accomplished Winnipeg dramatist, singer-lyricist and award winning novelist, Margaret Sweatman. Herbert Norman is a minor character but his spirit hovers throughout the novel to the extent that Emmet Jones becomes a doppelganger to Norman. Sweatman does alter her profile of Jones to alert the reader that he is not a carbon copy of Norman. For instance, Emmet was pilot of the Bomber Command during the war that devastated German cities, killing thousands of civilians. When he returns to Japan to work for the External Affairs Department, his observations of a fire-bombed burnt out post-war Tokyo trigger nightmares of his consuming dead flesh. And his personal relationship with his wife Suzanne and their young daughter, Lenora, perhaps the most intuitive character, is fictional.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Week Six: The different faces of Communism in the USSR and its satellite states from Lenin to Gorbachev,

Revolutions are produced by men of action, one-sided fanatics, geniuses of self-limitation. In a few hours or days they overturn the old order. The upheavals last for weeks, for years at the most, and then for decades, for centuries, people bow down to the spirit of limitation that led to the upheavals as to something sacred.
Doctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak

We resembled the great Inquisitors in that we persecuted the seeds of evil not only in man’s deeds, but in their thoughts. We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man’s skull.
Darkness at Noon
Arthur Koestler

“Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.”
Just Listen
Sarah Dessen

Link on the power of poetry 

The following is a selection from an early blog on this webpage. This material did not make it into That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) for reasons of space.  

Anna Akhmatova
The gifted and enormously resilient Anna Akhmatova felt the need to continue the tradition of earlier poets and assume a moral responsibility to be the voice of memory by bearing witness to these ghastly times. Between 1935 and 1940, although she dared not speak it aloud because she was under conspicuous surveillance by the NKVD, who clearly intended to intimidate her, Akhmatova ended her silence by sculpting in words a memorial to the victims of the Stalinist terror, Requiem (not published in Russia during her lifetime) that expressed with searing emotional clarity what others could only feel. It was written on scraps of paper, a fragment read silently by a friend who committed it to memory and burned the paper. Grounded in personal experience, she stood in a prison queue with a food parcel for her son, after he (who was arrested repeatedly), and her lover were arrested within a couple of weeks of each other primarily as hostages to ensure her compliance. Standing in that line with women also desperate for news of their loved ones, Requiem is a testament to their suffering and by extension the anguish of a whole people. As her preface makes clear, she would connect her personal experience with all those other women:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear [everyone spoke in whispers there]:

           ‘Can you describe this?’ And I answered: ‘Yes, I can.’ Then something that looked like a 
           smile passed over what had once been her face.

With a piercing honesty that cuts through the miasmic fog of lies and fantasy, Akhmatova captures the intense pain of these women left behind, the fabric of their lives dissolved in grief, loneliness and despair:

          And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
          Swung from its prisons.
          And when, senseless from torment,
          Regiments of convicts marched,
          And the short songs of farewell
          Were sung by locomotive whistles.
          The stars of death stood above us
          And innocent Rus writhed
          Under bloody boots
          And under the tires of the Black Marias.

         They led you away at dawn,
          I followed you, like a mourner,
          In the dark front room the children were crying,
          By the icon shelf the candle was dying.
          On your lips was the  icon’s chill.
          The deathly sweat on your brow …

Thursday 23 October 2014

Week Five: Betrayal and Courage during the Cold War

John le Carré,1964
 “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 Spy Who came in from the Cold
John le Carré 

"What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?"
From the film version of The Spy Who came in from the Cold
 “The junior Senator from Wisconsin, by his reckless charges, has so preyed upon the fears and hatred of uninformed and credulous people that he has started a prairie fire, which neither he nor anyone else may be able to control.”
J. William Fulbright, US senator, 1954

“We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”
Foreign Affairs, 1953

“I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it….They were Commies….They were red sons-of-bitches who should have died long ago.”
Mickey Spillane
One Lonely Night

"The title of The Manchurian Candidate has entered everyday speech as shorthand for a brainwashed sleeper, a subject who has been hypnotized and instructed to act when his controllers pull the psychological trigger. In the movie, an American patrol is captured by Chinese communists during the Korean War, and one soldier is programmed to become an assassin; two years later, he's ordered to kill a presidential candidate."
For the rest of the review, here is the link.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Opposition to Hitler

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large October 19

The compelling 1959 German film Die Brucke (The Bridge) tells the useless courage of seven German teenagers hastily conscripted into the Nazi army and assigned the responsibility of defending an old stone bridge in the last few days of the war. The High Command knew that the Americans would overrun it and the sergeant in charge of the boys was ordered to pull them back once the Americans arrived, but he was killed by the Gestapo and six of the boys died while the one survivor, who is able to tell the tale that became the basis for a novel and this film, is brutalized by the experience. The first part of this capsule summary is most people’s awareness of the final stages of the war: young men used as fodder to carry out Hitler’s maniacal order that everyone should be participate in the defence of the Volk or die. The second part, that members of the High Command only offered a token of resistance while trying to save lives, including their own, is not as familiar. Military opposition constitutes one subject of University of Toronto scholar, Randall Hansen’s new book, Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie (Oxford, 2014) even though its dense military chapters can be a daunting read. Its central argument is that opposition to the Fuhrer inside the Reich during the final year of the war, that included both military and civilian resistance, was much more pervasive than has previously been known.

Humanity Challenged: Week Four: Unresolved Issues

Paul Fussell
The American military learned that men will inevitably go mad in battle and that no appeal to patriotism, manliness or loyalty to the group will ultimately matter.
Paul Fussell, Wartime

“It doesn’t get to me very often except when I talk about it, and I seldom do that. It’s just something that does not go away. It’s something you have to endure the way you endured the war itself. There’s no alternative. You can’t wipe out these memories. You can’t wipe out what you felt at that time or what you knew other people felt. This is part of your whole possession of life. And I suppose it does some good.
 Paul Fussell, quoted in The War: An Intimate History 1941-45, Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

I have had a wonderful life….But the dynamics of war are so intense, the drama of war is so emotionally spellbinding, that it’s hard for you to go on with a normal life without feeling something is missing. I find there are times when I’m pulled back into the whirlpool. The intensity of that experience was so overwhelming that you can’t quite let it go.
Quentin Aanenson, quoted in The War

Colin Firth in Railway Man
 For my review of the book and the film Railway Man that explores "battle fatigue" after the Second World War see

Thursday 9 October 2014

Humanity Challenged: Week Three: The Fascist Sensibility

“From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.”
―Denis Diderot, eighteenth-century philosopher

Manuel Malle traces the horror of his father's (Louis) film, Lacombe, Lucian to "the sobering realization that anyone is capable of the atrocities 17 year old Lucien Lacombe indirectly perpetrates."

“Everything we did was equivocal. We never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong. A subtle poison corrupted even our best actions.”
—Jean-Paul Sartre on the French during the Occupation

As an ideology, Nazism is known for its racism, militarism and expansive nationalism, an ideology that was shared, apart from the virulent racism, with Fascist Italy and Spain. What I hope to explore is also the fascist state of  mind: the misogyny, the exaltation of power, the willingness, for a variety of reasons, to be co-opted by the practitioners of the ideology even if one does not embrace it, and the intolerance for anyone who is different, and the disregard for the dignity of the individual.   

For my review of the recent production of Cabaret and the Degenerate Art Exhibition in New York see

Michelle Williams in the 2014 production of Cabaret


Alan Cumming

Max Beckmann's religious and political triptych, Departure and Adolf Ziegler's Four Elements
For a critique of the German filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, you might check out

Monday 6 October 2014

Week Two: Is there a disconnection between how contemporaries experienced the Great War and later generations?

Varley: For What?
“You will see the effect upon people. They will acclaim it with enthusiasm; everybody is already looking forward to the first onslaught—so dull have their lives become.
—Herman Hesse, Damian

One of the most troubling reasons men love war is the love of destruction, the thrill of killing...all you do is move the finger so imperceptibly, just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even a full brain synapse, and poof, in a blast of sound and energy and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything flying and settling back into dust.
William Broyles, "Why Men Love War, Esquire, November 1984, veteran of the Vietnam War 

Last summer I attended a conference at the Munk Centre on the Great War one hundred years ago the following link is my piece on it that I highly recommend you reading before the class.

I will begin with a PowerPoint to illustrate the ideas indicated in the above piece and then show a clip from the documentary Churchill's First World War that is keeping with that spirit. Then I will show clips that either satirize, or critique it. Clips will be shown from Oh! What a Lovely War, All Quiet on the Western Front and Behind the Lines based on Pat Barker's novel Regeneration.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Geo-Political Vengeance: Alex Berenson's Counterfeit Agent and Terry Hayes's I Am Pilgrim

The following review initially appeared on October 5, 2014 in Critics at Large but I have decided to include it on this website because both novels deal with terrorism that was a major issue in the third part of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013).

Part of the adrenaline that comes from reading espionage thrillers is due to their appearing ripped from the headlines. But it may also be because they are often complex tales that bear a close resemblance to reality, or perhaps presciently anticipate one to come. When the author has worked in the intelligence community, or can write from direct experienceas has Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John Le Carreor has acquired contacts with that shadowy world, and even covered dangerous conflicts as a journalist (or has personally undertaken meticulous research), it can help considerably. Apart from no experience as an agent, Alex Berenson, a former writer for The New York Times who covered the war in Iraq, has all of the other prerequisites. And most important, he can write well, knows how to pace and provide a plausible plot. His greatest strength lies in his solid grasp of geopolitical realities and the murky politics within the CIA. Like his previous novels, the descriptions of the machinations at its quarters in Langley where jockeying for bureaucratic advantage by self-serving careerists appears at times to trump fighting terroristsexemplified by the unscrupulous Vinny Duto who recently traded his post as CIA director for a seat in the Senateappear to be authoritative. Given that the genre requires some suspension of belief, I am willing to provide some slack for his protagonist, the secret ops agent, John Wells, a sympathetically portrayed killing machine, who has endured torture, been infected with a deadly plague weapon, been wounded, and yet always survives to undertake another mission and defuse a global threat. (He can be counted on to stop some terrorist attack or prevent America from sliding into war with another country.)

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Humanity Challenged : Week One: Cruelty and its Alternatives

For the next eight weeks, I will be providing on this website a weekly overview of the course, "Humanity Challenged" that is being offered by the Life Institute at Ryerson University.

"Evil is socially enacted and constructed. It does not reside in our genes or our soul, but in the way we relate to other people."
Roy F. Baumeister, Evil" Inside Human Cruelty and Violence

"The normal process of life contains which radical evil gets its innings and takes a solid turn....Disenchantment with ordinary life [follows] and...the whole range of habitual values...come to appear ghastly mockery."
—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

"While the evil of genocide and mass killing is not ordinary, the perpetrators most certainly are."
—James Waller, Becoming Evil

" The unsettling truth is that any deed that perpetrators of genocide and mass killing have ever done, however atrocious, is possible for any of us to dounder particular situational pressures."
—James Waller, Becoming Evil

As a starting point, I will briefly discuss the experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo that he outlines in his 2007 book, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil and that will be followed up by a clip of the German film, Das Experiment, that is loosely based on that study.

The philosopher, Philip Hallie (1922-1994), one of the speakers of a conference on human evil in Bill Moyers' 1988 Special, Facing Evil, wrestles with the conflict  between what he calls "decent killers" which includes himself as a veteran of World War Two, and true pacifists as exemplified the remarkable couple André and Magda Trocmé. After writing a book on human cruelty that plunged him into despair, Hallie published in 1979 Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, an ethical inquiry into the beliefs and activities of the Trocmé couple. During the war, they became very involved in a wide network organizing the rescue of Jews fleeing the deportation efforts of the Nazi implementation of their Final Solution. After the establishment of the Vichy France regime, Trocmé became a catalyst whose efforts led to Le Chambon, a Protestant village in Catholic France, becoming a unique haven in Nazi-occupied France. Trocmé and other area ministers serving other parishes encouraged their congregations to shelter "the people of the Bible." Trocmé and his church members helped their town develop ways of resisting the dominant evil they faced. Together they established a number of "safe houses" where Jewish and other refugees seeking to escape the Nazis could hide.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

The Reluctant Warrior

“We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”
President Obama

For six years of his presidency, Barack Obama was committed to extricating America from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning and campaigned against in 2008. Even when he agreed five years ago to a “surge” of sending thirty thousand extra troops to Afghanistan, it was clear from the outset that he did it with misgivings since he put a timeline on the American presence there. Philosophically and temperamentally, Obama was opposed to committing America to any foreign military engagement that might lead to putting troops on the ground unless there was an immediate threat to American security or a humanitarian mission to prevent genocide. His cautiousnot to be confused with weaknessforeign policy was primarily limited to the use of ordering drones to kill suspected terrorists and SEAL operations that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. But sometimes the unanticipated arises. When former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was once asked what the most difficult thing about his job, his now famous reply was "Events, dear boy, events." Tumultuous events that have been occurring in the Middle East have made Obama’s Presidency fraught with anxiety. How he responds to them could become the defining issue of his presidency, and not what he had hoped would be his legacy.

Abu-Bakr el-Baghdadi
ISIS, now called the Islamic State (IS), has cut through a wide swath of Iraq and Syria. Abu-Bakr el-Baghdadi followers have redrawn the territorial map of the region for the first time since the foreign ministers of England and France secretly rearranged the old Ottoman Empire almost hundred years ago. By absorbing a third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, IS has created not only a fanatical Sunni regime, but also a caliphate, which was the original Muslim kingdom that existed under the successors of the Prophet Mohammed; at one point, it extended from modern-day Spain to Central Asia. Baghdadi has donned the mantle of Caliph (successor) and has declared himself the chief imam and political and military leader of all Muslims. His battle-hardened, financially wealthy organizationlargely derived from theft, extortion, and the sale of oil, antiquities and slaveshas demonstrated and visually recorded for the world a capacity for brutalitythe so-called “propaganda of the deed”that has appalled the international community and won them new recruits. According to the CIA, the size of the militant group has at least doubled over the summer from roughly 10,000 to between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, likely motivated by the glamour and successes that IS have achieved. IS also for the time being has the support of former Baathists and Sunni clans in Iraq that were strongly opposed to Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad that excluded them from military and intelligence positions, and viciously persecuted Sunnis.

Monday 1 September 2014

Sober Realism: A Most Wanted Man—From Novel to Film

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large August 31, 2014. I have included it on this website because the war on terror is pivotal to my chapters on contemporary America in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013).

Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man
Forget blackmail, I said. Forget the macho. Forget sleep deprivation, locking people in boxes, simulated executions and other enhancements. The best agents, snitches, joes, informants or whatever you want to call them, I pontificated, needed patience, understanding and loving care.
John le Carré, speaking to cast members of the film adaptation on the art of spycraft.

In John Le Carré’s 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, which addresses the war on terror and its attendant abuses, Gunther Bachmann, head of a semi-official, Hamburg-based anti-terrorism unit, has been whisked home after suffering a debacle in Beirut that still weighs heavily upon him. Hamburg, home to a large Islamic community and the city that played host to at least six of the 9/11 conspirators, is ten years later a source of angst and embarrassment to German and American intelligence officers. Given their failure to derail that catastrophic attack they are scrambling to disrupt any further terrorist operations. But their methods differ: Bachmann believes that rendition, waterboarding and extrajudicial killings should be jettisoned in favour of relentless surveillance, recruiting and running secret agents to ensure that the suspected targets are actually guiltya process that takes time and patience. He might be described as a cynical idealist, a post–Cold War, post–9/11 George Smiley figure who understands that espionage often consists of performing the diligent, unheroic and often entirely pointless work of covert politics. His impatient German rivals and superiors, and their counterparts in the American and British secret services prefer to snatch-and-jail every low-level operative rather than wait-and-see in order to uncover a network of jihadists.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Guns of August: 100 Years Later

This piece originally appeared August 17, 2014 in Critics at Large

The Flag by Byam Shaw (1919)

These reflections were inspired by the two-day conference “1914-1918 The Making of the Modern World” held at the Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs on July 30 and 31, 2014. Speakers presented papers on a wide variety of topics, both national and international, on military, political, social and artistic themes associated with the Great War and its legacy. The conference concluded with a visit to the residence of the Lieutenant Governor, David Onley, at Queens Park and later that evening with an emotional evening of military formations, music and speakers at Varsity Arena packed with 6000 people. I will not attempt to address all topics and speakers but will focus on one thread, albeit never explicitly stated: the frequent disconnect between how veterans and civilians experienced and recalled the war and the contemporary and later attempts to depict it in art and popular culture.

Apart from commemorations, my impression is that most public awareness about the Great War is derived from films – All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli to name just a few – or from novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. What they all have in common is their anti-war message, that this war, as opposed to the Second World War, was not only a tragedy but a waste. Even Margaret Macmillan in her masterfully-delivered keynote overview on the origins and legacy of the war used the word “waste” to signify the human losses and the problems that it created: among them, that without the war, Russia would have evolved into a constitutional monarchy and the Bolsheviks would have never come to power; without Germany’s defeat, Hitler and Nazism may not have occurred, and no Second World War. And the problems in the Middle East that continue to bedevil us are in part a legacy of the war.

Another take on the war delivered by historian, Jonathan Vance, drew upon his seminal monograph, Death so Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (UBC Press, 1997) to profile John Daniel Logan, and then to extrapolate from his life the values that not only shaped him but those of his English-Canadian fellow veterans and civilians alike between the world wars. Prior to the Great War, Logan acquired a superior education, wrote poetry and literary criticism, taught and worked in advertising. None of these accomplishments provided him with financial or emotional satisfaction. It was only when he joined the army in 1916 at the age of 46 and fought at Vimy and Passchendaele that he found his métier in life. He enjoyed not only the comradeship of his unit but he drew spiritual sustenance from the ultimate sacrifices made for the cause. After the war, Logan assembled two collections of poetry that were inspired by the vision of a heroic death that was sublime and beautiful, expressed in the lofty language that we usually associate with British writers such as Rupert Brooke before his death or J.M. Barrie before his disillusionment. But Logan never lost his belief in the spiritual dimension of a sacrifice willingly made, regardless of the brutality inflicted upon the body by shrapnel, artillery or gas. War was the supreme adventure, a great glorious undertaking demonstrating that life was less important than death. He never changed his mind about that; the poems he wrote before 1916 were similar to those he wrote after. And yet before we stereotype him as pre-war Victorian, Vance reminded us that Logan was dismissive of the jingoistic war poetry and promoted the aspirations of women poets. He likely would not have appreciated D.W. Griffith’s heavy-handed propaganda war film, Hearts of the World, of which we were shown a clip by another speaker, the film scholar, Seth Feldman, who provided an excellent overview of contemporary and more recent films about the war. But Logan did believe that the “trial of war” would invigorate Canadian culture.

Logan’s belief in noble sacrifices for a righteous cause, not the waste of human lives, reflected the sentiment of much of the English-speaking population during and after the war (unlike French Canadians who could only remember the war with bitterness and its associations with the rancorous 1917 conscription crisis). Theirs (the English) was a just war against an evil tyranny and they hearkened back to medieval and Victorian texts and imagery to commemorate it through war memorials, stained glass windows in churches that deified as Christ-like soldiers and Armistice Day proceedings. In her PowerPoint of war paintings, art historian Maria Tippet featured a popular painting, The Flag by John Byam Shaw that represents the sacrifice made by the Canadian soldier depicting the body draped with the Canadian red ensign placed between the paws of the British lion and surrounded by people for whom the sacrifice had been made. The peace and serenity that suffuses the dead soldier is how Canadians wanted to remember those who willingly sacrificed their lives. By contrast, F.H. Varley’s For What? is a controversial, modernist painting in which dead soldiers are heaped unceremoniously in a cart to await burial beneath a row of crosses. The image, like the title, conveys the pointlessness of the war, a perspective vehemently rejected by most English-Canadian veterans and civilians because, as Vance quoted a politician, it would mean surrendering to desolation. One can only imagine what veterans and the public would have thought of the savagely satirical drawings and paintings of the German Expressionist artist, George Grosz, or his national compatriot, Otto Dix, who spent four years in the trenches and rendered his experience into unflinching, stark etchings and paintings.

For What? by Frederick Varley (1918)

Unlike in Britain where the post-war era was marinated in disillusionment, Canadians, according to Vance, surrendered to a myth that was “a complex mixture of fact, wishful thinking, half-truth, and outright invention.” The myth bore little resemblance to the slaughter that occurred but enabled veterans and the public to make sense of it. Rather than recount the horrors of warfor the most part veterans remained adamantly silentthey remembered only the good times: the lighter, more humorous moments, a beautiful sunrise, bathing in streams and the laughter of the “boys.” These selective memories were recalled in memoirs, novels, poetry and film such as the melodrama Under the Black Eagle that follows the adventures of a police dog on the Western Front.

The anti-war vision found expression in novels such All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Its cinematic adaption was seen in Canadian theatres but in no way enjoyed the support it garnered elsewhere. The Canadian veteran, Will Bird, wrote his memoir, And We Go On, as a corrective to books such as All Quiet that he believed were “putrid with so-called realism.” Unlike other Canadian accounts that underscore the lighter more humorous moments, Bird’s account does not ignore the physical horror but in his telling he and his comrades retain their sense of decency and humanity, and were not brutalized by their war experience. Bird’s memoir was well-received and, despite its bracing grimness about life in the trenches, was more commensurate with the upbeat convictions of Logan and the romantic pre-war English-Canadian sensibilities during the interwar years.

As scholars Ross Fair and Martin Friedland reminded us, these conservative, traditional sentiments were also much in evidence in Toronto and at the University of Toronto during the Great War. Toronto the Good was a relatively small military bastion and everyone seemed swept up by the “imperial patriotism” and were willing to undertake whatever sacrifices were necessary to win the war. Unlike cosmopolitan London in the UK, there does not appear to be any evidence of dissent or opposition to the war; there were no conscientious objectors or conchies, as they were derisively known, or any evidence of women handing out white feathers to civilians whom they believed should be in uniform. Any opposition was confined to pressuring the U of T President, Robert Falconer, to fire three German-born professors. Academic freedom collapsed under press and political attacks. Falconer was strongly criticized by a member of the U of T board when he arranged in November 1914 for these professors to take a leave of absence with full pay until the end of term. But his sentiments about the war reflected the citizens of Toronto and the interwar generation when he implored students to unite behind the Union Jack contending that “to live by shirking one’s duty is infinitely worse than to die.”

James Wilby and Jonathan Pryce in Behind the Lines (1998)
Mark Humphries paper on “Shell Shock and its Aftermath” reinforced conservative attitudes by linking them to the culture’s definition of masculinity when Canadian shell shock victims applied for a pension after the war. More than 15,000 Canadian soldiers were diagnosed with some form of war-related psychological wounds. Humphries provided the example of Hunter L. who displayed heroic service in France before being blown up by a shell and rendered unconscious after which he “cried for some time.” He returned to duty voluntarily and incurred a similar experience, was shipped to a hospital in England where he was “on bad terms” with the other patients for being emotional. He was sent home, continued his education becoming a professor. In 1932 he broke down, the shell shock symptoms returned and he was unable to work. He applied to the federal government for a pension arguing that the war was responsible for his breakdown. The two doctors who reviewed his case refused to grant him a pension labelling him a deviant predisposed to psychological illness attributing it to “early overprotection, lack of boyish animal spirits, rebelliousness to authority and…the physical stigmata of deviation,” that is, physical signs on his body and certain aberrant mannerisms suggesting he was more feminine than masculine. Although he highlighted only Hunter L. in his talk, Humphries concluded from his study of other similar cases that men who sought treatment or asked for compensation were violating the unwritten code of conduct: men were to be self-reliant, aggressive and unemotional. Otherwise, they were tainted with being neurotic and feminine. When their manhood was at stake, no wonder traumatized veterans were forced to suffer in silence.

At this point we can come full circle to where this paper beganwith recent novelistic and film treatments of the war. Today there is a greater understanding of masculinity, as a social construct, and that current attitudes toward manhood have substantially changed since the period under review, and about post-traumatic stress, which is recognized as a product of the realities of wartime conditions. Rarely does one hear today that this condition is the result of a psychological predisposition even though it is still ingrained in the military culture that one should not ask for help. In Regeneration, the first novel in Pat Barker’s trilogy (renamed Behind the Lines in the DVD version), she presents two historical physicians: Lewis Yealland, a Canadian neurologist with a reputation for 'curing' shell-shocked patients and ensuring their quick return to the trenches, who employed electric-shock, shouted commands, prescribed isolation and a restricted diet to treat hysteria, and William Rivers, an English anthropologist, who believed that war neuroses did not result from the war experiences themselves, but were "due to the attempt to banish distressing memories from the mind.” He encouraged his patients to remember, instead of trying to forget what they had been through. (Barker’s sympathetic treatment of River’s therapeutic relationship with the poet Siegfried Sassoon was generally unrepresentative of the times.) Yealland was a product of his culture, whereas, Rivers seems historically out of place and would have been much more comfortable in the present. Canadian veterans, civilians and doctors would have dismissed Rivers as naïve at best and possibly dangerous and would have admired the achievements of Yealland, the reverse of how I suspect we would currently regard them.

Today the public will continue to read novels and see films that possibly project the attitudes of our time back into an earlier erathe past as a foreign country may be a cliché but it is truebut readers can also benefit from good history that, without condescension and with a sensitivity to complexity, reconstructs the values and the political and cultural expressions of those who lived in earlier times. For me the need for historical works to supplement popular culture was the greatest insight I received from this thoughtful and rich conference. I believe that the conference organizers at the Munk Centre will soon make available a video podcast as they have done with so many of their previous symposiums. Do yourself a favour and watch it.

(Photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas has written extensively on the Great War in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012).