Thursday 27 February 2014

Week Five: Realpolitk and Controversy during the Cold War

“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 CarrĂ© 

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

"I don't want to arrest anyone. I just want to shoot somebody."
Mike Hammer in I, the Jury

"There's no such thing as innocence - innocence touched with guilt is as good a deal as you can get."
Mike Hammer in Kiss Me, Deadly.

Thursday 20 February 2014

The Eco-Gothic: Hilary Scharper's Perdita

This review of mine initially appeared in Critics at Large February 19, 2014

“I do feel sometimes as if I lived next to some great, slumbering beast that lulls me into thinking of it as just rocks and water. And then, every once in a while, it awakens and I realize that it is alive and powerful and that I am a tiny, helpless creature next to it!”

Hilary Scharper, Perdita.

It is abundantly clear that Hilary Scharper’s fine debut novel Perdita (Simon & Schuster, 2013) has been inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. These classics are suffused with Gothic inflections: the desolate landscapes which can be powerful and cruel, the suggestion of a supernatural or preternatural presence, buried secrets in ancestral homes, unrequited love, and what may be most relevant for the novel under review, the sense of a soul trapped in a human body. In addition to these elements, Perdita is populated with malevolent villains and attractive characters with demons that haunt them. The novel also represents an emerging literary form, something Scharper terms the “eco-gothic,” in which nature does not serve as a backdrop, but as a central character in the novel. (Scharper also teaches cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto and has written a well-received collection of short stories, Dream Dresses (2009), about the aspirations of women and the clothes they wear.) Even though she combines elements of the historical novel and magic realism, Perditas setting in the tempestuous wilderness of the northern Bruce Peninsula, an area she knows intimately since she has spent many summers there, underpins her decision to allocate human-nature relations a central role in her multi-layered narrative.

Week Four of Our Humanity Challenged: Communism

A single note of music could contain a greater intensity of feeling than pages of writing but it does not by itself excite in us the more terrible emotions of horror, rage etc.
—The Descent of Man
Charles Darwin

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

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 …

Saturday 15 February 2014

Lombroso's theories critiqued

The following piece was originally designed to be included in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) but was  excluded for reasons of space.
Cesare Lombroso
Cesare Lombroso’s (1835-1909) reputation suffered a much more devastating assault when Dr. Charles Goring published a putative landmark study, The English Convict, (1913) that refuted Lombroso’s conclusions linking physical structure and crime even though the two researchers share common assumptions and conclusions. Goring, a medical officer in a British prison, using thorough physical and psychological examinations and the most sophisticated medical and statistical methods of the day tested Lombroso’s generalizations on a large population of convicts, namely that the size of the head and the shape of the forehead revealed inner attributes.  He concluded that the relationship between the contours of the skull and criminal behaviour was “microscopic.” But the thrust of Goring’s critique was as much about Lombroso’s methodology as his conclusions. He rebuked Lombroso for the absence of any comparison between the prison population and the general population of the same social and economic status and similar intelligence, his subjective and impressionistic anatomical-pathological method of data gathering, and his deficient statistical skills. 
 A sampling of the heads Lombroso examined
Yet for all his efforts to undermine and even mock Lombroso “our intrepid explorer”Goring did share with his Italian colleague the conviction that criminal behaviour was largely a product of biological inheritance. He too minimized environmental factors arguing that “crime is only to a trifling extent [if at all] the product of social inequalities, of adverse environment.” Rather than flawed nurturing, criminals were primarily product of biologically determinism. Goring did successfully rebut Lombroso’s emphasis on physical stigmata but found that convicts were shorter and lighter in body weight and possessed limited intelligence. Similar to Lombroso, Goring also found links between criminality and anti-social behaviour such as alcoholism, sexual excess and an uncontrollable temper. All of these attributes, as well as feeble-mindedness, demonstrated hereditary inferiority. His suggestions for combating these problems were standard fare that included imprisonment, education and sterilization. Perhaps Goring’s most startling insight that did set him apart from Lombroso was his conviction that criminals were not all that much different from the rest of the population except by degrees with respect to their strength of character. 

Most commentators ignored Goring’s unsettling implication and seized upon his conclusions about criminal feeble-mindedness. It was axiomatic among social theorists, physicians and social workers that a feeble mind was incurable and that it could afflict any class or ethnicity. For its own self defence, society, they argued, needed to segregate, supervise and regulate the reproduction of the unfit if it was to attack the “evil at its very root.” By demeaning these “defective stocks” with emotionally-charged epithetssubmen  moral perverts and low grade typespoliticians, medical officials and the press, who shaped public opinion, ramped up public support for eugenic measures that would root out the “inborn criminal” and the unfit who were contributing to the decline of “good British stock.”

Our Humanity Challenged: Week Three Fascism

review of documentary of Jewish elder
review of Spanish holocaust

courtesy of Guy Weissberg  (I particularly like the second link.)

Europa Europa is based on the true story of a young German Jew who survived the Holocaust by falling in with the Nazis. Solomon Perel is the son of a Jewish shoe salesman coming of age in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler. In 1938, a group of Nazis attack Solomon's family home; his sister is killed, and 13-year-old Solomon flees to Poland. Solomon winds up in an orphanage operated by Stalinist forces; when German forces storm Poland, Solomon's fluent German allows him to join the Nazis as a translator, posing as Josef Peters, an ethnic German. In time, "Peters" is made a member of the elite Hitler Youth, but since Solomon is circumcised, he can be easily revealed as a Jew, and he lives in constant fear that his secret will be discovered. Solomon's close calls include an attempted seduction by Robert Kellerman, a homosexual officer, and his relationship with Leni, a beautiful but violently anti-Semitic woman, who wants to bear his child for the glory of the master race. 
a dream sequence in Europa Europa

Sunday 9 February 2014

Our Humanity Challenged: Week Two Toxic Nationalism from Dreyfus to the Great War

For the next five weeks, I will be using this space in part to provide commentary and images from films not shown during the class itself  for those taking the course Our Humanity Challenged  at the Life Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto.

King of Hearts
In the 1966 film King of Hearts, a Scottish soldier is sent by his commanding officer to disarm a bomb placed in the town square by the retreating Germans. As the fighting comes closer to the town, its inhabitants—including those who run the insane asylum—abandon it. The asylum gates are left open, and the inmates leave the asylum and take on the roles of the townspeople. The Scot has no reason to think they are not who they appear to be—other than the colorful and playful way in which they're living their lives, so at odds with the fearful and war-ravaged times. The lunatics crown the soldier King of Hearts with surreal pageantry as he frantically tries to find the bomb before it goes off. Although the tone of the film  is comical— even at times farcical—the "mad" characters reveal more humanity than what is displayed by outsiders who engaged in the madness of war.

War Horse
From director Steven Spielberg comes War Horse, an epic adventure that is set against a sweeping
canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War. War Horse begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets—British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter—before the story reaches its (perhaps improbable) emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land. The film is especially relevant for this course because of the courage of both the boy and the horse that is displayed amid the horror of war.