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 Carr√© 

"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.)