Remembrance Day: The Unknown Deserter

During the Second World War, Germany executed many 0f its own citizens — the exact number is hard to come by, but at least 23,000 military members were put to death. They were executed for crimes such as treason, failure to follow orders, and desertion. Various categories of condemned men have received posthumous pardons for their actions. In 2002 a general pardon was issued for those who had deserted the Wehrmacht during the War. But already, monuments had been erected in their memory.

Possibly the first was set up in Bremen in 1986 by a veteran’s group opposed to NATO’s First Strike policy. The statue may wear a NATO helmet.

Sculpture by Mehmet Aksoy. Photo Via.

Sculpture in Potsdam by Mehmet Aksoy. Photo Via.

The first official memorial for the Unknown Deserter was meant to be placed in Bonn, capital of West Germany, but was finished just after the Wall came down and was set up in Potsdam. Since then, at least twenty memorials have been erected all over Germany and Austria.

Sculpture in Stuttgart by Nicholas Kernbach. Wikimedia Commons.

Sculpture in Stuttgart by Nicholas Kernbach. Wikimedia Commons.

Some 400,000 soldiers attempted to desert during World War II and 30,000 or so were caught and sentenced to death, though only 23,000 of these sentences were carried out before the War’s end. In 1998, the Bundestag pardoned those convicted of refusing to join the Nazi armed forces. Over the next few years other categories of resisters were also pardoned. Deserters joined the list in 2002.

Memorial in Ulm by Hannah Stuetz Menzel . Via.

Memorial in Ulm by Hannah Stuetz Menzel . Via.

The last category of resister to finally receive pardons was that of Treason. Some of those convicted of treason included men who had criticized the Hitler regime. One — an unnamed soldier — attempted in 1944 to transport thirteen Jews from Hungary to save them from the sweep that was sending Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. There was some opposition to pardoning this last group by Bundestag members who protested that traitors put the lives of others in danger, but investigation has shown that claim to be false.

In 1925, when monument building for World War I veterans became a national industry, Kurt Tucholsky wrote:

Of all the missing plaques, we specially miss this one:
This is for a man who refused to kill his fellow men.

Looking up at Ruedi Baur's shelter in Cologne. Wikimedia Commons.

Looking up at Ruedi Baur’s shelter in Cologne. Wikimedia Commons.

In 2009, architect Ruedi Baur constructed such a memorial in Cologne. It is a transit shelter with these words on the roof:

Homage to the soldiers who refused to shoot at the soldiers, who refused to shoot at the people, who refused to torture the people, who refused to give information against the people, who refused to brutalise the people, who refused to discriminate against the people, who refused to ridicule the people, who showed civil courage while the majority kept silent and toed the line.

 

The Exploitation of Good Taste

Pictures of that drowned child refugee have raised an odd debate. Should the pictures be published or is that exploiting a tragic event? The entire argument took me back to 1966/67 when American anti-war activists published a poster featuring one of Goya’s black paintings over the text “America Eats Its Young”. Here is the painting:

child_goya

This is a depiction of Cronos, or Saturn, devouring his children. Cronos had been told that he would be displaced as king of the world by his sons, so he ate them. Zeus escaped and did finally overcome his father. But Goya hardly cares about any of that; he has depicted a horror that is born of humanity, not the gods.

So the poster went up and immediately people said that it was insulting to America and in bad taste and should be removed. These were college professors talking about taste, because teachers are the guardians of culture. At around this same time there arose a controversy about television coverage of the Vietnam War. The images were too disturbing for many people. The controversy came to turn on the question of whether American troops should be shown cutting the ears from Vietnamese corpses. The argument against was that the news came on around suppertime and that people shouldn’t have their meals disturbed by such images.

At the time, this entire debate made me very angry. It seemed to me that the statement that Goya and video images were in bad taste was a lie. What really disturbed these folks was having to confront reality — American youths were being murdered by their government, and were being transformed by that same government into trophy-hunting killers. It seemed to me then that there should more distasteful images shown on TV, that there should be more photos and posters put up, that people should have to confront the events that they were complicit in creating.

Now this applies to the photo of that little boy’s corpse. This is a result of government policies that are intended to make it difficult for refugees to enter the country. This is the result of having an immigration policy that deliberately over regulates the entry of people into Canada, even when they are sponsored and funded and are not going to be any sort of public burden. The minister reponsible, Chris Alexander, has repeatedly lied about the number of refugees that have been allowed into the country, claiming more than 1600, when the actual number is fewer than 300. How can anyone believe that this government will bring in the 10,000 Syrian refuges that it has promised to admit into the country? The Harper government has lied about so many things, so many times. Their answer to the refugee problem in Syria? Bombing! Harper says the way to solve a humanitarian crisis is to kill people.

I think everyone should see the picture of that dead little boy. I think they should see pictures of people  being bombed and the results of bombing campaigns. I think everyone needs to be faced with the consequences of their government’s actions.  But, say, I’m not going to publish the photo of Alan Kurdi here — after all, many internet filters would then block this post because it might offend people’s sense of taste. Instead, just so we’re clear, here are pictures of two of the people who caused that child to drown. Oh, and another glimpse of Goya.

Left to right: Prime Minister Stephen Harper; Saturn devourer of children; Chris Alexander, Honorable Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.

Left to right: Prime Minister Stephen Harper; Saturn, devourer of children; Chris Alexander, Honorable Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.

Good Books: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

In 1968, I heard a history professor say that Thucydides explained the Vietnam War. Thirty-five years later I heard other historians citing Thucydides as a guide to invading Iraq. At that time, we were told that General, turned Secretary of State, Colin Powell kept a quotation from Thucydides on display in his office and that the Naval War College had introduced The Peloponnesian War into its curriculum. This was actually done in 1972 by Admiral Stansfield Turner who thought that Thucydides had a lot to say about Vietnam and the Cold War. Turner was echoing General, turned Secretary of State, George Marshall, who said in 1947, that Thucydides provided a guide to the Cold War. Since people who shape military and political policies that have consequences for all of us use Thucydides as a guide, it makes sense to have some familiarity with this two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old book.

Bust of Thucydides, Royal Ontario Museum [photo:captmondo Wikipedia Commons]

Bust of Thucydides, Royal Ontario Museum [photo:captmondo Wikimedia Commons]

The city states of ancient Greece turned back two invasions by the mighty Persian empire. The second of these invasions ended with a great victory for Greek forces at Plataea in 479 BC. After this the Persians stayed away from Greece. Athens organized Greek colonies that had been ruled by Persia into the Delian League and this is where Thucydides begins his story.

Athens and Sparta are the strongest of the Greek states. They combined to defeat a great enemy, but now are suspicious of one another. The Cold War analogy begins here. It works, up to a point: the quick, inventive, democratic Athenians as Americans versus the slow, brutal, militarist Spartans/Soviets. But there are some differences that should be noted.

First, Athenian democracy (government of the People) has only a slight resemblance to modern forms. The Athenians made decisions via voting in their assemblies by representatives of the population who are selected by lot. Every eligible citizen is expected to be willing to serve when his name is drawn. “Eligible” does not include women or slaves; it does include male citizens aged thirty or more who have a certain amount of property. There were possibly thirty thousand of these, a tenth of the total population of Athens.

Nor does Sparta practice communism; it is a very aristocratic society (government of the Few). In times past, the Spartans were Dorians who moved south into the Peloponnese where they overcame and enslaved the population of Messenia. The Messenians work the farms that feed Sparta, while young Spartan men are separated by age into cohorts that train, incessantly, as soldiers.  Annually, Sparta ceremonially declares war on its slaves and Spartan citizen soldiers murder a number of them as part of their training. The Spartan army is reputed to be invincible, but Sparta hesitates to send it very far away, fearing that the slaves will revolt and there will be no one to fight them. The Spartans have a dual monarchy, but hard decisions are made by an assembly of landed aristocrats.

Sparta and Athens come to blows and conclude a treaty in 446 BC that is supposed to last for thirty years. Meanwhile, Athens tightens its grip on the Delian League cities and begins to be seen less as a liberator and more as an imperial power. Thucydides says that the main cause of the war that breaks out in 431 BC is Spartan fear of an Athenian empire. It is possible to turn that statement on its head and say that the main cause of the Peloponnesian War was Athens’ desire for an empire.

A map. Argos is neutral sometimes, but allies with Athens before the battle at Mantinea. Pylos is the foothold in the Peloponnese won by Athens. Potidaea is top center, directly underneath the

A map. Argos is neutral sometimes, but allies with Athens before the battle at Mantinea. Pylos is the foothold in the Peloponnese won by Athens. Potidaea is top center, directly underneath the “h” of Olynthos, halfway down the first of the three peninsulas that scraggle into the Aegean. [via http://www.shoretechnology.com/Oceanis46.htm ]

Corcyra (= Corfu), on the northwest coast of Greece, is engaged in civil war. Corcyra invites Athens to send some ships, otherwise they will have to get friendly with Corinth. Since Corinth and Corcyra each have a navy, together they might challenge Athens. Athens fears that and sends a force which winds up engaged with Corinth. On the other side of Greece, to the northeast, is the city of Potidaea, a Corinthian colony, which Athens fears may support its founder city. Athens makes impossible demands of Potidaea to provoke a war and lands an army there which also battles Corinthian forces. Corinth complains to Sparta, its ally,  that Athens has violated the treaty and war officially begins in 431 BC.

Donald Kagan is currently the top expert on the Peloponnesian War and he has compared its beginning to the onset of World War I when the actions of small nations brought on a struggle between great powers. Kagan also looks to other conflicts where Thucydides is applicable as we shall see.

The Spartan strategy is to invade Athenian territory in mid-summer, when the grain is ripe, and destroy crops and farms until Athens sends out its army to fight. Athens, on the other hand, follows the strategy of Pericles: do not engage the Spartan ground troops but leave the conflict up to the navy, where the strength of Athens lies. Consider Athens an island, he says, and defend it with ships. Keep a tight rein on the cities that are part of the Delian/Athenian League, because the tribute received from these cities will finance the war. Do not engage in new conquests or risky ventures. Follow these precepts and you will prevail.

So the Spartan army invades and the Athenians, all of them, move inside the city walls. It is uncomfortable: people are huddled in camps inside the long walls that stretch to the harbor and are crowded into various locations in the city itself. These refugees find it difficult to watch as the Spartans burn their homes and destroy their harvest. After several weeks of pillage, the Spartan army goes home. The refugees leave the city and rebuild their farms. Over the next few months, into the winter, Athens carries out some daring manuvers and is somewhat successful. Events seem to support the strategy of Pericles. Now he gives a speech at the funeral rites of those Athenians who have been killed in the war. Athens, he says, is the school of Greece. It is greatness and all the rest of Hellas looks up to Athens.

Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original. [photo: Jastrow Wikipedia Commons]

Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original. [photo: Jastrow Wikipedia Commons]

Next summer, the Spartans invade again and, once again, the Athenians seek shelter inside the city walls. But this time disease breaks out, a fierce plague that spreads quickly amongst the crowded mass of people. Experts have different opinions on what this disease could have been; guesses range from measles to smallpox to bubonic plague. Anyway, many Athenians die. Pericles is blamed and some want to give up the war. Pericles quiets them:

You should remember… that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to recede is no longer possible… For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. [all quotes from The Landmark Thucydides, see Notes]

It strikes me that Pericles appeals to fear, just as the two military ventures, in Corcyra and Potidaea, were undertaken out of fear of what the enemy might do. Likewise, Sparta has formed its own alliance from fear of Athens, then is dragged into war by its partners.

In Athens, the plague rages on. Thucydides contracts the disease but recovers. Pericles contracts the disease and dies. After the death of Pericles, a pro-war faction directs Athenian actions.

Fighting occurs in other places in Greece over the next few years. Athenian forces open up a front near Messenia; Sparta becomes concerned about a slave uprising and keeps its army close to home thereafter. Some slaves offer to fight for Sparta in exchange for freedom. The Spartans invite those who had most distinguished themselves in the wars to come forward, “the object being to test them, as it was thought  that [these]…would be the most high-spirited and the most apt to rebel.” Some two thousand come forward to accept their freedom and the Spartans murder them all. Even so, Sparta is later forced to enlist other slaves who then are sent to the ongoing struggle around Potidaea.

The Greek city states had warred against one another for centuries and had established certain rules of warfare. Heralds could travel unmolested through combat zones, a battle was followed by a truce in which each army recovered its dead, and temples were sacred to all and places of refuge for the dispossessed. These rules go by the wayside as the war continues. Morality and law disappear. Those who might argue for a moral path are afraid to speak, fearful that those who want war will call them traitors them. One example of atrocity: Athens has hired some Thracian mercenaries but decides not to use them. These are being returned north in 413 BC when their Athenian commander decides to attack Mycalessus, a small, poorly defended city:

The Thracians bursting into Mycallessus sacked the houses and temples, and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither youth nor age but killing all they fell in with, one after the other, children and women, and even beasts of burden, and whatever other living creatures they saw… Everywhere confusion reigned and death in all its shapes; and in particular they attacked a boys’ school, the largest that there was in that place, into which the children had just gone, and massacred them all.

Thucydides says that most Greek cities wanted Sparta to prevail over Athens, which was viewed as a tyrannical power. Athens foments rebellion by the People against the Few whenever possible, but these new democratic cities tend to then seek freedom from Athens just like the oligarchies they replaced. Another front opens up for Athens as Aegean cities liberated from Persia renounce the Delian/Athenian League. Some begin negotiating with Sparta. Athens now supports forces in the south Peloponnese, on the islands west and north of Greece, in the area in the northeast around Potidaea and the approach to the Black Sea, and the Aegean islands east of Greece.

Both Sparta and Athens are exhausted and each wants to repair its own alliances and build up its forces so a treaty is signed in 421 BC that ends the war for a few years although both sides realize that it may start again at any time. This time it is Sparta’s troubles with neighboring Argos that eventually leads to a resumption of hostilities. In the meanwhile there is continual fighting as rebellious cities are brought to heel.

At the Battle for Potidaea, as the war began, Socrates saved the life of young Alcibiades. Alcibiades is a golden boy — beautiful, accomplished, arrogant. Alcibiades does not want peace with Sparta and subverts Spartan diplomacy, lying both to the Spartans and the Athenian assembly. Athens allies with Argos, the treaty breaks down, and a huge battle is fought at Mantinea in 418 BC. Sparta is the victor but at a cost of 300 men that she cannot afford to lose. There is a new truce between Athens and war-weary Sparta, but no one believes that it will last for a long time. Alcibiades is now a commander who has achieved some fame. He proposes that Athens send a force to Sicily in response to a request by one of the cities there that is engaged in a struggle with Syracuse, the major city.

Bust supposedly of Alcibiades. [photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen Wikimedia Commons]

Bust supposedly of Alcibiades. [photo:
Marie-Lan Nguyen Wikimedia Commons]

This is not completely off the wall, Athens had sent a couple of expeditions to Sicily earlier in the war. Sicily has strategic value — if you want to conquer the west Mediterranean — and is a producer of grain, which Athens needs. But the leading general, Nicias, argues that Athens has more pressing matters: there are forces committed in the area around Potidaea, revolt constantly a threat in the Aegean, and there are places in both Attica and the Peloponnese that require attention. But Alcibiades manages to persuade the assembly that a Sicilian expedition is a good idea even though most of those voting have no real idea of Sicily’s size nor the political situation there. Trying to dissuade the assembly, Nicias says that such an expedition would have to include huge numbers of ships and men. To his chagrin, the assembly votes to give him everything that he wants.

Although the stated purpose of the expedition is to assist Sicilian and Italian cities in a struggle against Syracuse, what the Athenians really want is to conquer the entire island, adjacent Italy, and perhaps then move against Carthage in North Africa. There is much chatter about the superiority of the Athenian miliary and there is a widespread notion that Sicily and Italy will welcome the Athenians and that there is enough wealth there to pay for the venture.

So the great expedition sets sail. In Italy, the Athenians find little support nor is there any in Sicily — everyone recognizes that this huge force is an invasion and they mean to resist. Nor can Athens find the funding that was promised them. Nicias proposes making a show and then leaving, but is overruled. Meanwhile, back in Athens, the enemies of Alcibiades have accused him of various blasphemies, including defiling holy mysteries and vandalizing the herms, phallic statues that stand outside many houses. This is no small matter as many believe it is a sign that oligarchs are planning to overthrow Athenian democracy. People are arrested and executed as traitors without evidence. Alcibiades pretends to sail back to Athens to stand trial but jumps ship and makes his way to Sparta where he offers his services. Just before leaving Sicily, though, he warns the rulers of Messana that Athens is fomenting a rebellion there and he gives names to the Messanians who have the plotters killed. Subsequently the Athenian assault fails.

Herma from the island of Siphon, National Archeological Museum, Athens [photo:Ricardo André Frantz Wikimedia Commons]

Herma from the island of Siphon, National Archeological Museum, Athens [photo:Ricardo André Frantz Wikimedia Commons]

Alcibiades persuades Sparta to aid Syracuse. Meanwhile, the Athenians have suffered losses of ships and men and request reinforcements, which Athens sends. Things worsen for the Athenians. Nicias asks that Athens send yet more ships and men and also asks that he be replaced as general. Athens refuses to remove him but sends more reinforcements. The Corinthians bring ships to Sicily and attack Athenian supply vessels. Also, Sparta has taken Declea, just northeast of Athens, and now control the land routes around the city. All of Athens’ supplies now must come in by ship.

A large-scale assault on Syracuse fails in 413 BC and an Athenian general proposes that they withdraw and go back home. But now it is Nicias who refuses — he does not want to be tried and executed as a coward and a failure, he would rather die as a soldier. Syracuse attacks the Athenian fleet and scores a stunning victory. Syracuse traps the remaining ships in harbor and destroys them, thus ending any hope of Athenian troops leaving the island. The Athenians retreat inland, the Sicilian and Spartan forces chop them up and force their surrender. The Athenian generals are executed and thousands of troops are sent to the quarries to labor for Sicilian masters.

The failure of the Sicilian venture ultimately costs Athens the war and her empire, so this is the key part of the book, the place where political scientists and generals look for meaning. The general opinion today, I think, is that Nicias was an inadequate general. There is disagreement on whether the expedition was a good idea or not, though the fact that it failed causes most to believe that it was not. Pericles had warned Athens:

I have… reasons to hope for a favorable outcome, if you can consent not to combine schemes of fresh conquest with the conduct of the war, and will abstain from willfully involving yourselves in other dangers; indeed, I am more afraid of our own blunders than of the enemy’s devices.

But the Athenians had forgotten his words. Assuming that the decision to invade Sicily was a foregone conclusion, how could disaster have been averted?  Donald Kagan thinks that Athens needed to send fewer troops in the beginning (so as not to alarm the Sicilians) and more troops later (and, of course, put a better general in charge — like the bold Alcibiades). Thucydides himself says that the expedition “failed not so much through a miscalculation of the power of those against whom it was sent, as through a fault in the senders in not taking the best measures afterwards to assist those who had gone out…” — “best measures” not being defined — but he also calls the expedition a “blunder”, one of a number that were made by politicos out for self-aggrandizement — men calling for more and bolder acts of violence, men such as Cleon, who Thucydides caricatures unmercifully. Cleon is portrayed as what we now call a “chicken hawk”, someone calling for war but unwilling to fight. Eventually, Cleon is forced to lead an Athenian contingent. He has some success but is killed at Potidaea, which has become a graveyard for important leaders from both Athens and Sparta.

One person who thought the Sicilian expedition a blunder was the political scientist, Hans Morgenthau, author of the classic text on international relations, Politics Among Nations. Morgenthau is usually cited as the founder of the Realist school of diplomacy, a group which is said to include Henry Kissinger among others. Realists think that power is very important, the most critical factor in international politics.

In 1955 Morgenthau was enlisted by the Eisenhower administration to check out the situation in Southeast Asia. He reported back that things were terrible and that the place had little value to the US which should sit back and let the Chinese and the Vietnamese duke it out, as they inevitably would. That was not what the administration wanted to hear and Morgenthau was shipped back to academia. He began writing articles for various magazines criticizing US involvement in IndoChina. By 1964 he was participating in teach-ins on the Vietnam War which he compared to the Sicilian Expedition:

I have always emphasized the importance of power in all its manifestations as an instrument of foreign policy. But I have as consistently been opposed to equating national power with military power, and I have warned against the improvident and foolish use of power. I am indeed convinced that the use we have been making of our power in Vietnam for more than a decade has been improvident and foolish, and it has been so to an ever increasing degree.

Donald Kagan seems of the opinion that the Vietnam war was lost through “defeatism”:

…deep and violent dissension at home was, perhaps, the major element in compelling the United States to accept a humiliating defeat… It was the political victory of enemies of the administration and the war it has undertaken that brought defeat.

Later, he was one of the original signatories of the neo-Conservative Project for a New American Century Statement of Principles. The PNAC called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and encouraged the invasion of Iraq. Kagan’s sons. one of whom was co-founder of the PNAC, are often listed as important neo-Conservatives. I cannot say that Kagan totally equates “national power with military power”, but he has been very much in favor of American using its military power.

Kagan likes to point out the irrational and intangible factors that cause war: “power is never pursued for itself, but always for the sake of some value or values.” “Honor” is one of these values and Kagan says that when Thucydides says “honor” he means “prestige”. Kagan says that the Realists, like Morgenthau, tend to discount these irrational factors. I don’t think much of this argument. Neither Morgenthau nor Thucydides discounts the irrational factors in warfare — but that brings us to the part of Thucydides’ writings that was most often cited in the Iraqi Invasion of 2002: the Melian dialogue.

Melos is a small island city in the Aegean that has ties to Sparta. Nevertheless, the Melians promise to stay neutral in the conflict. Athens demands that Melos become a tributary member of the Delian/Athenian League or else be destroyed. The diplomatic exchange between Athens and Melos is presented by Thucydides as a dialogue:

 Athenians: “…you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Melians:  “…it is expedient—we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest—that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right… And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate upon.”

Athenians: “This… is a risk that we are content to take. …we have come here in the interest of our empire, and… for the preservation of your country; as we would desire to exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.”

Melians: “And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?”

Athenians: “Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.”

The Melian stance may be irrational, but it certainly isn’t one unfamiliar to Athens. Pericles had said:

 …if the only choice was between submission with loss of independence, and danger with the hope of preserving that independence — in such a case it is he who will not accept the risk that deserves blame, not he who will.

Give me liberty or give me death. So the Melians resist. Athens overruns the island, kills all the men, enslaves the women and children, and ships a bunch of Athenians over to re-colonize the place.

In the early stages of the Iraq War, neo-cons constantly referred to the Melian dialogue. “The strong do what they will” and the US was definitely the strongest military power in the world at the time. As we all know, things in Iraq didn’t go quite as planned due to certain irrational factors — religious and ethnic differences, for example — and perhaps the Melians have the last word here as they advise Athens:

 Melians: “But do you consider that there is no security in the policy which we indicate? …How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at our case and conclude from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?”

But the neo-Cons took no account of any of this and seem rather to have accepted the premise that Kagan claims is the basis of Realist thinking: that superior military power is supreme in any confrontation. Realist Morgenthau emphasized certain intangibles as part of national power — for instance, moral concepts, such as justice, as the Melians said, “…our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right…”, and cultural power as opposed to military might.

Greek hoplites at war. The Spartans used flute-players to help coordinate their movements. [via http://cliojournal.wikispaces.com/Hoplites]

Greek hoplites at war. The Spartans used flute-players to help coordinate their movements. [via http://cliojournal.wikispaces.com/Hoplites%5D

After the Sicilian debacle, the war drags on for nine years. The Spartans change their style and begin building a navy. One of their commanders is Alcibiades who operates in the Aegean aiding colonies rebelling against Athens. There are a lot of these since virtually every member of the Delian/Athenian League revolts once they hear of Athens failing in Sicily. But Alcibiades is not trusted by the Spartans and he finally seeks a post with the Persians.

Persia is the greatest power in this part of the world at the time. A Persian governor, Tissaphernes, tells Alcibiades that a navy is being constructed at that very moment, which might aid Sparta under the right circumstances. Sparta signs a treaty with Persia, promising that the Persians could regain control over all their former holdings now held by Athens. It is a mark of how low Athenian prestige has fallen that the prospect of Persian rule does not deter a single state from revolting against Athens, their self-proclaimed liberator who is now despised as a tyrant. So much for being the school of Greece.

Thucydides was still around when the Peloponnesian war ended — there are several references to the war’s end in his history — but the book breaks off in 411 BC, in mid-sentence. It is generally assumed that Thucydides died before he could finish his work. At one time, there was a theory that he was murdered by political opponents, but this is generally discounted now. Anyway, Athens fights back after the Sicilian expedition. Alcibiades, not getting anywhere with Tissaphernes, manages to get back with Athens. Although for a long time he is afraid to return to the city, he commands an Athenian contingent in the Aegean. Tissaphernes is replaced by a new governor, a member of the royal family who begins to aid Sparta with funds. The Spartan navy grows and is often successful at sea.

In Athens, an aristocratic faction seizes power after the Sicilian defeat and installs a government of the Few — the Four Hundred — in place of democracy. For a time this government, which pretends to be made up of five thousand, prevails, but eventually must give way to a real government of Five Thousand. It’s not quite the democracy of old, but close enough to be able to govern without too much dissent. After a major Athenian victory, with Alcibiades one of the victorious commanders, democracy is restored. The restored democracy makes Alcibiades supreme commander. He is defeated several times and a large portion of the Athenian navy is destroyed by Sparta while it is under the command of a crony of Alcibiades. Alcibiades is held responsible and is relieved of his command. He takes up residence on the Hellespont, never to return to Athens.

in 405 BC, the Athenian navy is anchored in the Hellespont. Alcibiades talks to the commander, warning him that he is in a bad position and that he should move his vessels. Or, alternatively, he may offer Thracian aid to the Athenians in exchange for being brought back into the Athenian command. Whichever version is correct, the Athenians ignore him and. a few days later, the Spartan navy destroys Athens’ fleet, most of which is wrecked while beached.

Athens now has no navy and, more important, no access to the Black Sea, the source of grain that feeds the city. Athens has no choice but to surrender. Sparta is urged to raze Athens to the ground but decides instead to let the city stand but to tear down its walls. A group called the Thirty Tyrants is appointed to run Athens and, in true Athenian form, they proceed to murder anyone they think might be a problem. The Thirty Tyrants are overthrown and the new democratic government tries and executes those it thinks are not on side, including Socrates. Alcibiades is killed in Asia Minor by Spartans while trying to negotiate with the Persians.

It strikes me that perhaps Athens, rather than Sparta, is a better Cold War analogue for the Soviet Union. After all, it was the USSR satellites who broke away at the first opportunity, much like the Athenian tributary states. But it also seems to me that if a powerful nation wants to take lessons from the Peloponnesian War, it might best look to Persia, the ultimate victor in this struggle. Persia regained all her old holdings in the Aegean that were lost to Athens and never lost a man or a ship doing so. They spent a little money building Sparta’s navy but nothing like what a war would have cost them. They encouraged the Greek states to fight one another but kept apart from the struggle until it was time to gather the spoils. Perhaps this is a good example of the effective use of international power.

Notes:

All references are from The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, which I recommend to anyone wanting to read Thucydides if for no other reason than it has ample maps and an excellent index. But the Richard Crawley translation it uses, first published in 1874, does not satisfy some people. Thucydides writes, reportedly, very difficult Greek and some have asserted that each translation is but a “version” authored by the translator. I read no Greek. Crawley’s translation is clear (which Thucydides may not be). Othe versions include the Rex Warner translation, History Of The Peloponnesian War, published by Penguin. More recent translations are discussed here and here. Thomas Hobbes made the first English translation in 1629; it is still very readable.

Mary Beard has remarked that the Melian Dialogue differs from translator to translator. The differences are those of nuance; the meaning is still clear, I think.

Universal Open Carry

The other day I came across an item on one of my favorite blogs, Nag On The Lake, about a new kid’s book, My Parents Open Carry.
oc_oc

Now this is great because children ought to learn not to despise minorities with peculiar life styles. And then the publisher announced that, right now, you could get a special two-for-one bundle with a book of parental guidance, Raising Boys Feminists Will Hate .
oc_boys

The author says, “Feminists would love nothing more than to take your son and eradicate his masculine uniqueness. …raise your little man into a lion, capable of leading the next generation into a moral culture of God, family and country.”

Which is really special! But it made me wonder how a boy raised like that would handle an open-carry feminist and do you want her to hate him.

oc_sharon

Now some reviewers have noticed that the art for My Parents Open Carry seems taken from those kid’s books with titles like Johnny Has Two Dads that tried to spread understanding about gay families. Check this out. Does Dad look gay to you?

 

Dad is seated. Does he look gay to you? Is the fellow standing with arms crossed, one of Dad's special friends?  Does he belong to a visible minority group? Is that why he's not carrying?

Dad is seated. Does he look gay to you? Is the fellow standing with arms crossed, one of Dad’s special friends? Does he belong to a visible minority group? Is that why he’s not carrying?

There probably are open-carry gays, some of those log-cabin Republicans, I bet, though I believe that this magazine is a phony:

oc_Gay-Sentinal

Even so, wouldn’t it liven up your local Pride Parade to have guys in buttless chaps carrying AK-47s marching beside the floats?

So, if feminists and gays start toting weapons, will it become okay for Blacks? The Panthers tried carrying weapons back in the 1970s and wound up being shot to death by the police. Still, there are black gun enthusiasts, like Colion Noir, host of the NRA sponsored Noir program.

That's Colion Noir, who got noticed a while back when he claimed that Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was a gun enthusiast. (Hey! Do you thing his name really is "Noir"? Because, that's French or something.)

That’s Colion Noir, who got noticed a while back when he claimed that Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was a gun enthusiast. (Hey! Do you thing his name really is “Noir”? Because, that’s French or something.)

Perhaps now, after years of battling for equality, Blacks can arm themselves openly. Perhaps we have come that far. And Hispanics and Moslems, too! Perhaps now, everyone can open-carry. Some of you will object, saying that there are folks who can’t afford decent weaponry, and to you I have this reply: it’s time for a National Gun Ownership program that gives weapons to everyone.

No, this isn’t charity, like food stamps, this is a program to provide one of the necessities of life. Some municipalities have even passed laws requiring their citizens to be armed. So, it seems to me, if government is going to dictate your possessions, then it has a duty to help provide them. All the disadvantaged should be armed: Single Moms Who Shoot, Open-Carry Homeless, Locked and Loaded Derelicts — everyone!

Universal Gun Ownership. Because once all the poor and dispossessed are armed, then they, too, can pursue the American Dream.

 

 

Miss World

The number-one rated British television program of 1970 was the Miss World Contest and 24 Million plus viewers were certainly entertained that night as they witnessed a bombing, a protest that included missiles hurled at an internationally famous performer, and a scandalous judging result, but those are only parts of the most infamous beauty pageant ever held.

Most infamous, that is, if we except the ancient contests described by the mystic Nicholas Roerich, whose ideas form the basis for Stravinsky’s Les Sacres de Printemps. That ballet depicts the selection of a young maiden by a prehistoric tribe who then sacrifice her to the Earth. Something like this is preserved in fairy tales where the chosen princess is staked out for the dragon as an offering so that the monster doesn’t eat everyone else.  Other fairy tales tell of a gathering of young women so that the handsome, wealthy Prince can select a bride. These being fiction, he always chooses the Goose-Girl or Cinderella, but the historical reality, in early medieval Byzantium for instance, was that “bride-shows” of eligible young women only included members of the aristocracy — can’t have the Emperor marrying trash, you know.

The modern beauty contest had its beginnings at the beach where young women were allowed to wear somewhat more revealing clothing than other places. Someone got the idea of putting all these “bathing beauties” on display. The ancestral Miss America pageant consisted of young women in bathing attire being wheeled in wicker beach chairs along Atlantic City’s Boardwalk in 1920. “Beach revues” were popular in America until the end of the 1920s when they were banned as immoral — for a while.

In England, beach resorts in the summertime, places like Blackpool, Brighton, and Bournemouth, had a reputation for sexual license — young working men and women would take their holidays there and, so we are told, did what young men and women do. (See Steve Humphries’ A Secret World of Sex for more.) Various kinds of shows and contests were held that involved women in bathing suits, which were the most revealing outfits they could wear in public without being arrested.

So, in 1951, when promoter Eric Morley was asked to come up with something special for the Festival of Britain, he immediately thought of a contest featuring young women in swim suits. But — and this is crucial — rather than a mundane local contest, Morley decided to have the women represent different nations. Also, he had them wear the brand new bikini style suit. That first contest was won by Miss Sweden. When Morley heard that another promoter was putting together a Miss Universe contest, he named his own show Miss World and began staging it as an annual event. After the pope condemned the show, Morley banned bikinis from contests for a long while. He was already skating close to the edge of propriety and he knew it. The concept of ogling women’s bodies belonged to burlesque and other low entertainment, these pageants were all about beauty, the beauty of chaste young women who represented ideal femininity. They were Art! Sort of.

The first Miss World winners and the last to pose in bikinis, 1951.

The first Miss World winners and the last to pose in bikinis, 1951. [pageantasia via vestarz.com]

Miss World grew along with its television audience and, by 1970, was a huge affair. But feminism (then called “women’s lib”) had also come on the scene. In 1968, feminist protestors had disrupted the Miss America contest at Atlantic City — there was talk of bra-burning and so on but this seems to have been a media myth. Still, the American feminists had set a precedent: beauty pageants were degrading spectacles where women were seen as so much meat and they were proper targets for protest. In England, two separate groups decided to have a go at the 1970 Miss World pageant, each unaware of the other.

One group had not yet decided on a name for itself though sometimes it signed manifestoes as “Butch Cassidy” — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released in 1969 and many young men liked to see themselves as Robert Redford or Paul Newman, and, no doubt, there were young women who wanted to be Katharine Ross, helpmate to a romantic young outlaw. Later, the group would call itself the Angry Brigade, a name that they might have picked up from the feminist protestors who used the word “angry” a lot. Or they may have derived it from French student protestors — les enragés, as they called themselves. The Angry Brigade had determined to use violence and, from late 1968 until they were busted in 1972, planted more than twenty-five bombs. Some exploded, some didn’t. Somehow they managed not to kill anyone.

The second group was composed of feminists and the youth wing of the Liberal Party. They picketed and demonstrated. They also got tickets to the show and members carried in small sacks of flour and stink bombs which they meant to hurl at suitable targets.

Meanwhile, the Miss World organization had other problems. Anti-apartheid groups were upset that South Africa was competing. The contest organizers then decided to have two contestants from that country: Miss South Africa, who was white, and Miss Africa South, who was black. This, of course, was not enough and there were still people upset that Miss World was violating the South Africa boycott.

A little after 2:30 AM, November 20, the day of the Miss World pageant, a bomb blew a hole in the floor boards of a BBC Outside Broadcast van parked near the Albert Hall, where the evening’s festivities were to take place. Little attention was paid to the bomb blast because the police had decided not to publicize this sort of event. Throughout its short life, the Angry Brigade was plagued by a lack of press until ten people were arrested, charged, and tried in 1972 for twenty-five bombings.

Peter Dimmock, a Miss World judge and General Manager of BBC Outside Broadcast, seemed unperturbed by the bombing as he and the rest of the judging panel were introduced that night. It is easy to understand the selection of entertainment industry representatives, including Glen Campbell, Nina van Pallandt, and Joan Collins, the unabashed Queen of Trash. It is a little more difficult to see why the High Commissioner of Malawi (who was not named), the also-unnamed ambassador to Indonesia, and the Maharajah of Baroda (which was eliminated by the Indian government shortly after the contest), were judges, but judge Eric Gairy, the Premier of Grenada, certainly had an interest in the pageant, as we shall see. [introduction of the judges on YouTube]

Protestors outside the Albert Hall.

Protestors outside the Albert Hall. [via flashbak.com]

Protestors had assembled outside Albert Hall before ticket-holders arrived. They did little to disrupt the proceedings, just demonstrated, carrying signs saying that they were angry and calling the pageant a cattle market.

This notion was picked up by Master of Ceremonies, Bob Hope, who came out to do a bit while the contestants changed into evening gowns. Hope said that he had gone to the meat market in back to check out the calves. Ha. Ha. There was more in this vein, since Hope’s basic stand-up routine consisted of double-entendres combined with leers at the audience. Hope was a veteran of old-fashioned burlesque where baggy-pants comedians would trade lines with strippers in between the acts. Burlesque, in that form, disappeared by the 1940s, but Hope was still performing from that frame of reference. The protestors inside Albert Hall were supposed to wait until all the contestants were on stage before launching their missiles but Hope’s jokes so enraged the protest co-ordinator that she gave the go-ahead signal to her group.

Bob Hope is flustered as flour bombs hit the stage. [YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reCX3_OAkv8]

Bob Hope is flustered as flour bombs hit the stage. [YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reCX3_OAkv8%5D

Suddenly, a projectile landed on the stage, followed by many more. These were flour bombs only, I think; I cannot find a reliable account of stinkbombs bursting on stage. Hope backed off. Some accounts have Julia Morley, pageant organizer and wife to founder Eric, grabbing his ankle to keep him from exiting the stage. Security guards quickly rousted the trouble-makers and Hope continued, saying that there was going to be payback for this outrage and that anyone interfering with something so wonderful as Miss World must be on “some kind of dope”. Yes! He did. Check out the video.

Now, bombings and booings being contained, the beautiful pageant continued. The winner was announced: Miss Grenada! What? Right away, Miss World fans complained that Miss Sweden should have been the winner. In fact, four of the judges revealed that they had voted Miss Sweden into top spot, only two opting for Miss Grenada. So the contest was fixed! A huge scandal erupted, larger than the protest and much, much larger than the bombing. Julia Morley was forced to resign as organizer (though she was reinstated a week or so later). Miss Sweden wrote a memoir saying “I was robbed!”, even though she had dissed the contest before the competition, saying:

she felt “just like a puppet. I don’t even want to win,” and she sympathized with women’s liberation supporters who denounced the contest as “a cattle market that degrades women.” Miss Sweden would have walked out on the contest if it were not for the fact she was under contract to the organizers. 

She retracted those statements the day after making them.

A special team of journalists was dispatched to Grenada where they discovered that the elevation of Miss Grenada had nothing to do with the fact that Eric Morley wanted a license to open a casino in Grenada. No. Nothing to do with that since everyone denied it, some of them even before they were asked. Ballots from the contest were displayed and the voting process — something like Preferential Voting — was explained. Some were convinced that the contest had been on the up and up.

Miss Grenada did make history in another way: she was the first black Miss World. Here it should be mentioned that Miss Africa South was runner-up. Just to put this in some kind of context, 1971 was the first year that a black woman was even allowed to compete in the Miss America contest.

Miss Grenada crowned as Miss World. Runner-up Miss Africa South to her left and fourth-place Miss Sweden at far right.

Miss Grenada crowned as Miss World. Runner-up Miss Africa South to her left and fourth-place Miss Sweden at far right. [missosology.info]

This was far from the last Miss World scandal, but first let’s look at the Angry Brigade who were upstaged twice at the event. No one now is really certain who was part of the group. There were a lot of dissident folks in those days and they all had their reasons and their theories which did not necessarilly match anyone else’s. Some of these folks got together to create an identity and, perhaps, an organization. They discussed what they should call themselves. One possibility was The Red Rankers. See, Labour Minister Roy Jenkins, who had reformed the police, had a pwoblem pwonouncing his Rs, so… Perhaps in the end they decided that “Angry Brigade” had enough Rs to make Jenkins sound like Elmer Fudd, so anything else was just overkill. Anyway, the Tories came into power and that government determined to destroy these bomber type groups by whatever means necessary.

In late 1971, Stuart Christie, a man who was exercised about the Spanish Civil War and who had served several years in a Spanish prison for trying to assassinate Franco, drove up to a certain house in Stoke Newington, only to be met by police and arrested on the basis of two detonators found in his car. Christie says that these were planted by the cops and police behavior during this episode does little to shake that assertion. Other people living at that address had just been arrested. Altogether, ten people were charged with Angry Brigade crimes. Several of them have since stated that innocents were arrested and guilty parties ignored, but they have all decided not to name any names.

The first two people to face trial included Jake Prescott, who later said:

As the only working-class member, I was not surprised to be the first in and last out of prison. When I look back on it, I was the one who was angry and the people I met were more like the Slightly Cross Brigade.

Prescott was convicted on the basis of testimony from a jailhouse informer and because he had actually addressed envelopes on three of the missives sent out by the Angry Brigade, claiming to have done this and that. Prescott thinks that he was fitted up and is pretty dismissive of the other Angry Brigadiers. The other person charged at this time was not found guilty. Prescott got fifteen years.

Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson from a BBC interview filmed while they  were out on bail during the trial.

Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson from a BBC interview filmed while they were out on bail during the trial.

The big trial was of the eight others connected to the Brigade. Four seemed to be major players, four others, not so much. The major players included two young women, Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson. Someone got the bright idea of taking photos of the women and giving over the rights to friends who then collected a fee every time some British tab used the pictures. Everyone understood that the press would seize on sexual aspects of the case and photos of the women would be far more valuable than those of the male defendants. The license fees went directly into the defense fund of the Stoke Newington Eight. You can work out for yourself the interesting sexual politics of funding the defense of militant feminists by supplying their photos to an exploitative press.

And the press was incredibly exploitative, even for Britain, which has some really scummy newspapers. “Sex Orgies in the House of Blood” was a Sun headline. Because, you see, if this is a mixed event, with both men and women, then there had to be orgies. Right? The blood, incidentally, was supposedly from a turkey. Having for decades presided over turkey corpses twice a year at celebrations, I am inclined to let the Angry Brigade off on this charge. Even if they did kill a turkey, well, that’s what turkeys are for.

The judge instructed the jury that any nod or the slightest wink to actual bombers was enough to convict someone of conspiracy. In the end, the jury did not convict anyone of actually planting a bomb, but they did convict four of the eight with conspiracy to blow things up. Both women were convicted but the jury accepted that Christie was not guilty. The jury also asked the judge to show mercy and the judge responded with ten-year sentences for the four convicted criminals. He did, however, lower previously-convicted Prescott’s sentence to ten years from fifteen. Noblesse oblige, Jake.

Poster from 1971 during the trials. [hackneyhistory.wordpress.com]

Poster from 1971 during the trials. [hackneyhistory.wordpress.com]

The trial was the longest in British history up to that time (and maybe now, I don’t know), so the Angry Brigade got a lot of press and public reaction was mainly supportive. “We’re All Angry Now” was one response to the sentencing. Those convicted served seven years or so in prison, though the women were let off earlier for medical reasons like anorexia. Chivalry is the hand maiden of sexism, so to speak. Today, none of those convicted seem apologetic, in fact, they seem more angry than ever.

Miss World kept going. Next major scandal was in 1973. Contestants had to speak and show stage presence as part of their performance. The voting system was shifted to a majority rule. The winner was the first American Miss World, Marjorie Wallace. Within a short time, she became featured on tabloid front pages as she worked through various relationships with sports and entertainment figures. Probably the photographs of her deep-kissing Tom Jones were the final straw that caused her crown to be removed as unfit to represent Miss World.

The next year, Miss Wales was made Miss World, which lasted a little while until it was revealed that she had an eighteen-month-old child. She had never been married so was legal under the stated rules but…(see above Re: virgins, dragons, and all). She resigned.

Meanwhile, the South Africa/Africa South business really irritated a lot of folks and they kept complaining. Iceland, for example, quit having run-up pageants, though some beautiful people kept naming contestants from that country for Miss World. In 1976, though, a number of countries boycotted the contest and South Africa was kicked out until 1991, when apartheid ended.

In 1980, Miss Germany resigned after one day as Miss World, when it was revealed that she had posed for nude photos. (see above Re: virgins, dragons, et al).

In 1996, the pageant was held in Bangalore where there were massive protests about the swim suit part of the contest and threats to burn down the stage. The contestants were removed to the Seychelles, photographed in their bathing suits, and then returned to India for the remainder of the competition. This year may have marked the largest television audience ever for Miss World, many many millions, though who can trust Miss World stats?

Miss Israel for 1998, Linor Abargil, was raped at knifepoint by a travel agent before winning that year’s Miss World title. She now acts as a spokesperson for rape victims. Her story is told in the documentary Brave Miss World.

In 2001, Miss Nigeria became the first black African to win the title. The following year, serendipitously, the contest was held in Nigeria where Amina Lawal had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and being pregnant out of wedlock (you can reconcile those two charges as you wish). Many people protested the upcoming pageant and urged that it be cancelled. Amina Lawal herself begged to differ. She understood that the sentence by a local court was unlikely to stand on review and was reluctant to be a cause of national disgrace. Even so, many nations decided to boycott the contest. A Nigerian newspaper said that Mohammed (PBUH) might have selected a wife from the contestants. This upset enough people locally so that there were riots and over 200 people were killed in Kaduna. The pageant went ahead, in England, and many boycotting nations allowed their young women to participate in the new venue. Amina had her sentence overturned. By all accounts, she went on to an ordinary life.

This last scandal underlines a difficult aspect of Miss World. Many nations still regard beauty contests as worthy of regard. Venezuela, for instance, has been very active in supporting would-be beauty queens. And most Miss World winners have gone on to careers that were, at a minimum, fulfilling. Most, of course, have advanced in the entertainment industry though there are former Miss Worlds in management (yes) and other trades. Miss Grenada (1970), who became Grenada’s High Commissioner to Canada, said that this was an opportunity and she knew to grab it. Even runners-up, like Halle Berry, have made something of their appearance. So, how congruent are feminist meat market criticisms with the argument that women’s sexuality should always be veiled? Which side are you on?

That question was raised when the 2013 pageant, held in Indonesia, was condemned by Moslem clerics. In order to placate them, Miss World switched from a swimsuit competition to a “beach attire” show featuring sarongs.

Miss World has fallen on hard times, shuttling from one second-rate cable channel to another. British viewers of the most recent pageant were numbered in the thousands, rather than millions. Julia Morley, who runs the show single-handedly since the death of her husband in 2000, claims more than 2 Billion viewers watch Miss World, more than the World Cup, she says. She has inaugurated a new concept: Beauty With A Purpose and Miss World now has to serve as global ambassador for Good Causes. Can worldwide audiences keep the contest going when even hardline feminists regard beauty pageants as beneath their notice? World venues pay $5 Million or so just to host the contest. Miss World 2014 will return to its roots and be held in London.

Oh, and the Angry Brigade? It’s back.

Notes:

“The Judges of Miss World, 1970” gives bios and where-are-they-now info about the judges. If you don’t know who Nina van Pallandt is, or want to know more about Eric Gairy, you can look them up here.

Another Nickel in the Machine has a fine account of the 1970 protest with lots of video.

Missosology has everything you ever wanted to know about beauty pageants. Pageantopolis.com has many photos.

A protestor discusses her actions at Miss World for the BBC.

The Angry Brigade has lots written about it, there is a television documentary , which Stuart Christie calls the most comprehensive look at the group, and even a play. Stuart Christie has an autobiography, Granny Made Me An Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Man Who Walked Through Walls: Marcel Aymé

The movie poster below is for a 1951 film version of Marcel Aymé’s story “The Man Who Walked Through Walls”, first published in 1943 while German forces occupied France. No doubt a great many people wished they had the ability to pass through walls then.

Poster for the 1953 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Poster for the 1951 film version of The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Poster by surrealist Felix Labisse.

Before the War, Marcel Aymé had written several novels set in rural France. These were disdained by the snobbish Parisian literary establishment as was Aymé’s style, which incorporated Anglicisms and the patois of the Franche-Comte, where he was born in 1902. Even his children’s stories, collected as Stories from the Perching Cat [Les Contes du chat perché], were savaged by these critics. It didn’t help that Aymé often satirized the bourgeoisie and their hypocrisy. He ignored the critics and kept on writing.
Aymé was apolitical. He had tried to escape conscription but, at the age of eighteen, was taken into the army where he served as part of the French occupation of Germany in 1920. Before 1935, Aymé was considered a leftist, but in that year he signed a petition opposing French action against Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia. The petition was essentially a pacifist plea but contained troubling words that called the Ethiopians a “pack of tribes” and suggested that Italy was bringing Western civilization to savages. More to the point, the petition noted that France had a large empire of its own and had no business criticizing other nations until it cleaned up its own house.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

Marcel Ayme, 1940s.

The petition was signed by a number of right-wing intellectuals, including many connected with Action française, an extreme right publication that had begun life as an anti-Dreyfus journal. Other signatories included many French fascists including Robert Brasillach (of whom, more later). The petition was denounced by many on the left as a document of “fascist intellectualism”. It should be noted that, at this time, there were pacifists on both the left and the right (yes) and that anti-bourgeois sentiments were common to both. The left tended to be secular and republican with Marxism the core philosophy; the right was Catholic and royalist with a philosophical bent toward fascism.
France had a great many outright fascists who admired Mussolini’s model and there were many more who shared certain principles — nationalism, militarism, anti-semitism — with them. After the collapse of the French army in 1940, many of these became supporters of the Vichy puppet regime. Some openly proclaimed their satisfaction with the German conquest. “A divine surprise,” Charles Maurras called it.
German occupation of France was intended to be a soft affair, one that wouldn’t upset the citizens too much, and for a while, it was. Independent France still existed — on paper — in Vichy, which gave people an excuse to go along with the Germans, since it meant protecting France. The Germans put Francophiles in charge of occupied Paris — some were married to Frenchwomen — and they were quite sensitive to French feelings. French artists in particular had freedoms not known in other parts of occupied Europe.
Some French residents, such as Gertrude Stein, actively took up the cause of Marshall Pétain, “the savior of France” and head of the Vichy regime.  Stein translated a work of Petain’s into English. This book, which included long anti-semitic diatribes, was meant for publication in America. Stein wrote a foreword in which she compared Pétain to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin — in other words, the Nazi collaborator was the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers. Stein took up residence in Vichy territory. Her Paris apartment, full of priceless artwork, was sealed. When the Gestapo decided to open the seal, Picasso warned Bernard Faÿ, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale, who was unofficial Vichy Minister for Culture and Stein’s protector.  Faÿ ordered the Gestapo away. The Pétain book was never distributed in America.
Some others, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, intensified the expression of their thoughts. Céline, who was about as nasty an anti-semite as could be found anywhere, continued a series of anti-Jewish books that he had begun before the War. André Gide, by no means a fascist, defended the first, pre-war, volume as over-the-top black humor. And it may be possible to read Trifles for a Massacre [Bagatelles pour un massacre] that way. But, in 1941 when Céline was still openly calling for the elimination of all Jews, the joke was hard to find:

Beating up Jews (by Jew I mean anyone with a Jew for a grandparent, even one!) won’t help, I’m sure, that’s just going around in circles, it’s a joke, you’re only beating around the bush if you don’t grab them by the strings [tefillins], if you don’t strangle them with them. [via Tony Judt in the NYRB]

"Tefillen" are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

“Tefillen” are the straps used to attach phylactery prayer-boxes, as on this Israeli soldier. Cocteau is saying that they should be used to strangle Jews.

Céline was a friend to Aymé who had championed his work in the past. Both satirized the bourgeosie, both played with language, though Aymé was a humanist who tended to smile at human foibles while Céline seemed to desire the kind of dark destruction that appealed to fascist romantics. But Aymé was loyal to his friends.
Meanwhile, others determined to resist. Albert Camus saw a friend shot by the Germans and came to the conclusion that sometimes one had to make a choice, a decision about which side you were on. And he wrote in his journal about Vichy, “Now the only moral value is courage, which is useful here for judging the puppets and chatterboxes who pretend to speak in the name of the people.”
Jean Texcier wrote his pamphlet “Advice to the Occupied” which gave instructions on dealing with the Germans: “Have no illusions. They are not tourists, they are conquerors…” Don’t deliberately insult these conquerors to their face, give them a light if they ask for it, but do not befriend them, don’t invite them into your home.
There were incidents — violent confrontations — in the countryside from the beginning of the occupation, but these were unorganized. By the end of 1940, a number of groups of resistants had formed across France, some were Communist, some ex-army, some criminals, some adventure-seekers, and some were ordinary folk, unwilling to put up with an occupation that was becoming, outside Paris, more and more bloody. In early 1941, these groups began to cooperate and function as a united Resistance.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

Combat office in 1944. Camus at left, Andre Malraux in uniform at right.

The Resistance published its own journal, Combat, which was staffed by many of the leading lights of French literature, in particular Albert Camus, but also Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Raymond Aron, and others. At the same time, the right-wing Je suis partout [I am everywhere — scary, right?], with Robert Brasillach as editor, displaced Action française as the main organ for Vichy collaborators. Aymé wrote four articles for this journal in 1942. None were political.
The resistants’ war became more and more bloody. German troops were killed in the streets of Paris, resulting in the kind of reprisals already familiar in the countryside. The occupation became more onerous to ordinary citizens: France had to pay the costs of the German occupation and currency values were rigged to favor the deutschmark. Most of France’s gross domestic product flowed back to the Third Reich. Young Frenchmen were drafted into the Labor Corps. And the arrest and transport of Jews began in July of 1942, with more than 70,000 French Jews murdered by the War’s end.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

Arno Breker sculpting Cocteau.

As things became more serious, the casual disdain for political affairs displayed by certain artists dissolved into fear. Picasso became afraid and begged Jean Cocteau for help. Cocteau was a fascist sympathizer who contacted Arno Breker, “Hitler’s favorite sculptor”, on Picasso’s behalf. According to Breker, he kept Picasso from being shot. Meanwhile, the Resistance had become popular and Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, begged to be allowed to join. No one trusted him, though, either because of his connection to Cocteau or because he was a blabbermouth, and Marais never found a resistant willing to recruit him.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

Jean Marais, Cocteau at rear, 1939.

In 1943, Marcel Aymé published a book of short pieces titled  The Man Who Walked Through Walls [Le Passer-muraille]. The stories are mostly fantastic and satiric. Aymé’s method is to take a single fantastic situation and then push it to a climax.
“The Man Who Walks Through Walls” is the story of a civil servant named Dutilleul who, at the age of 42, discovers that he can walk through walls. This power does not interest him, in fact it bothers him, so Dutilleul goes to a doctor who prescribes medication that will take away this unwanted talent. Dutilleul takes one tablet, then shuts the rest of the pills away. He continues using doors and ignoring walls until his boss is replaced by someone disagreeable. Eventually, Dutilleul is driven to use his power to bedevil this new boss to the point of madness. After he is driven from the scene, Dutilleul finds himself with a taste for more devilment. He becomes a thief and eventually reveals himself to the police, who, of course, cannot hold him in a cell. Dutilleul relishes his notoriety. He takes a lover whose husband locks her in at night, and his life is going well until, one day, he has a headache and pops a pill he finds in the cupboard. It is one of those that the doctor prescribed for him. He goes to meet his lover and winds up stuck in the wall, unable to move.
But the most interesting story in the collection is “The Ration-Card”[“La Carte”]. It is presented as a diary:

There’s an absurd rumor going around the neighborhood about new austerity
measures. In order to ward off shortages and insure a greater output from the
laboring element of the population, there will supposedly be executions of
non-productive consumers: the elderly, the retired, those of independent means,
the unemployed and other non-essential persons. Deep down, I feel that this
measure would be quite fair.

But the diarist discovers that:

…putting all the non-essential to death is out of the question. The plan will
simply cut back on their time alive. Maleffroi explained to me that they will be
entitled to so many days of existence per month according to their degree of
uselessness.

So people thought to be useless will have less time alive. The narrator is allowed only fifteen days a month of life. He is indignant, but is told that, after all, writers are useless. The narrator goes to pick up his ration card:

I waited three hours in line at the 18th district city hall to get my time
ticket. We were there, lined up in double file, around two thousand unfortunate
souls dedicated to the appetite of the laboring masses. And this was just the
first little batch. About half of the number looked to be elderly. There were
pretty young women whose faces were languid with sadness and who seemed to sigh:
“I don’t want to die yet”. … In the waiting lines, I recognized, not without emotion, and, I must admit, with
secret satisfaction, comrades from Montmartre, writers and artists: Céline, Gen
Paul, Daragnès, Fauchois, Soupault, Tintin, d’Esparbès and others. Céline was in
a dark mood. He said that it was just one more maneuver of the Jews, but I think
that on this particular point, his bad mood led him astray. As a matter of fact,
in the terms of the decree, it allows Jews, without distinction for age, sex, or
activity, one-half day of existence per month. On the whole, the crowd was
irritated and tumultuous. The many officers assigned to security duty treated us
with great disdain, clearly considering us the scum of the earth. Again and
again, as we grew tired of this long wait, they appeased our impatience with
kicks in the ass.

By now the reader must recognize this story as an allegory of current events. The Nazis called those they condemned to death — cripples, the insane, the old, the feeble-minded —  “useless eaters”. As for the artists, well, we have met Céline, the painter Gen Paul was not a fascist, and Soupault was on the run from the Gestapo, arranging a Resistance radio network. So, one must ask, how did this manage to get published in occupied Paris in 1943? Presumably, because the Nazi censors nodded when presented with fantasy. There may be an answer in the French Gestapo files for 1943 but these are sealed for several decades yet.
Anyway, the ration cards and the life they represent begin to turn up on the black market. Some can buy extra days of existence. The narrator adds five days to June, existing to the 35th. Eventually, with the wealthy buying up all existence and extending their days for many months, the authorities concede that the plan has not aided the economy one bit and they discontinue the cards.

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]

People rummaging through scraps at a market in occupied Paris. [photo by André Zucca, who took pictures for the Germans.]


Another story deals with the entry into heaven of an evil man. There are so many dead soldiers waiting to get in that St. Peter just waves in the lot. The wicked person hides in the crowd.
One tale is not fantasy but a bitter description of life in rationed France. People waiting for food talk about their harsh lives. One says simply, “I am a Jew.” He need say nothing more, everyone recognizes that he has the hardest life. Once again, all this went through German censorship.
By now, everyone could see that the tide had turned against the Germans. Some Vichy officials, like François Mitterrand, became surreptitious resistants.
After D-day, some collaborators and sympathizers, Céline for example, fled the country. Others hung around, trusting in the concept that Vichy had saved France to save them. But the “Purification”, l’épuration, spared no one. Pétain and many members of his administration were imprisoned to await trial for treason. In the countryside, justice was more summary. Resistants took over villages and killed many who were suspected of collaboration or who, one way or another, offended them.
When the trials began, one of the first was that of Robert Brasillach. He was found guilty of aiding the enemy and sentenced to death by a judge who had once served Vichy. Marcel Aymé took up the task of saving his live. He asked numerous artists and writers to sign a petition asking for clemency. Some agreed. It is unlikely that Cocteau’s signature was of value in this instance but François Mauriac was a hero of the Resistance. Sartre and Picasso refused to sign, possibly because the Communist party advocated revenge. Albert Camus answered Aymé’s request with a letter. During the War, Camus had called for justice for the collaborators and Vichyites. He said, no one could forgive them except the families of those who had been killed. He wrote to Aymé:

I have always been horrified by the death penalty, and I have judged that as an individual the least I could do was not participate in it, even by abstention….This is a scruple that I suppose would make the friends of Brasillach laugh. And as for him, if his life is spared and if an amnesty frees him as it probably will in one or two years, I would like him to be told the following as concerns my letter: it is not for him that I join my signature with yours, it is not for the writer,  whom I consider to be worth nothing, nor for the individual, for whom I have the strongest contempt.

Mauriac took the petition, with Camus’ signature, personally to De Gaulle. But, in January, 1945, Brasillach was shot. His last words: “Vive la France.” He was the only writer to be executed during the Purification. A number of other Vichyites were sentenced to death, although de Gaulle commuted Pétain’s sentence to life imprisonment. Aymé was widely attacked and accused of collaboration. The Ethiopian petition and the articles in Je suis partout were mentioned, but the real crime was  Aymé’s friendship with fascists like Brasillach and Céline. The charges were not pressed. Still, Aymé was labeled with the quasi-official term “blame without [overt] display” (“blâme sans affichage”), which I take to be something like “thought crime”.
In 1945 many claimed to have been resistants or anti-Vichy, whose resistance was, at best, minimal. Gertrude Stein, for instance, claimed to have aided the Resistance, though evidence for that is difficult to find. She was certainly, at minimum, a Pétainist. Some felt that the best way to proclaim their own resistance to the Germans was to attack anyone else who might be suspected of any kind of collaboration.
Aymé was disgusted with this kind of hypocrisy, which, at that time, might mean a matter of life and death. His politics were personal and extended to those around him. He despised grand organizations and causes. You not betray a friend or, for that matter, any human being for the sake of an ideology.
In 1948 he published Uranus, a novel describing the events in a newly liberated village. Young Communists murder  social democrats and Trotskyites in the street, and sometimes they kill other people for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. In one scene, townspeople who had been prisoners of war return. The Marseillaise is played and the mayor makes a speech while five Communists locate a man in the group that they call a Pétainist. They throw him on the ground and begin to beat him. Everyone stands aside and the mayor continues his welcoming speech as the man is beaten to death. At the novel’s center is an alcoholic tavern-keeper, Leopold, a sympathetic character who winds up being executed.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Gerard Depardieu as Leopold in the 1990 film version of Uranus.

Uranus is the third novel in a trilogy that depicts life in a French Village from the late 1930s to 1944. Neither of the first two, published in 1941 and 1942, has the harsh bitterness expressed in Uranus. (Although the first, Travelingue, contains sharp satire of leftists during the Popular Front.) Tony Judt calls Uranus hard-bitten and cynical, and puts it in company with the writing of others at the time who said much the same sort of thing.
Even a non-cynical person could not fail to find something corrupt in the offer of the Legion of Honor to Aymé in 1949. He turned it down, warning against “the extreme lightness with which [this honor] was thrown at the head of a bad Frenchman like me…”
In that same year, Aymé took up the cause of another writer, Maurice Bardèche, a scholar of 19th Century literature and Brasillach’s brother-in-law, who was accused of excusing war crimes. Bardèche was definitely a fascist sympathizer before the War and after it, but was not an active collaborator. He was sentenced to a year in prison, something that made him more defiant, and he became a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist.
In 1950, Céline was convicted in absentia of “acts harming the national defense”, a much less damaging charge than treason. He was sentenced to a year in prison, which he served in Denmark, where he was living. In 1951, his lawyer negotiated an amnesty for Céline, and he returned to France. During this period, Aymé wrote pleas and letters and circulated petitions  to aid his friend.

Celine, at left, with Ayme in 1955.

Céline, at left, with Aymé in 1955.

As Camus had foreseen, the harsh treatment of collaborators had diminished to the point where pardons became the norm. But who could have predicted, in 1945, that eight years later it would become a crime to label anyone a collaborator? By the end of 1951, more than 50,000 French citizens had been charged with various offenses under the Purification Acts. After that, the French government came to think that there was more harm than good to be found in continuing the program, so the official position was completely reversed. Anyway, France had more immediate problems: inability to form stable governments, a stuttering economy, relations with the U.S., the Cold War, and the collapse of the French empire, first in Indo-China, then in Algeria. Men and women who had been united in Resistance found themselves split on these new questions.
It is very wrong for anyone, who has never had to face something like occupation by invaders, to make easy judgements on the actions of those who underwent this experience. Still, it is necessary to examine such historical events for whatever lessons and moral instruction may be taken from them. One may believe, with Camus, that sometimes a person must take sides, with all the moral complications that may ensue from acts of resistance and rebellion. Artists are not immune to criticism because they are artists, they still have a duty to act. But Camus himself came under fire for his position, or lack of it, on Algeria. Algerian-born, he decried the use of indiscriminate violence to spur revolution. He said that, if a bus were bombed and his mother killed, then he would be on his mother’s side, not the bombers’. This runs close to Aymé’s personal politics.
Texceira’s instructions on how to deal with occupation forces boiled down to: don’t befriend them but don’t antagonize them for no reason except to make yourself look good. In fact, that (IMO) is the program followed by most of those in occupied France. This approach does not rule out resistance or armed rebellion, but it does try to apply some common sense to the situation faced by ordinary people.

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]

The Ayme memorial by Jean Marais in Montmarte. [photo: Andre Derain via philibert.sportblog.fr]


Aymé died in Paris in 1967, at the age of 65. In 1989, a memorial was commissioned near his home that was sculpted by resistant-wannabe, Jean Marais. It depicts the final bit of “The Man Who Passed Through Walls” when the hero, depicted here as Aymé himself,  finds himself unable to pass through to one side or the other but is immured in the wall itself.

Notes:

The only English translation of the collection, The Man Who Walked Through Walls, is this one.
Two of the stories (and one from another collection) with the original French versions, are available on-line here.
The 1951 film version of Passer-muraille is a slapstick comedy with little relation to Aymé’s story. You can watch the entire movie here.
Les contes du chat perché is not available in English. The stories concern two girls spending time at a farm. They speak to animals and have adventures. Some of the stories have been adapted into stage plays, animated movies, and comic books.
Uranus is unavailable in English. The 1990 film is good but also has no current DVD version with subtitles. A subtitled version sometimes plays on television, though. Watch for it.

An excellent account of artists in occupied Paris is Alan Riding’s And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

This article by Tony Judt surveys several books about France from the thirties to the fifties.
Gertrude Stein’s Vichy role is summarized here.
Céline’s anti-semitic work is reviewed here.

A Half Century of Criticism: The New York Review of Books

It is one thing to see something fifty years old and think “I was alive when that happened!” and something else to see something a half century in the past and say, “I remember that!” One is history, the other, memory. The New York Review of Books recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by reprinting its first issue, which you can read here or buy a paper copy here. I was a (very) young man when this issue was printed — I didn’t read it then; I don’t know if it was distributed outside of New York City at the time, but I did start reading the Review not long after when the Vietnam War became an issue. This magazine was one of the first to oppose that war and nothing that I have ever read since has caused me to think that was a misinformed position. Still, that doesn’t mean that the NYRB was, or is, right about everything. But here, what I mean to do is look at this first issue as an historical artifact and examine what it has to say. Many of these books and writers were known to me at the time and some are still being read.
There was a newspaper strike in New York in 1963 and a business-minded publisher, Jason Epstein, realized that publishers would buy ads in a magazine devoted to books. Epstein was connected in New York’s literary world and soon teamed up with Elizabeth Hardwick, a writer unfairly known mostly for being Robert Lowell’s wife. Epstein’s wife, Barbara, became an editor and Hardwick recommended Robert Silvers of Harper’s as co-editor. Whitney Ellsworth became publisher. This group worked together for years running the magazine. Robert Silvers is the last of the team still alive. He still edits the New York Review.

25th anniversary of the NYRB. Left to right, standing: Robert Silver, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney,Jonathan Miller, James Fenton, Rea Hederman, Alma Guillermoprieto; seated: Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein

25th anniversary of the NYRB. Left to right, standing: Robert Silver, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney,Jonathan Miller, James Fenton, Rea Hederman, Alma Guillermoprieto; seated: Elizabeth Hardwick, Jason Epstein

Various lights of the New York literary scene signed on to contribute — Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Dwight MacDonald, Phillip Rahv, and so on. Most of these people knew each other, many had been associated with the Partisan Review. Now they reviewed each other’s books gratis to kick off the new magazine. The result was what the New Yorker called “the greatest first issue of any magazine ever”.

Staff of the  Partisan Review , 1938. Philip Rahv at top center, Dwight MacDonald at right.

Staff of the Partisan Review , 1938. Philip Rahv at top center, Dwight MacDonald at right, FW. DuPee at left.

The lead essay is a critique of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, written by F.W.DuPee, who had been instrumental, as editor of the Partisan Review,  in getting Baldwin to return from France to report on racial matters. It is jarring now to read the word “Negro” when applied to African-Americans, or black people of any nationality. It is even more jarring when the writer refers to “the Negro problem”. Those troublesome darkies! What a problem they pose! I am reminded of 19th Century references to the “problem of the Feminine”. Both terms assume that the person writing is the norm, that Negroes or women are somehow apart from the standard, normal sort of human being.
Baldwin’s book consists of two essays that appeared in magazines toward the end of 1962, “A Letter to My Nephew”, (retitled in the book version as “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation”, DuPee calls this title “ominous”) and a much longer one, “Letter from a Region of My Mind” (retitled for the book, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”). Baldwin describes the problems of the Negro (his term) in America and warns that there is a great deal of anger being suppressed that will, eventually, find some voice. He writes of a meeting with Elijah Muhammed and the Chicago Muslim organization. Black Power, urban riots, and the Black Panthers are yet to come, but Baldwin is prophesying their birth. That is the part of the book that brings a response from DuPee. But Baldwin’s overall message is that blacks should not allow their humanity to be corrupted by the “American problem” while whites try to discover their own souls. DuPee rejects entirely the essay “Letter to My Nephew”, but it has a message for him, one of the “innocent and well meaning people” who have perpetrated a great wrong that they will not acknowledge because they believe that their hearts are Good. Baldwin to his nephew:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

Life is tragic, says Baldwin. Inevitably, it ends in death. The most significant word in the two essays is “love”. Love requires courage because it means directly confronting the tragic nature of humanity:

Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

DuPee never once uses the word “love” in his review. His analysis of Baldwin’s book winds up basically supporting the notion that American blacks need to be non-violent, not because — as Baldwin pointed out — that was more comfortable for American whites, but because anything else would be harmful to the gains he thought that blacks were making. He is also clear on the fact that any kind of black uprising would be crushed. Baldwin is aware of this, too, and suggests that making whites fearful will only cause them to be more violent than they already are. And the angry outbursts of the ’60s and ’70s did wind up being fatal to many black people. Even so, it does not seem to be true that racial progress was slowed by these violent events — it may be that they served a purpose by demonstrating that, however nice the words used by “innocent” whites, they masked a deep-rooted inability to achieve the kind of spiritual state that Baldwin proposes. Baldwin to his nephew:

Many of [the innocents] indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity.

White American racial attitudes show up in other essays. A book review by John Thompson includes these words:
“…all of us need desperately to extend our knowledge of the life of American Negroes.” Then he scurries on to add, “Naturally, I do not exclude Negroes when I say ‘us’.”
Well, no, John, that isn’t what you meant, naturally, to say, because that is incredibly insulting, whereas, without that hurried bit of expiation, your comment is merely condescending and stupid. Of course, being English, you may beg a little bit of excuse.

Frank Tannenbaum,Carleton S. Coon,James Baldwin

Frank Tannenbaum,Carleton S. Coon,James Baldwin

One might ask “just how different are the races themselves”? And that brings up The Origin of Races by Carleton S. Coon which seeks to prove that they are very different and some more advanced than others. Coon said that there are five races and that they each evolved independently into Homo sapiens. Congoid/Negro races evolved some 200,000 years later than Caucasians. Well, that explains so much, doesn’t it! Reviewer of this book is John Maddocks, who is not further identified. Mr. Maddocks, though, is very astute and he recognizes a pile of crap when he steps in it. He mentions that other anthroplogists and geneticists have serious doubts that the five-fold evolution of H.sapiens is at all likely, and he notes other shortcomings of Coon’s work. He is a little taken aback that a scholar of such eminence would promote a thesis that will so benefit racists. Maddocks writes:

No great imagination is needed to see how this conclusion has delighted the theoreticians of apartheid. Professor Wesley C. George of the University of Alabama leans heavily on Coon in a document called The Biology of Race, prepared for the governor of his state. So too does Mr. Carleton Putnam, who specializes in open letters to the President which are then reprinted in Southern newspapers and even as advertisements in The New York Times, with titles such as Race and Reason and Evolution and Race: New Evidence … In these and other ways the campaign to suggest that race prejudice can be given a scientific foundation goes with a more vigorous swing than it has for many years.

And Maddocks sees that providing a rationale for white supremacy is what the book is meant to do:
“…it would be over-generous to think that Coon’s present book could be innocently tactless. The uses that would be made of it were, after all, entirely predictable.” Yes. But it would be a good many years before it was revealed, via the publication of Coon’s letters, that he had been actively seeking to help white racists, especially the aforementioned Carleton Putnam, though Coon was careful to keep his own name out of the segregationist literature except as it referenced his books.
Another article that touches on these matters is a review by William Styron of Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen. Originally published in 1947, a recent reprint is reviewed here. Styron was, at the time, researching his novel about the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia and was familiar with Tannenbaum’s book. According to Tannenbaum, race relations in the US were an outgrowth of the specific kind of slavery there. Other places, with different kinds of slave institutions have less racial discord, said Tannenbaum. So far as that goes, most readers might agree with Tannenbaum. The problem is that some, like Styron, take Tannenbaum’s arguments too far and make far-fetched claims for racial harmony in, say, Brazil which are not borne out by the facts. Still, there are differences between the US and other Western Hemisphere nations in black/white relations and those differences, and why they occurred, are of great interest. Tannenbaum’s book is still a starting point for this discussion, though Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black has shifted the argument.
The main problem with the NYRB‘s handling of race relations is that it is directed toward a very small audience — the White Citizen Councils of Alabama were unlikely to ever read Maddocks’ takedown of Dr. Coon. The NYRB is not a publication that would have been of value at the time for either black or white Americans trying to deal with the great set of problems that confronted them because these problems were not of much immediate concern to the small cultural elite representing there, with the exception of such as DuPee, who helped bring Baldwin back from France to report on the situation. But even these few were apt to lapse into confrontational mode, informed by fear, when having to face the fact that blacks could be harboring great anger. They were, as Baldwin said, innocents who would have to be brought slowly, and with love, to knowledge.

Jules Feiffer, William Burroughs

Jules Feiffer, William Burroughs

The elitism of the NYRB shows up in various ways. Mary McCarthy reviews William Burroughs’ The(sic) Naked Lunch. The review is favorable but includes this puzzling statement: “This must be the first space novel, the first serious piece of science fiction — the others are entertainment.”
Now it is hard to see how Burroughs’ work is any more science fiction than Gulliver’s Travels, a book McCarthy compares it to, or, say, works by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley that everyone recognizes as serious. The point is, McCarthy is using the term “science fiction” as a derogatory identifier. If it’s good, then it isn’t science fiction, except maybe this one book by Burroughs that can’t easilly be pigeon-holed. But McCarthy’s attitude was widely held. At the same time that this essay was published, J.G.Ballard was writing stories that he claimed were not science fiction, even though they were being published in science fiction magazines. The notion that a genre tag, like “science fiction”, would diminish a work was adopted even by people working in said genres.

Jules Feiffer illustrates how highcult becomes masscult or something.

Jules Feiffer illustrates how highcult becomes masscult or something.

This attitude is especially evident here when a writer uses the term “comic strip” in an essay. It is always derogatory. It is pretty funny to read a review, by John Hollander, Yale English professor, of a collection of comic strips by Jules Feiffer (who also has a strip in this issue of the NYRB) that includes this statement:

There are often non-books on the best-seller lists, and lately they have been appearing for children as well.
It is a deplorable tradition. And yet, it has been almost redeemed by the few cases in which a really unique imagination has found form there. The splendid Gothic Victorianism of Edward Gorey is one of these, I think, and the collections of what are by no means really cartoon-strips by Jules Feiffer are surely another.

“By no means really cartoon-strips”? What the hell? If it’s good, you see, then it can’t be a comic strip. But then Feiffer himself was shortly to publish an article in Playboy, expanded into a book in 1965, that concludes that comics are only “junk”, and kid’s junk at that!
It is startling to hear an artist put down his own work that way, and I do think that Feiffer and Ballard grew somewhat less defensive as they achieved both popular success and critical appreciation. Still, at this time, they adopted the manners of the class that they wished not to alienate, the one where they felt they belonged.
This cultural defensiveness seems to be a common attitude of the NYRB elite and one of them, Dwight MacDonald, tried to turn it into an artistic credo. MacDonald’s book, Against the American Grain, reviewed in this issue, includes an essay called “Masscult and Midcult”, that has achieved classic status. [Read it here]
MacDonald says that you have High Culture, which is for the elite, and Folk Art, which is for the masses. The problem is that Midcult stuff which pretends to be Art but is really mass produced simplifications of High Culture aimed at bourgeois tastes. MacDonald tries to make this distinction clear but only muddies the waters as he displays his own ignorance of, for instance, jazz. But he is most revealing when he tries to say that art aimed at the non-elites is Okay, so long as it doesn’t get uppity:

Folk Art was the people’s own institution, their private little kitchen-garden walled off from the great formal park of their masters. But Masscult breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of domination.

That is a pretty amazing analysis of medieval times coming from a communist — or, rather, former communist, MacDonald having passed from Stalin through Trotsky to calling himself an anarchist. Less to do with classical anarchism, like Saint-Simon or Fourier, than an excuse for sloppy thinking, I believe. Anyway, his reviewer, Barbara Solomon:

Somewhere in “Masscult and Midcult” Macdonald finds himself in Ortega y Gasset’s bed—the masses are destructive of civilization, the elite, the preservers of tradition. It is a perfectly valid conclusion, and yet once Macdonald arrives at it he shies away from the implications. A world for the elite? It is not easy for a long-time left-winger who is also American to say: “I am Charles de Gaulle.”

Here, I must say, I have never read a favorable review of “Masscult and Midcult” anywhere, although it still has life — possibly due to the insecurity of people who write for a living, possibly due to the term “midcult” having been selected into the English language.
The important part of the essay for the purpose here is this bit:

The past cultures I admire — Periclean Greece, the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, are examples — have mostly been produced by communities, and remarkably small ones at that. Also remarkably heterogenous ones, riven by faction, stormy with passionate antagonisms.

Dwight wants to be Athenian. Not a slave, of course, but the kind of guy who hangs out with Socrates and Plato and admires beautiful Alcibiades. Okay, but this great phase of Athenian culture lasted only 80 years at best, the second half of that being Periclean and then, around the time Socrates drank hemlock, descended into not-greatness. So, if the period following the Persian Wars but before the post-Periclean collapse is what MacDonald wanted in a contemporary version, perhaps in post WWII America, before the Nixonian collapse, he thought he might find it.
(I have to insert here MacDonald’s comment about Mary (NoSFForMe) McCarthy — “Why does she have to be so goddamned snooty..?” Oh yeah! Takes one to know one, Dwight.)
Race relations and cultural definition are the major topics of this issue of the NYRB, but other matters are discussed: the Cold War, for example. This was a time when Khruschev was attempting to take the USSR from Stalinism into a place more kind to its citizens. There is a review by Philip Rahv of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, now allowed publication after Khruschev’s public revelation of the gulag. Rahv thinks it’s a pretty good book although, he sniffs, it’s too small to be a “great work of art”. (Philip: how big is the “Mona Lisa”? How large a canvas did Van Gogh require for his sunflowers? How many pages does a writer have to fill to have a great work, as opposed to a small one? Aren’t you conflating two different meanings of the word “great”?) But this is interesting:

Thank God, the world is still unpredictable after all. No one, not even the most astute Kremlinologist among us, could possibly have foreseen that the party-hierarchs would be prevailed upon to permit the publication of a work so devastating in its implications.

There is also a review of several works on the Soviet economy, which Khruschev was also trying to reform, bringing in experiments with computer models and profit-making. The review does not mention these but is more interested in the question of how much the USSR is spending on its military — this is, after all, only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Khruschev’s experiments failed and when a great drought devastated the 1963 grain harvest, the USSR was in dire economic straits. Brezhnev and Kosygin replaced him in 1964. The economy went back on a military footing without much regard for consumers. Cultural expression was suppressed and Solzhenitsyn exiled. But in the 1980s a group of Soviet officials took Khruschev’s attempted reforms to heart and, well, the world is still unpredictable after all.
There are a couple of essays on American politics. Dennis Wrong reviews James MacGregor Burns’ The Deadlock of Democracy. Burns has a list of ailments in the American political system and a list of remedies for them. Some of the ailments are familiar: a minority in Congress can stifle legislation, districts are often gerrymandered, there are barriers to voting, and so on. Burns proposes some Constitutional amending to cure these ills. Wrong is not so certain that this will help. What is certain is that no such reforms happened then and are unlikely to take place any time soon.

Arthur Schlesinger and Kennedy [Life Magazine], Dwight MacDonald [Corbis]

Arthur Schlesinger and Kennedy [Life Magazine], Dwight MacDonald [Corbis]


Burns was one of many New Deal Democrats who became boosters for John Kennedy’s New Frontier. Arthur Schlesinger was another and his paean to Camelot, The Politics of Hope, is reviewed here by Dwight MacDonald. MacDonald guts the book with some lovely invective and without much regard for facts. (It wasn’t Lincoln who made that statement, it was Jackson). He presents Schlesinger, who he calls a friend, as a lickspittle toady to power. Seduced by Kennedy glamour, Schlesinger has become a hypocrite who admires a forceful presidency more than a democratic one. Schlesinger sees no reason why a president shouldn’t ignore the Bill of Rights if national security is an issue. “Why is it always the liberals who want to take away individual freedoms?” asks MacDonald. Well, we all know now that it isn’t only the liberals, that power of every persuasion will seek to extend itself, but MacDonald’s concern about the loss of individual freedom remains important. As for Schlesinger, after Kennedy’s death, he became estranged from the White House and wound up writing The Imperial Presidency (1973), warning that the Presidents had used national security concerns to expand their power in a way that made a mockery of the Constitution. Of course, there was a Republican in the White House at the time.
Feminism is not mentioned in this issue of the Review. It is possible that this is due to a Queen Bee attitude — the best-known of the female reviewers here are Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy and both were famously indifferent to feminism. An issue or two down the line and Mary McCarthy’s The Group was reviewed by Norman Mailer, who called it a “lady book”. McCarthy was a woman who the male members of this intellectual elite feared; she could have been remembered as a feminist champion. But people belong to their times and it is hard to demand that they should have responded to issues in ways that reflect the times to which we belong.
There are a good many other items in this issue of the NYRB. There is, for instance, poetry — three poems and reviews of a number of recent books of poetry. With one exception, the reviews are favorable. One might leap to the conclusion that poets are always kind to one another, but if one did so, one would be leaping into the very pit of wrong-headedness. Still, the review by W.H.Auden of David Jones’ Anathemata is very generous.
Auden showed this same generosity in a lot of his criticism, collected as The Dyer’s Hand, and reviewed here by John Berryman. Berryman states that Auden is not by trade a critic but praises him as an informed person who tries to increase the reader’s appreciation, rather than trying to boost himself through negative criticism.
That kind of negative criticism shows in a silly review of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And, to a lesser extent, in one of John Updike’s The Centaur (by Jonathan Miller). The NYRB has had a great problem with Updike over the years — first, he was mid-cult, then he was misogynistic, and so on. On the other hand, the recognition by the NYRB reviewer that J.D.Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction is not at all good, delights me, because I spent money I could not afford on that waste of paper (and on Franny and Zooey, too. Lord! If I could trade all the bad books I purchased when I could not afford them for one good book that I missed out on when it was available…)

Morley Callaghan, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer

Morley Callaghan, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer

There is lots of other material here — forty-four contributors, including great poets, critics, novelists, essayists, but there’s no point going on about that. One last review deserves mention — I suspect it will be the one essay most reprinted from this issue of the NYRB: Norman Mailer’s review of Morley Callaghan’s memoir, That Summer In Paris. Mailer waves aside most of the book as uninteresting — memoirs are an “inferior art” — but it contains “a superb short story”. The story, which has been widely discussed, concerns a boxing match between Callaghan and Ernest Hemingway, refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, that took place that summer in Paris. Hemingway had a penchant for calling smaller men into the ring and showing off by pounding them — later on, he did this with Cuban fishermen — but he made an error by taking on Callaghan, who had done some real boxing. So, Callaghan knocks Hemingway down when Fitzgerald, the time-keeper, over-extends the round. Hemingway over-reacts and snarls at Fitzgerald, who later asks Callaghan to apologize, and so on. A real literary match here, folks. But Mailer gets to the meat of the situation:

It is possible Hemingway lived every day of his life in the style of the suicide. What a great dread is that. It is the dread which sits in the silences of his short declarative sentences. At any instant, by any failure in magic, by a mean defeat, or by a moment of cowardice, Hemingway could be thrust back again into the agonizing demands of his courage. For the life of his talent must have depended on living in a psychic terrain where one must either be brave beyond one’s limit, or sicken closer into a bad illness, or, indeed, by the ultimate logic of the suicide, must advance the hour in which one would make another reconnaissance into one’s death.
… It is not likely that Hemingway was a brave man who sought danger for the sake of the sensations it provided him. What is more likely the truth of his long odyssey is that he struggled with his cowardice and against a secret lust to suicide all of his life, that his inner landscape was a nightmare, and he spent his nights wrestling with the gods. It may even be that the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself. There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.

And that, possibly, is the critical insight that will last longest from this first issue of the great New York Review of Books.
Dwight MacDonald wanted to be part of a small cultural community and the New York Review of Books was put together by a coterie who all knew one another and had worked together and sometimes were passionately riven, just as MacDonald fantasized. Many had published or participated in the Partisan Review. The Partisan Review had several editors among the reviewers here, MacDonald and DuPee among them, and The Partisan Review Anthology, a collection of essays culled from twenty-five years of publication, is reviewed in this issue.
The PR was godparent to the NYRB. But fairly quickly, the New York Review grew to include all kinds of writers from all over the world, many of whom have never met one another. The world is too large for the tiny fiefdoms of MacDonald’s fantasy. A recent article by Timothy Garton Ash [paywall] says that contributors to the NYRB belong to a “republic of letters” and states that the NYRB stands in for a European review of books, of which there are none so good. (Readers of the London Review of Books may need to be reminded that, during the London Times lockout in 1979, the NYRB founded the London Review. First issues were inserts in the NYRB.) And the NYRB has outgrown silliness like typing genre literature, television, and comics as not being worthy of notice. The Fiftieth Anniversary issue includes a review of George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice books and the television series Game of Thrones. Margaret Atwood has reviewed Elmore Leonard (favorably) in its pages and comics artists like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman are taken seriously. (Though the NYRB wound up with a useless clunker of a review when they assigned Harold Bloom to review Robert Crumb’s Genesis.) Right now the magazine has the highest circulation it has ever had — about 150,000 — even as other periodicals are dying. It still produces essays worth reading, whether you agree with them or not, and hopefully will continue doing so for another fifty years or more.

Notes:
reprint of the first issue of the New York Review of Books
50th anniversary issue
Washington Post article on the 50th anniversary

Some of the books mentioned above:
Dwight MacDonald, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: The Classic Comparative Study of Race Relations in the Americas
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
W.H.Auden, The Dyer’s Hand
David Jones, Anathemata, The
Morley Callaghan, That Summer in Paris
Arthur Schlesinger, The Politics of Hope and The Bitter Heritage: American Liberalism in the 1960s